Jan 052012
 
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New York Giants 31 (9-7) – Dallas Cowboys 14 (8-8)

by rnargi for BigBlueInteractive.com

Game Summary

The Giants accomplished their primary mission of the 2011 season on Sunday night with a convincing 31-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, their bitter division rivals.  This game was for all the marbles.  The winner hosts a home playoff game and the loser breaks out the golf clubs and goes into long offseason to think about missed opportunities and dreams dashed.

When the dust settled following a Justin Tuck sack of Tony Romo that conjured up images of Leonard Marshall sacking Joe Montana in the 1990 NFC Championship game, the Giants were one game better in the standings than the Dream Team turned nightmare in Philadelphia and one game better than Jerrah Jones’ band of undisciplined individuals.  The best TEAM won the NFC East this year, and that TEAM was your New York Giants.

The game on Sunday night started out gangbusters for the Giants as they roared to a 21-0 halftime lead.  The Cowboys began to claw back into the game midway through the 3rd quarter after all but abandoning the run for a quick drop, short passing game that was effective but used a ton of clock.  With the offense sputtering throughout the 3rd quarter, New York once again relied on a dominant 4th quarter from Eli Manning coupled with a defense that simply seemed unwilling to be denied to pull away and put Dallas away for good.

The first half was a white wash.  New York outgained Dallas 277 to 96 yards, rolled up 15 1st downs to Dallas’ 6, and held a nearly 6 minute time of possession advantage.  The Giants also committed just one penalty in the 1st half while Dallas committed six.  The Giants were great on both sides of the ball on 3rd down, converting 5 of 7 and allowing just 1 of 6.  Both teams missed field goals.  Dallas never entered the green zone in the half.  Finally, the Giants were all over QB Tony Romo, sacking him 3 times while Eli was hardly pressured and moved effectively in the pocket to avoid the pressure he did receive.

This was a glorious game for Giants fans, especially the older ones on BBI.  A lot of us remember, very clearly and with a lot of disdain, January 2, 1994.  The so called Emmitt Smith overtime game.  The Cowboys came from behind that day to win the NFC East and eventually the Super Bowl. That was a bitter, bitter pill.  Everyone knows New York has lost their share of heartbreaking games and this one certainly erased some ghosts.

Overall, the Giants dominated every meaningful statistical category.  New York outgained Dallas on the ground and through the air, converted 47% of their 3rd downs while holding Dallas to just 33% (both teams failed on a 4th down attempt), and New York won the turnover battle 2-0.  The Giants were fortunate on a wet night to recover two of their own fumbles, and Dallas also recovered their own muffed punt.  New York was also fortuitous when a fumble by HB D.J. Ware recovered by Dallas was overturned due to a Dallas penalty.  When it ended, New York held more than 9 minute time of possession advantage and that is huge when you’re talking about keeping the explosive Cowboys offense off the field.

Offense

For the first time in quite some time, New York had a solid 1st quarter and a dominant first half.  The Giants employed a fantastic short passing game that incorporated the fullback, the running backs, and the tight ends running short slants and wheel routes that Dallas had no answers for early.  With TE Jake Ballard out, it was a brilliant tactic that worked nearly flawlessly.  Of 15 passes to the backs and tight ends, New York completed 12 of them for 78 yards.  Combine that with an effective but not flashy running game that gained 106 yards, and the short game accounted for more than 40 percent of the Giants’ total yardage.

As mentioned, the Giants were sluggish in the 3rd quarter, going 3 and out once and turning the ball over on downs after getting good field position following a Romo interception.  After another 3 and out to start the 4th quarter and another Dallas touchdown to narrow the gap to 7 points, the Giants offense once again found their footing and scored on their next two possessions to put the game out of reach.

Also for the first time in a while, the same offensive line played two weeks in a row.  The Giants used an unbalanced line on occasion, moving LT David Diehl to the RT position and covering up LG Kevin Boothe with a TE.  It’s been mentioned on BBI that this has been used on occasion this season but it’s the first time I noticed it.

Quarterback

After two subpar games by his standards, QB Eli Manning had a stellar game.  Manning completed his season in fine form completing 24 of 33 passes for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns against no interceptions.  Manning was efficient and deadly accurate in the short game.  Not a single pass was close to being intercepted.  Manning’s passer rating was 136.7 and his Total QBR was 89.8, the 4th highest total in the league this week. On the year, Manning finished   7th in the NFL in passer rating at 92.9 and 13th in Total QBR rating at 61.0.

Manning also made heads up plays on several occasions when he simply threw the ball away or ran when he didn’t have anything.  A prime example was on the field goal drive which put the Giants up by 10 with under 6 minutes to go.  On 1st down and goal from the 9 yard line, Dallas showed all-out blitz with 6 men, but dropped the MIKE into coverage and rushed 5. S Alan Ball rushed right around TE Travis Beckum but Eli deftly stepped up and to his right and just threw the ball out of the end zone.  On 2nd down, Dallas dropped 8 men into coverage and when no one was open Eli simply took a sack instead of throwing the ball into coverage.  On 3rd and goal from the 18, Manning could not find anyone and scrambled up the middle for 8 yards, making the FG attempt easier for Tynes (a 28 yarder instead of a 38 yarder).  That’s classic Eli, making sure nothing took away the opportunity to make it a two possession game.

Manning’s final season statistics were phenomenal, and the two-time Pro Bowl QB and SB 42 MVP had arguably his finest NFL season.  Manning finished 4th in the league with a mind boggling 4,933 yards passing.  Normally nearly passing for 5,000 yards is enough to win the yardage title but Brees, Brady and Stafford all threw for over 5,000.  Manning completed 61% of his passes in 2011, threw 29 touchdown passes (2 short of his career high) and 16 interceptions (3rd fewest in his career as a full time starter) which was 9 less than last season.  Manning also was 2nd ranked QB in the fourth quarter in passer rating and set an NFL record with 15 4th quarter touchdown passes.  That means he had just 14 in the 48 other quarters combined!

Running Backs

New York running backs did a serviceable job on Sunday night, accounting for 92 yards on 25 carries, a 3.7 ypc average.  75 of the backs’ rushing yards came in the first half when they built their 21 point lead.  The second half was another story as Dallas completely stifled the running backs, allowing just 17 yards on 10 carries.  The long was a 5 yard gain.  This also illustrates just how good Eli Manning was in the second half and particularly the 4th quarter (6-8 for 113 yards and a touchdown).

Ahmad Bradshaw led the team with 16 carries and 57 yards with a long of 29 yards on a brilliantly called play by Manning in which he spotted a vacated gap, changing the play which allowed Bradshaw to exploit it for the long gain.  Bradshaw scored the Giants’ second touchdown on a fantastic individual play to avoid a tackle in the backfield and scamper around a great block by WR Hakeem Nicks into the right corner of the end zone.  Late in the second half, Bradshaw snuck out of the backfield and caught a Manning pass on a short wheel route and again made a man miss and scored on 1st and goal from the 10.  Bradshaw wasn’t as good at picking up the blitz as he’s been in past weeks, missing on a couple and his chips weren’t very crisp either.

Brandon Jacobs had a limited role, carrying just 7 times for 16 yards.  Jacobs was unable to convert a 4th and 1 play from the Dallas 35 yard line on the drive following Romo’s interception that could have iced the game early.  The play was not the fault of Jacobs however as he had absolutely no where to go.  There is no telling what gap Jacobs was supposed to hit, but TE Bear Pascoe had turned his man inside on the end of the left side of the Giants line and FB Henry Hynoski never approached the line as he went wide outside of TE Pascoe.  Jacobs ran off tackle and didn’t follow Hynoski outside, and he never had a chance as LB Sean Lee filled the hole and the Cowboys dropped him for a loss.  Jacobs was targeted on one short pass as Manning went to his safety valve but the play was broken up.

D.J. Ware carried twice for 19 yards including a long of 15 from the unbalanced line noted above.  Ware also caught 1 pass for 8 yards on a perfectly executed wheel route into the flat.

The book on FB Henry Hynoski says he has good hands, and he showed that not only does he have good hands but he can run the high hurdles as well.  With the loss of Ballard, Hynoski stepped up and caught 4 of 4 passes for 31 yards.  It was an excellent use of resources and early on Dallas had no answer for it.  Despite what commentator Chris Collinsworth said late in the game, Hynoski didn’t have a particularly stellar night blocking.  He made some and he missed some, and the ones he missed were part of the cause for the woeful 2nd half rushing totals.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

The Giants wide receivers didn’t catch many balls, just 12 on the night.  Manning competed his other 12 passes to the backs and TEs.  The thing is, the WRs made the absolute most of them.

What else can anyone say about Victor Cruz?  He was at it again on Sunday, converting a 3rd and 1 pass that should have resulted in a 4-8 yard gain and 1st down into a 74 yard touchdown pass.  Then when the Giants needed him most while clinging to a 7 point 4th quarter lead, he went up on a 3rd and 7 heave and prayer from Manning and hauled it in for a 44 yard gain.  Two plays later on 2nd and 10, he caught a crossing pattern for 20 yards and put the Giants in position for the all important field goal that restored a two score cushion.  All in all, Cruz caught 6 of 11 passes thrown to him for 178 yards and the touchdown.  That’s nearly 30 yards per reception.  That’s simply outrageous for an undrafted free agent that no one else even offered a contract to who missed his entire first year to injury and then missed an entire offseason this year.  Credit should be given to him for going out at every opportunity to throw and catch with Eli while he held his unsanctioned passing camps this offseason.  Cruz is a self made man and a guy who is extremely easy to root for and like.

As for his season, not only did Cruz set the Giants single season receiving record, he obliterated it.  On the year, Cruz finished 3rd in the entire NFL with 1,536 yards behind only Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and Wes Welker.  More amazing, he finished just 33 yards behind Welker despite catching 40 less passes.  Johnson finished 145 yards ahead of Cruz with 14 more receptions.  Cruz led the league with an average gain per catch of 18.7 yards among all receivers with 50 or more passes caught. Cruz led the Giants in receiving yards, touchdowns (9), and receptions (82) this season.

Hakeem Nicks started off quietly but had 2 critical catches on the final touchdown drive including the game clinching touchdown on a beautifully executed fade route.  Nicks, who was playing on a strained hamstring, caught 5 of 6 passes for 76 yards and 1 TD.

The only other WR to catch a pass was Devin Thomas as Mario Manningham was essentially invisible.  He wasn’t thrown to a single time.

One thing to note about the receivers is that they did an outstanding job blocking downfield.  Hakeem Nicks had the contain block on the CB allowing Bradshaw to get to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.  Earlier, Nicks had the key block on CB Michael Jenkins to spring Cruz on his 74 yard touchdown run.  It’s true that CB Terrence Newman lost Cruz for the completion and S Gerald Sensabaugh took a horrible angle to the ball, but if Nicks doesn’t hold his ground and wall off Jenkins, it’s at best a 10 yard gain.

The tight ends needed to step up with the absence of Ballard in the passing attack and they did an admirable job.  Combined, Travis Beckum and Bear Pascoe were thrown to 5 times catching 2 apiece.  Pascoe’s first catch on a 3rd and 9 play from their own 5 yard line was the key play in the drive that ended in Cruz’s touchdown.  On the play he leaped over CB Terrence Newman who obviously had a terrible game.  That play was a tone setter.  It showed that the offense wasn’t going to back down and would fight for every yard.  Blocking is still an issue for both Pascoe and Beckum, but it’s possible that Ballard will be back for the playoff game against Atlanta on Sunday.

Offensive Line

The Giants offensive line had a very good first half and then kind of hung on for dear life in the second.  Without Ballard to help with blitz pickups and the backs not being as effective as usual, Eli was under more pressure than normal and the running game was effectively throttled in the second half.  The Giants started the same line that they started last week.  C David Baas had the unenviable task of slowing down Dallas’ pro bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff and he was outstanding in the passing game as almost all of Dallas’ pressure came from off the edges.  Manning was afforded a nice pocket to move around in almost all game, but he was caught for a couple of sacks and 7 total QB hits.  In the last game, Dallas also got good pressure, but as in that game Eli was able to maneuver in the pocket because the middle of the pocket was fairly clean as there wasn’t a lot of interior push against Boothe, Baas and Snee.

Kevin Boothe had a rough time maintaining his blocks in the running game on Sunday and whiffed a couple times.  DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer repeatedly beat tackles David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie, but fortunately it rarely happened at the same time which allowed Manning to move around.

Defense

For the second week in a row, the Giants defense played a solid game.  Last week there was some talk about how they weren’t really in for a big test because they were playing a team that lacked real receiver speed and against an immobile QB prone to errors.  Not this week.  Dallas had their full complement of receivers and despite playing with an injured throwing hand, Tony Romo was healthy enough to play.  In fact, Romo was damn good and only had one truly bad throw.  It wasn’t the interception to Rolle; it was the overthrow to a wide open Dez Bryant down the left sideline on the 3rd play from scrimmage. That play had a chance for a touchdown if he hits Bryant in stride, and since it was early, maybe it was an after effect of his injured hand.  So no matter what was said about the defense against the Jets, the fact is they rolled on and brought it to the Cowboys most of the night and specifically in the first half and 4th quarter.

New York was tremendous against the run.  Dallas attempted 8 rushes in the first half by the backs and gained just 29 yards.  In the second half, Dallas tried to rush just 6 times with their backs gaining just 17 yards.  New York managed to get Dallas off the field on 3 and outs four times and another time on 4 plays.  They also ended two other drives with turnovers (an interception after 5 plays and a fumble after 7 plays) and another on downs after 8 plays.  The Giants did allow the Cowboys to drive 94 yards on 9 plays to score on their opening possession of the 3rd quarter and also allowed a quick strike touchdown when a poor punt and special teams personal foul set the Cowboys up in 1st and 10 at the Giants 26 yard line.

Front 7

For those that like to say that injuries aren’t an excuse when a team struggles, all one has to do is look at how the Giants front 7 and particularly the defensive line played on Sunday night to see that though you may not want to use the word ‘excuse,’ you can certainly see it was a reason for their struggles at times.  Justin Tuck is healthier than he’s been in months.  Osi Umenyiora is back on the field and though he played in a limited role, he was effective.  LB Michael Boley seems to be fully recovered and is playing solid, strong football.

The Giants sacked Tony Romo 6 times, had him under constant pressure and hit him 7 times.  Osi Umenyiora had two sacks, and Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Chris Canty had one each.  Tuck forced a fumble on his sack to effectively end the game.  The sixth sack came from linebacker Jacquian Williams.

Speaking of Boley, he lead the team with 9 tackles and combined with Corey Webster to stop TE Jason Witten 1 yard short of a 1st and goal at the Giants’ 9 yard line.  Boley made a tremendous individual effort to hold Witten up to allow Webster to come in and clean up.  That forced Dallas to go for it on a 4th and 1 and once again Boley made a great individual play by going over the top to get Romo immediately, and when DT Chris Canty was able to get good push and a bit of penetration, the combination stopped Romo in his tracks.  Those back-to-back plays by Boley kept points off the board.

In the first half, and in fact on the very first snap from scrimmage, Mathias Kiwanuka set the tone for the Giants by exploiting the B gap on Dallas’ left side and nailed HB Felix Jones in the backfield for no gain.  Kiwanuka was outstanding in the first half, and on the night he made 5 tackles and recovered the late Romo fumble.  Kiwi was not in for a lot of snaps in the second half as they played much more nickel coverage as Dallas employed their up tempo short passing game to try to get back into the contest.

All the linebackers were active, as Blackburn, Williams, Kiwanuka and Boley combined for 23 total tackles.  Dallas attempted to throw to their backs and tight ends 19 times completing 17 of them, but most were for short yardage due to solid tackling by the linebackers and safeties.

Secondary

The Giants secondary had a hell of a game.  Safety Kenny Phillips missed the first game played between these two teams and that fact shouldn’t be overlooked.  As has been noted in the past, Phillips doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet, but his presence is huge.  When he’s playing over the top on a receiver, QBs just don’t go his way very often.  On Sunday, Phillips was in on 8 tackles.  His running mate at safety (though he played a ton in the slot with Deon Grant playing safety more often than not) Antrel Rolle also had 8 tackles and made a great play by sliding inside and snatching an interception over the middle when Romo never saw him.

Corey Webster also had a solid game despite getting beaten early by Bryant on the play described above.  Webster and Phillips were beaten on the first Laurent Robinson touchdown, but it was a good play by Dallas to free up Robinson on the outside deep when Phillips shaded towards Witten in the middle of the field.

Interestingly, the name Aaron Ross didn’t come up much in the game and frankly I lost track of him after deciding to key on him early in the game and see how he was doing.  Ross had 5 tackles and gave up the slant to Robinson for his second touchdown that brought Dallas within 7 points.  Ross was matched up 1 on 1 with Robinson and the Giants had an all out blitz called that Romo simply beat.

That was, for the most part, the entire back 4 for the Giants as rookie CB Prince Amukamara never saw the field as far as I could tell.

This was about the best the Giants secondary played all season, and a big part of it was the huge pass rush and solid linebacking play that supported them.

Special Teams

The Special Teams struggled but didn’t come undone on Sunday night.  Lawrence Tynes’ kickoffs were shorter than normal and he did miss a 40 yard field goal that would have put the Giants up by 3 scores early.  Since Dallas also missed a makeable field goal, that miss by Tynes was a wash.   As for the return teams, the only real blemish was when Will Blackmon muffed a horrible punt from rookie punter Chris Jones.  Blackmon should have let that ball bounce, but it’s understandable that he would try to make the catch because it would have given the Giants outstanding field position.  On a rainy night, though, discretion should be the better part of valor.  To make matters worse, Blackmon kicked the ball towards the middle of the field, and when Dallas S Alan Ball couldn’t corral it, the Giants caught a break when reserve LB Greg Jones recovered the loose ball.

The punting game and kicking games both suffered in the weather, and the return teams were unspectacular.  The coverage teams were decent, with the only blemish on the punt coverage team coming when WR Devin Thomas committed a personal foul which set up Dallas on a very short field.  The Giants were also unable to recover a Dez Bryant muffed punt.

Coaching

HC Tom Coughlin had his team ready.  I cannot recall the last time that the offense AND the defense came out firing on all cylinders for the entire first half.  The only odd play at all from TC was the timeout he called with 14 seconds left in the first half and Dallas in a 2nd and 20 situation.

As for DC Perry Fewell, no matter what Coughlin says, he has simplified the coverages over the past few weeks and it’s working.  The Giants did not look confused on defense at all and their coverage packages seemed sound.  He changed up the look of the defense when it became obvious that Dallas was going up tempo and trying to work underneath in the passing game. The Giants played much of the second half in a nickel look.

Finally, it’s prudent to say that HC Tom Coughlin’s team believes in him.  They could have packed it in two weeks ago with the Jets and Cowboys coming up following a devastating and lackluster effort against the Redskins.  Coughlin once again got his team to get off the mat and fight, winning 3 of their last 4 games to win their division.

Final Thoughts

At the beginning of any NFL season, the primary goal for every team is to win their division.  The Giants accomplished that goal and frankly it doesn’t matter if they were 11-5 or 9-7; they won it.  Last season this team won 10 games and it wasn’t good enough to make it into the playoffs, so screw the naysayers.  The Giants were 6-6, a game behind the Cowboys with 4 to play, and they won their division.  Enough said.  That’s not a second half collapse.  If anything, it’s a final quarter roll.

Next up on the schedule are the Atlanta Falcons, at home, in the Wild Card round.  New York is the 4th seed in the playoffs and are playing their best football since the few weeks leading up to the New England game.  Considering the injured reserve list, the Giants are as healthy now as they’ve been since the beginning of the year due to the many walking wounded finally rounding into form.  New York can make some noise in these playoffs.  The key on Sunday will be to stop the run just like they have the past two weeks.  If that happens, the Giants can take the Falcons as they are able to score against any team in the league when the offense is clicking.

The Giants are in the dance.  It’s time to get busy.

(Boxscore- Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, January 1, 2012)
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