What you’re likely to hear about in the days following the Cowboys’ 10–7 loss to the Giants is a lot of discussion about Dallas’ QB situation. Maybe there is some validity to it, the idea that Tony Romo still somehow gives the Cowboys a better chance of accomplishing their ultimate goals than Dak Prescott does after the rookie put in his worst performance of the season.
What won’t be as hotly discussed, but remains just as relevant coming out of Sunday night, is that the Giants’ defense has twice now stymied the NFC’s current top seed.
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In their first game since premier pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul was lost for the remainder of the regular season to a sports hernia, and with several NFC teams breathing down their necks in the wild-card race, the Giants delivered a defensive gem in a huge spot. They did not shut down rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott the way they did back in Week 1 (who could at this point?), but his 107-yard night was mostly harmless.
Elliott and his O-line did not take over the game the way they have done so often from Weeks 2-13. Save for one beautiful play-action pass from Dak Prescott to a wide-open Terrance Williams, the Giants made Prescott look every bit like the rookie he is.
This Giants team has been tough to lock in as a legitimate threat, with its string of close wins against mostly subpar teams. Through all of those wins, though, the defense began to look more and more like a postseason-worthy unit.
Even Pierre-Paul’s loss was barely noticeable Sunday night. Rookie Romeo Okwara stepped in for him and delivered a sack and eight tackles, while several others who have been key all season—Damon Harrison, Landon Collins, Jonathan Casillas, Devon Kennard—all showed up with strong efforts alongside him. New York entered Week 14 with a top-five rushing defense, a top-10 scoring defense and had not allowed any team to hit the 30-point mark all season.
The Cowboys definitely have not been able to figure them out.
By all accounts, this was a different Dallas offense than what New York saw back on Sept. 11, when Prescott and Elliott were making their NFL debuts. Since then, the Cowboys had run off 11 consecutive wins to clinch a playoff spot and take a stranglehold on the NFC, with both rookies in the hunt for MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Prescott even told NBC’s Michele Tafoya moments before kickoff Sunday night that he felt much more comfortable reading defenses now, having banked extended experience as the starter.
That confidence all flew out the window once the game began. Prescott fired two picks en route to a 17-for-37 performance, and the turnover number easily could have been higher. A first-half screen pass nearly resulted in a Keenan Robinson pick-six, among other miscues.
“Obviously, we weren’t effective enough in the passing game, particularly in situational football,” said Dallas coach Jason Garrett. “I think we were 1 for 15 on third downs, and we’ve been one of the better third-down teams in the National Football League. That’s why we’ve been able to stay on the field, drive the ball and give ourselves scoring opportunities. We didn’t do that tonight.”
Was it Prescott’s fault? To some extent, no question. He was late and inaccurate on many of his throws, plus seemed unwilling to take off and run when those chances were there.
Perhaps the weather played a part. Garrett also mentioned in his postgame press conference that both teams suffered from drops that otherwise might not have happened—Dez Bryant fumbled, too, with the Cowboys down just three with 2:25 remaining in the game.
But the wintry conditions are no real excuse for what went down when Dallas had the ball. Prescott was awful, quite frankly, and he had little help from his receivers.
Whether or not you believe that means the Cowboys should give Romo another spin probably boils down to where you stood on the issue before Week 14. After all, the Cowboys still sit in total command of the NFC East (although they missed a chance to clinch the division on Sunday) and with the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. Prescott’s shakiest showings both have come against the Giants, a team he won’t see again in the regular season.
And, again, what happened Sunday night has at least as much to do with the Giants’ defense as it does with any Prescott shortcomings.
New York defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up an aggressive game plan meant to disrupt Prescott’s timing and force him off his spot in the pocket. It worked because all three levels of the defense showed up: D-line, linebackers and the secondary. When Prescott did have time, he struggled to locate anyone open. When he was pressured early, everything crumbled.
“Our defense played outstanding all day,” Giants QB Eli Manning said.
Manning himself wasn’t exactly electrifying. He threw what could have been a costly interception in the fourth quarter and fumbled twice—the first coming as he simply lost his grip on the ball while going to throw, with WR Roger Lewis streaking all by his lonesome toward the end zone.
What the Giants’ offense did manufacture, thanks to Odell Beckham Jr.’s breakaway speed, was a game-turning big play. Beckham dropped a potential TD pass early, then let a third-down toss slip through his fingers to kill a drive in the second half. But with his team trailing 7–3, he unleashed an electrifying 61-yard catch-and-run score to swing the game in New York’s favor.
That was all it took on a night controlled by the Giants’ defense. Or handed away by Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense. It depends on how you choose to look at this night, and what lessons it taught in the grand scheme of things.