Thursday, December 08, 2005

Week 13: Giants 17 - Cowboys 10

Any lingering hard feelings from the previous Sunday’s painful loss to the Seahawks were obliterated by the blanket of snow that covered the Tri-State area late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. This first snowfall of 2005 couldn’t have come at a better time for the Giants, who needed to clear their minds of last week for this all-important divisional showdown against the Dallas Cowboys. By game time, the snow has been plowed from the field, which because of the miracle draining technology of FieldTurf, was now surprisingly dry and playable. The solid layer of white had been pushed outward – to the embankments of snow at the field’s perimeter, which along with the now visible breath of the players, signaled the arrival of December football – and upward, to the stands, where 78,645 screaming Giants fans – minus the usual substantial contingent of Cowboys fans – rabidly waved white towels that were given them at the gate. It was cold, it was gray, it was raw, it was raucous, and to top it off, the Giants came out of the locker room in their alternate red jerseys, making it unmistakably clear that this was the most important game of the season. To the winner would go a one-game lead for first-place in the NFC East, and with four games remaining, the inside track to the division title. To the loser, a 7-5 record and the wilderness of the wildcard battle loomed, the nerve-wracking chaos of tie-breakers and scoreboard-watching.

The Giants win the toss and choose to receive, and when Billy Cundiff puts the foot to it, this classic NFC East showdown is underway. As you would expect from December NFC East games, this one promises to be a pitched defensive battle. The last time these two teams played, the Cowboys’ fast, aggressive defense brought the previously high-flying Giants offense down to earth, making Eli Manning look every bit the unfinished product that he is. The Dallas defense is solid all around, with speed rushing defensive end DeMarcus Ware anchoring the pass rush, a prototypically Parcellsian collection of physical linebackers, and best of all, an outstanding secondary led by perhaps the NFL’s most lethal tackler, strong safety Roy Williams. The ‘Boys came into the game with a DVOA – an advanced metric that calibrates standard stats according to situation and opponent, developed by the smart people at footballoutsiders.com -- of -12.3%, good for 7th in the league. (For a layman's explanation of DVOA, check out my "Some Thoughts on the Giants" post here) The Giants, for their part, boast an outstanding defense as well, a unit that has hit a plateau of excellence in the past few weeks with a string of excellent performances. Their outstanding defensive ends, future Hall-of-Famer Michael Strahan and emerging pass-rushing extraordinaire Osi Umenyiora, have led the defensive resurgence of Big Blue, which has also included a vastly improved pass defense and stellar linebacking. The Giants actually rank slightly ahead of the Cowboys with a defensive DVOA of -12.8%, 5th in the league, and as the starting units take the field, all of the elements are in place.

To no one’s surprise, much of the first quarter follows its expected course, as both sides exchange punts in their first couple of possessions. But as the first quarter gives way to the second, the Giants are able to move the ball, and a couple of Cowboy penalties help keep their drive afloat as they advance deep into Dallas territory. From the 10 yard-line, Eli Manning dumps a short pass to Tiki Barber, who darts his way down to the 1, and on the next play, Brandon Jacobs follows a Chris Snee pull, busting across the plane for the touchdown. 7-0 Giants.

With the home team off to the early lead, the Meadowlands is charged up, instilled with a maniacal energy by the cold, raw air, and they rise to their feet as the Cowboys are quickly faced with a 3rd and 8 on their ensuing series. And when promising rookie pass-rush specialist Justin Tuck makes an outside-in move to blindside the ever-stationary Drew Bledsoe, and the ball drops loose on the ground, and the Giants recover, the Meadowlands erupts, sensing an early opportunity to take an authoritative lead. But a few plays later, Eli Manning vastly underthrows an endzone fade to Plaxico Burress, and this opportunity is squandered.

Still, the Giants defense remains utterly impenetrable, holding Dallas to a three-and-out and setting the offense up in good field position at their own 38. On first down, Eli Manning’s deep crossing toss to the talented but underutilized Tim Carter goes for 27 yards, taking the Giants across midfield and close to field goal range. They manage another first down before stalling, and on 4th and 2 from the Dallas 9, the Meadowlands holds its collective breath as Jay Feely – last week’s goat and the kicker who’s fragile psyche might yet determine the fate of the Giants season -- trots out to attempt a 27-yard chip shot. Feely connects, and the Meadowlands exhales; perhaps Feely’s collapse last week was a one-game aberration. With two minutes remaining in the half, the Giants lead 10-0.

The teams go into the half with that score, which, while passing the comfort threshold of comprising of more than one score, still seems somewhat insufficient given how much the Giants have dominated the action so far. They have 157 total yards to the Cowboys 37, their stifling defense limiting Drew Bledsoe to a putrid 4/13, for a mere 17 yards.

Despite their superior play, the Giants need some sort of break so that the scoreboard can reflect their dominance, and they get one on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. Defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy explodes off the ball and busts into the Dallas backfield, discombobulating Drew Bledsoe’s handoff to Julius Jones. The ball bounces off Jones side and falls weakly on the ground, where Antonio Pierce, who has increasingly found himself at the right place at the right time as he’s grown more comfortable in the Giants defense, effortlessly picks it up and trots in for the score, giving the Giants a surreally easy touchdown that puts them firmly in command at 17-0.

The quickness and ease of the touchdown so contrasted the incremental NFC-Eastness of the game so far that the Meadowlands has taken on a mood of giddy celebration, overcome by the good fortune of Pierce’s touchdown. Of course we're the best team in the division, the crowd self-satisfied murmur suggests, and this 17-0 lead now proves it.

Unfortunately, the defense, who has spearheaded this dominantion, joins the crowd in loosening its tie and kicking up its heels, and the desperate Cowboys seize on the letup. Drew Bledsoe hooks up with the heretofore catchless Terry Glenn for a couple of passes that go for a combined thirty yards, and some slashing carries by Julius Jones take Dallas to a 1st and 10 at the NYG 20, before the Giants defense stiffens in the nick of time to hold the Cowboys to a field goal. But while it’s not a rebuttal commensurate to the blow that was the Pierce touchdown, it is an answer nonetheless, and dead teams don’t answer. Dallas has a pulse, and the better part of a half to make up 14 points.

And when the Giants take possession, their prolonged inactivity – they haven’t had the ball since before the half – compounded with the day’s mid-thirties temperature, has left them cold and out of synch. They go three-and-out on their first possession, and follow that by immediately digging themselves into a 3rd and 5 from their own 15. Eli Manning, desperate to generate offense, tries to squeeze a pass in to the well-covered Plaxico Burress, but Aaron Glenn makes a diving interception, his second of the day, and then scampers down to the 7. And on the very next play, Drew Bledsoe lofts a beautiful timing fade to Terry Glenn in the endzone, and just like that, we have a game again.

The cavalier mood in the Meadowlands has quickly given way to a palpable sense of anxiety; as dusk descends on East Rutherford, one can feel the creeping presence of the ghosts of Giants collapses past. A chance to build more of a cushion is squandered when Tim Carter drops Eli Manning’s 50+ yard bomb on the Giants next series, wasting one of Eli’s only good passes of the day. Alas, the Giants’ offense goes three-and-out again; their last three possessions have resulted in a three-and-out, an interception, and another three-and-out.

Things do not appear to be improving on the Giants next possession when Eli Manning’s deep square-in to Plaxico Burress is horribly off target, and is intercepted by Keith Davis at the Giant 43. At an earlier point in the quarter, Fox commentator Troy Aikman described Eli Manning’s performance as “barely passable.” That’s putting it kindly; Eli’s been awful, and is on his way to a 12/31 day. A portion of the blame for his three interceptions today also must fall on the shoulders of Plaxico Burress, to whom all three of Eli’s interceptions have been thrown. Plaxico is very talented and has been terrific in this his first year with the Giants, but his reputation as a space cadet wasn’t totally unfounded. Today, it seems that a slightly more hard-nosed effort by Plaxico might have one or more of these picks.

But either way, the dominoes are falling, as they have so many times in recent Giants history – the 1997 Viking playoff game, the Titans regular season game in 2002, and, of course, the 49er playoff game – and the mood in the Meadowlands is decidedly grim. But then, a beautiful yellow flag comes flying in, perhaps from the heavens, a late flag, a controversial flag, and quite possibly, and errant flag. Nevertheless, Young Eli and his Giants are granted a reprieve as the defensive pass interference call keeps the Giants drive going. They manage to advance all the way into Dallas territory before stalling, and on 4th and 6 from the 29, Coach Coughlin faces a dilemma: Jay Feely is set up for a 47-yard field goal, but Colonel Tom is reluctant to thrust his kicker into such a pressure situation, so he elects to go for it instead. The Giants fail to convert, and with 12:18 remaining in the game, Dallas resumes possession.

Fortunately for the Giants, the defense has evolved into a dominating unit, thanks in no small part to their emerging young superstar at defensive end, Osi Umenyiora, who makes a spectacularly athletic play on the Cowboys next possession: A misdirection play has the Giants defense completely fooled, as the whole unit floods right while Drew Bledsoe pitches the ball left to Julius Jones. The only defender who has stayed home is Umenyiora, who now represents the only obstacle between the quick, elusive Jones and a large expanse of green. The race to the corner is on; both players accelerate, predator chasing prey in the purest moment that football can give us, and Osi chases Jones down, the defensive end dragging the running back down from behind. An incredible play that prevents a potentially game-changing play for Dallas, and the Meadowlands fans, those connoisseurs of defense, rise to their feet in appreciation of their young star. In addition to his incredible effort on this play, Umenyiora also notched another quarterback sack today, upping his NFL leading total to 11.

An incomplete pass on the next play completes the defensive stand, and when the Giants get the ball back with 10:39 remaining in the game, they are able to move the ball, driving all the way down to the Dallas 15 and setting up Jay Feely for a 33 yard field goal attempt. It is a perfect situation to re-establish Feely’s confidence, an easy opportunity to provide the feel-good, go-home moment of the day, the clinching kick. But Feely doesn’t cooperate, as he doinks his kick off the left upright, leaving the Giants and their fans with an uneasy feeling, and not just about this game. Going into the stretch run, there is something wrong with the kicker’s head.

But today, the defense is up to the task of bailing him out. They shut the Cowboys down in the last, tense five minutes of the game, and when Julius Jones gets brought to the ground on a last-ditch screen pass attempt, the clock ticks down to triple zeroes and the Giants stand alone in first place. It certainly wasn’t the prettiest game: Eli Manning’s poor performance and Feely’s continued mental block certainly raise red flags about a team with Super Bowl aspirations, but a December win is a December win. The credit for this one, obviously, goes to the defense, who were nothing short of dominant. Going into the year, the defense was perceived as a potential area of vulnerability, something that certainly seemed to be the case after the Giants first few games. But Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis has done a remarkable job, and now his defense can be counted among the NFL’s elite. Kudos, also to Tiki Barber, who carried the ball 30 times for 115 yards, a gritty performance by the greatest running back in the history of the franchise. Next for the Giants is a trip down the Turnpike to face the collapsed Philadelphia Eagles; it’ll be sweet to show them how much things have changed, and to ring in our status as the new kings of the NFC East.

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