Giants-Cowboys Should Provide Usual Drama in Dallas

The New York Football Giants are back and have the spotlight on them to start the season for the second straight year with a national TV game against the Cowboys in Dallas. It’s a battle between two teams with high expectations and the two teams no one knows what to expect each week. The talent in Sunday night’s game is unquestionable, but the consistent play from the NFC East rivals certainly is.

With the season kicking off in Dallas I did an email exchange with Dave Halprin of Blogging the Boys to talk about the game, how Tony Romo is perceived in Dallas and what the concerns are for both teams in Week 1.

Keefe: The two games the Giants and Cowboys played in 2012 were the two examples of what Giants football is.

In the first game (Week 1), the Giants were opening the NFL season at home after improbably winning the Super Bowl for the second time in four years. Prior to the game, they celebrated what they had done to end the 2011 regular season, their domination of the Falcons, their embarrassment of the Packers, their escape in San Francisco and their final-minute devastation of the Patriots … again. Would the Giants come out and prove to the football world that their playoff performance was who they really were and not what their 9-7 record suggested they were? Of course not. The Giants lost at home to a division rival because that’s what the Giants do. They lose when they’re supposed to win, they lose at home and they lose to the Cowboys at home.

When the Giants went to Dallas on Oct. 28 (Week 8), they had won three straight and five of six since their Opening Night loss to the Cowboys and were looking like the January-February Giants and not the the November-December Giants. When the Giants went up 13-0 in the first quarter and led 23-0 just 1:55 into the second quarter it felt too good to be true. And it was. The Cowboys scored 24 unanswered points to take the lead before two fourth-quarter field goals from Lawrence Tynes gave the Giants a 29-24 lead with 3:55 left. But even that wasn’t enough. An overturned 37-yard-touchdown catch by Dez Bryant nearly gave the Cowboys the lead (and most likely the win) with 10 seconds left. How did the game even get to that point? Because that’s what the Giants do. They never can put teams away and finish off a should-be laugher.

When the Giants last left me off, they routed an Eagles team that had been longing for the clock to run out in Week 17, but it was too little too late. They had blown their postseason chances by destroying their 6-2 record and losing to the Falcons and Ravens by a combined 67-14 in Weeks 15 and 16. So now what? Are the 2013 Giants going to be the 2012 Week 1-8 Giants or the 2012 Week 9-17 Giants. Is the offense going to be the big-play offense we have grown accustomed or the red-zone challenged offense that settles for field goals? (This is mostly because of Kevin Gilbride.) I like to think the Giants are going to be right there for the division and a playoff berth because I don’t want to think otherwise.

But let’s turn this over to you. The 2012 Cowboys left you off with a missed opportunity to control their own playoff destiny at the end of the season once again. So how do you feel about the 2013 Cowboys?

Halprin: By nature I’m an optimist, so I’ll probably always err on that side. But there are reasons to feel good about the 2013 Dallas Cowboys. One of the big things is they have been trying to upgrade the offensive line, a unit that was really holding them back. Besides Tyron Smith at left tackle, nobody was really that good last year, with some of them plain awful. Dallas drafted Travis Frederick to play center, and despite a lot of noise about picking him too high, it might turn out to be a very smart pick. He’s come in and been the starter at center from day one and has looked very good doing it. He’s held up physically in the middle during preseason, he’s handled the snaps with no problems and he’s making the line calls. His intelligence and his determination are often cited as key characteristics. So far, he looks much better than previous center Phil Costa. Ron Leary is slated to take over at left guard for Nate Livings. Leary was an UDFA in 2012 but only because he has a degenerative knee condition. Based on skill level, the Cowboys had him ranked as a third-rounder and other teams also had him ranked high but were scared away by the knee condition. He will probably start on Sunday and the Cowboys coaches are very excited about him. Doug Free returns as right tackle but after a terrible 2012 season he has looked like a different player in 2013 preseason. He’s regained his footwork and technique, hopefully solidifying the edge. And they just signed Brian Waters to take over at right guard. He’ll be a big upgrade from Mackenzy Bernadeau. So if this offensive line can play well, the Cowboys are stocked at skill positions on offense and should do serious damage. Of course, that’s a big IF the o-line plays well.

On defense, they made the switch to Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 Tampa 2. It’s a much simpler scheme to run and is based partly on creating turnovers. The Cowboys defense was terrible in creating turnovers last year but in the preseason this year they did a great job of getting the ball. Can it carryover into the regular season? We’ll see. The defensive line is banged up right now so that could be an issue, and I expect teams will try to isolate mismatches in the passing game against the base 4-3. It’s a gamble changing the scheme and it’s hard to say how it will play out. But overall, I actually liked what I saw in the preseason from most of the team, except special teams. That’s an area that needs to improve.

Keefe: Tony Romo enters the season with a six-year, $108 million contract extension ($55 million in guaranteed money) and now he will be an even bigger target for the media and football fans around the world who take pleasure in watching the Cowboys and their franchise quarterback fail. Romo has a 55-38 record in the regular season, but he’s won just one playoff game in his career (1-4) and is 0-3 when a playoff berth is on the line (even if none of those are wins or losses are solely because of him).

Romo has always been an intriguing athlete and figure and provides an interesting story because of the national divide on whether or not he is an “elite” quarterback and whether or not he is the answer to the future for the Cowboys. He’s the guy who can put up fake life statistics for 55 minutes of a game and then ruin that same game for his team with untimely decisions in the final five minutes. He has always scared me because of his ability to connect on the big play against the Giants, but at the same time I have always welcomed the idea of the Giants facing him in a big game.

I want to know what the perception of Romo in Dallas and what’s your personal take on him?

Halprin: My guess is there is a wide variety of opinions of Tony Romo in Dallas and among the Cowboys fan base, ranging from loving the guy to blaming the guy for everything. So let me only give my personal take.

Tony Romo is not the problem for the Dallas Cowboys, and he is very much part of the solution. I won’t sit here and say that he hasn’t made some big mistakes in crucial situations, everybody has seen that happen (although it’s curious why that seems to stick with him so much when I’ve seen plenty of other big-time quarterbacks make mistakes at crucial moments). The problem is Dallas wouldn’t even be in games with playoff berths on the line if it wasn’t largely through Romo’s efforts. If the Cowboys had a decent offensive line the past few years and a pass defense that didn’t constantly breakdown in scheme and through injuries, they would be fighting for higher seeds instead of just trying to make the playoffs.

Last year Romo spent a lot of time avoiding the rush, especially through the middle of the line, while also dealing with a non-existent running game. The Cowboys defense went through so many injuries last year that by the end of the season half of the lineup consisted of backups or street free agents. Yet through all of that Romo put up spectacular stats (except for INTs) and almost had the Cowboys winning the NFC East. Of course everybody will remember the bad game he put up against the Redskins in Week 17, but Dallas isn’t even in contention if not for Romo all year. Dallas’ defense fell apart in 2012, they were awful running the ball, Romo spent a ton of time avoiding the rush, yet he almost got the team in the playoffs. I’ll take that quarterback any day.

Keefe: Hey, it’s not like Eli Manning or Peyton Manning has ever made a big mistake in a crucial situation!

Earlier in the Romo era it seemed like the media was all about the Cowboys with their preseason predictions and this season the Cowboys are garnering some of that same attention they used to get. Meanwhile the Giants are sort of flying under the radar again, especially now with their injuries, which is the way I like it to be for the Giants since they never seem to play well when the spotlight is on them or hype surrounds them.

The biggest concern for me with the Giants is their defense and their depth given their injuries and the lack of talent and experience in the secondary, which leaves Prince Amukamara as the only reliable piece, which isn’t saying a lot. There is a good chance we could see Romo connecting with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin for big plays all night long and turning the game into the game we saw in Week 1 in 2007.

What are you most concerned about in the matchup against the Giants and what do you like for the Cowboys this week?

Halprin: One quick thing about the Romo question from before, I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that I don’t recognize Romo’s faults. The biggest is he can get loose with the football at times and sometimes he presses to make a play when he should just throw it away or take the sack. He’s still got some gunslinger in him which can backfire. Plus, he’s yet to win the big one, which allows you forthwith to make mistakes without heavy recriminations. So there’s that.

What concerns me most about this game is the Cowboys defensive line being ravaged by injury. Dallas will be without starters Jay Ratliff and probably without Anthony Spencer, they also lost a key backup early in camp (Tyrone Crawford) and they just lost Ben Bass, another key backup. They’ll be starting a player at defensive end who wasn’t even with them at the start of training camp (George Selvie). Besides DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, this is a patchwork defensive line. Also, Ron Leary will probably start at guard but is just coming back from a knee injury, so his play may be a little rusty. And at the other guard we’re likely to see Mackenzy Bernadeau, who is sketchy at best. Maybe Dallas will decide to play Brian Waters after all.

What I like is the Cowboys passing game versus the Giants back seven. There are a lot of question marks in coverage for New York, and Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten should be ready for big games as long as the line can protect Romo. We’ve seen Dan Connor play in Dallas and he struggles mightily in pass coverage, Dallas will look to exploit that if he’s in the game. And any corner not named Prince will surely be a prime target. The Cowboys passing game should be able to put points on the board if Romo stays upright.

Keefe: Since the start of the 2009 season, six of the eight games have been decided by seven points or less with the four games in Dallas being decided by 2, 6, 3, 5 points and the Giants have won all four of those games. The Giants have been a terrible home team during the entire Eli Manning era (they have one home playoff win during his career) and have played better on the road pretty much anywhere not named New Orleans, so it’s not just a Dallas thing, but I do like the success they had had in the Big D.

I have no idea how Sunday night will play out, mainly because if I did I would be living in a penthouse on the strip in Las Vegas making a living with my ability to correctly predict football games. Forget that it’s Week 1 and a new team and a new season, but the inconsistencies of the Giants complicate things the most when trying to visualize the game and what might happen.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Giants came out and aired it out all game and let Eli, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz play the type of game the Giants should be playing without Kevin Gilbride getting his hands on it and incorporating too much of a running game. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if the Giants come out and play the way they did in Weeks 15 and 16 last year against the Falcons and Ravens and lay an egg to stat their season.

The highs and lows of emotions as a Giants fan during a single game is something I wish every fan could experience (and maybe they already do) and I’m sure that my feeling of ecstasy for football being back will carry me until kickoff and I’m also sure the Giants will have me questioning whether or not I even like football at some point during the game (probably on the first drive).

What do you expect to happen Sunday night?

Halprin: As you mentioned, in recent games between these two teams the scored has usually remained close. Cowboys fans are pretty bitter about the Giants winning at JerryWorld so regularly, I imagine the players are kind of tired of it, too. I guess I expect another hard-fought NFC East divisional clash, but I also think this game could get sloppy at points. Dallas is dealing with injuries and change in a lot of areas which can be problematic, and combined with this being the first game of the season, perfect execution is doubtful. The Giants are also dealing with significant injuries on the O-line and in a couple of other spots, so overall it could be a matter of which backups who are forced into action make fewer mistakes.

I do think the Cowboys will win, but that’s just me being an optimist. I fully realize they could just as easily lose, so I’m not over-confident, but I predict a Cowboys victory, maybe 27-21 or something along those lines.