by Jon Wagner. SNY Giants Columnist
Throughout the summer, New York Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin encouraged his team to “Build A Bridge” to last year, when it was about being “All In” and making sure to “Finish.”
Forget finishing, the Giants (0-1) couldn’t even start well, while allowing their underdog and hated NFC East rival Dallas Cowboys (1-0) to waltz into MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford and walk away with a season-opening 24-17 upset victory.
As for being “All In,” New York wasn’t exactly “All There.”
Coughlin has more than earned his respect from Giants fans, having led New York to a pair of NFL titles in a span of five seasons. Yet, even as defending Super Bowl champions, the Giants, as they have inexplicably done so many times under Coughlin – especially at home – came out flatter than the coin used at midfield to help start the 2012 NFL season.
Offensively, the Giants struggled to achieve much consistency via the run or the pass while too many defensive breakdowns in their injury-depleted secondary ultimately led to New York making opening night history in a way in which any defending champion would want to avoid.
In the first NFL game played on a Wednesday night since 1948, the Giants became the first Super Bowl winner from a prior season to lose its season opener the following year since the 1999 Denver Broncos. They also have now the dubious distinction of being the only team to lose in the nine years an NFL club started its season at home in a nationally televised weeknight game the year after winning a Super Bowl.
Of course, those previous eight times were all on Thursday nights, since the NFL began to annually kick off its seasons on that night in 2004.
This season, President Barack Obama’s Thursday night convention speech in Charlotte moved the NFL opener to the extremely rare Wednesday night, the first time an NFL game was played on that day of the week since Harry Truman was President. But, the way the things went in North Carolina and New Jersey, it would appear that as of now, Obama would have a much better chance of repeating than would the Giants.
The victory provided a small measure of payback for Dallas, which had lost five of its previous six meetings to New York, including a devastating last-game collapse at home last season and another loss in a regular season finale with last year’s NFC East title on the line for both teams on the same field where the Cowboys won on Wednesday.
With the help of a breakout game for Queens, New York native, wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, quarterback Tony Romo (22-for-29, 307 yards, three touchdowns, interception, two sacks) significantly outplayed his counterpart Eli Manning (21-for-32, 213 yards, touchdown, three sacks), who entered the season with his second Super Bowl MVP award in five years.
Ogletree, who came into the game with a modest 25 receptions for 294 yards over his first three years in the league, got Dallas out to a 14-3 lead early in the third quarter with the first two touchdowns of his career and finished with career and game highs of eight catches for 114 yards.
The Cowboys’ usual top two receivers instead played solid complimentary roles to Ogletree’s success, as stars Dez Bryant (85 yards) and Miles Austin (73 yards, touchdown) each contributed four catches to help aid a Dallas passing game that was hampered by a spleen injury to their normally dangerous tight end Jason Whitten (just two catches for ten yards).
Running back DeMarco Murray (game highs of 20 carries for 131 yards) also helped shift the Dallas running game into a high gear in the second half. The Cowboys held a slim 28-23 advantage on the ground at halftime, but they ended the game with 143 rushing yards to the Giants’ 82, while holding the ball for over eight minutes more than New York.
Wide receiver Victor Cruz, who shocked the league last season by going from an undrafted free agent out of an FCS school (UMass) to the Giants’ all-time leading single season receiving yards leader (with 1,536 yards) in his first full NFL season, led New York again with six catches for 58 yards.
However, after Cruz hauled in a 26-yard reception from Manning on third down, during the Giants’ second possession of the game, New York’s offense stalled when rookie first-round draft pick David Wilson (two carries, four yards) has the ball popped free by linebacker Sean Lee, who led Dallas with nine tackles.
While talking to his coaches soon thereafter, Wilson was seen crying on the Giants’ sideline – not such a bad thing, as it shows he cares about wanting to perform well and win. Yet, he was not called upon for another carry the rest of the night.
Meanwhile, Dallas likewise couldn’t generate much offensively, and when Romo was intercepted by linebacker Michael Boley, who returned the pick 51 yards and drew a flag for a horse collar tackle, it appeared that the Giants would score the first touchdown of the young NFL season, with a first-and-goal at the Cowboys’ 1-yard line.
But, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who led New York with 78 yards on 17 carries while scoring his team’s only rushing touchdown, lost a total of three yards on two carries and the NFL’s temporary replacement referees failed to notice cornerback Orlando Scandrick (two tackles, one pass deflection) blatantly grabbing Cruz along the goal line as Cruz tried to free himself for a Manning pass that fell incomplete.
Thus, the first points of the season –on a 22-yard field goal with 9:10 left in the first half, by kicker Lawrence Tynes (who picked up where he left off after kicking the Giants into the Super Bowl with a game-winning kick in last year’s NFC title game and a perfect 8-for-8 preseason this year) – were actually a small triumph for the Cowboys and their defense.
After the teams once again traded punts, Romo completed five of six passes during a seven-play, 73-yard drive that he capped with a ten-yard touchdown toss (with 1:01 remaining in the half) to a wide open Ogletree. Two plays earlier, Romo got the Cowboys into the red zone for the first time on a 38-yard completion to Bryant, who beat cornerback Corey Webster (two tackles, one pass deflection) up the right side, with safety Kenny Phillips arriving too late to help.
A mix of Romo’s passing and Murray’s running started Dallas on the move as the third quarter got underway, before Romo ended a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ogletree up the right side, as the Cowboys again exploited Webster’s poor coverage and Phillips’ late help over the top.
Manning responded on the next possession, completing a trio of 12-yard passes, although one was called back for a questionable illegal block call against Cruz.
Later in the drive, on 3rd-and-4, from just past midfield, Manning found wide receiver Domenik Hixon (three catches for 55 yards) who made a nice leaping grab for a 39-yard completion. That set up New York’s first touchdown of the season on an impressive ten-yard power run to the left by Bradshaw that trimmed Dallas’ lead to 14-10 with 5:11 left in the third quarter. Hixon’s catch was a good sign for the Giants, considering he was named the team’s third receiver in the preseason after a second career ACL injury limited him to playing in only two games last season.
On the Cowboys’ next possession, Murray bounced right off of the chest of Giants’ linebacker Mathias Kiwanua (one tackle), then slipped through a diving tackle attempt by defensive end Justin Tuck (four tackles), and raced up the right side for 48 yards – the longest run after contact in the new career of the 2011 seventh-round draft pick – to the New York 25-yard line.
Dallas moved to the Giants’ 6-yard line, but defensive end Linval Joseph (one tackle, one sack) dropped Romo for a loss of nine yards, and on the next play, cornerback Michael Coe (five tackles, one pass deflection), getting extra time with starting cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara nursing injuries, made a nice place to break up what looked like a sure touchdown pass to Ogletree in the back of the end zone. Coe’s play forced the Cowboys to settle for a 33-yard field goal by kicker Dan Bailey that extended Dallas’ lead to 17-10 with 40 seconds left in the third quarter.
A sack of Manning on 3rd-and-4 from New York’s 44-yard line stopped the Giants’ next drive, and the Cowboys then padded their lead to a game-high 14 points on an eight-play, 92-yard drive that consumed nearly half (7:06) of the final period.
Another combination of Murray’s rushing and the Dallas passing game moved the Cowboys back into the red zone, but consecutive ten-yard penalties (two of 13 committed by Dallas, to New York’s four) created an uncommon 1st-and-30 back at Giants’ 34-yard line.
That was no problem for Romo though, who yet again beat Webster with late assistance from Phillips on a 34-yard touchdown pass to Austin that gave the Cowboys a 24-10 advantage with 5:57 to go.
On 3rd-and-1, Bradshaw then rushed for 33 yards into Dallas territory. Nine plays later, Manning threw his only touchdown pass of the night, on a nine-yard throw to ex-Cowboy tight end Martellus Bennett (four catches, 40 yards) over the middle, to draw the Giants to within 24-17 with 2:36 left.
New York still had hope with two timeouts and the two minute warning remaining, but on 3rd-and-10 from the Cowboys’ 26-yard line, Romo finished the Giants off with a 13-yard completion to Ogletree for a first down.
A disappointed Coughlin admitted, “It hurts to come in and be playing at home and playing a game of this nature opening the season to play the way we played, and we certainly are capable of playing a lot better.”
No doubt, the evening provided far from the bridge that Coughlin wanted to connect to the end of last season, but don’t expect Giants fans to jump off a figurative bridge or even off of the Big Blue bandwagon so soon – especially when they consider the many times under the Giants’ current head coach that their team played in similar head-scratching and uninspired ways, only to bounce back strongly, and in two cases thus far, be resilient enough to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Trying to put another unexpected loss behind them, the Giants will have plenty of time to prepare for getting back on track, while staying home for the next game on Sunday, September 16th, against Tampa Bay, which will open at home against Carolina on Sunday.