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Gameday Live 9: Cowboys at Giants

Good afternoon, Giants enthusiasts! Welcome to Week 10 in the NFL!

I’m Laura Albanese, subbing in for Christopher Mascaro. (Fear not, fair readers. If you absolutely miss him, he’s pinch-hitting on the Jets blog)
Now, let’s get down to business:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the highest scoring team in the NFC against the shockingly tattered remains of a team in freefall.  
In other words: boy, oh boy, do we have a doozy on our hands today. Eli Manning and the Giants (6-2, 3-1 at home) take on not-Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys (1-7, 1-3 on the road) at the Meadowlands. We’ve got new coaches, injured wide receivers, rejiggered o-lines and second string QBs, oh my.
The New Regime
There are storylines for days coming out of this contest, with the most obvious being that this the Cowboy’s first game since Wade Phillips was sacrificed on the altar of Dallas’ subpar season and, most particularly, its primetime 45-7 drubbing by the Packers
So, what do we know about Jason Garrett? The Cowboy’s former offensive coordinator turned down head coach offers from both Baltimore and Atlanta. Why? Well, for one thing: owner Jerry Jones and a $3 million per year contract. For another, Garrett was biding his time, hoping for a chance to take the reins. What is it what they say about being careful what you wish for?
For the Cowboys, these last eight games will be an attempt at respectability. For Garrett, though, it’s about coming as close as you can get to trial by fire without breaking any laws.  The situation is iffy at best, and you can bet your momma’s fine china set that Garrett will go out of his way to make an impression. For Dallas this week, that meant practicing in full pads for the first time since training camp and having players jog to team stretching exercises.
It’ll be interesting to see if a more aggressive coaching style will have any effect on what even Vegas odds-makers are calling a lackadaisical football team. Bloomberg News reported this week that the 17-point swing – going from three-point favorites against the Giants three weeks ago to 14-point underdogs – may be the “biggest point swing for an in-season rematch in 20 years of setting betting lines on National Football League games.” Why the big turn-around? The loss of Tony Romo (who went down during the Giants game) is big, but not two touchdowns big. (By the way, last look had the Cowboys at -13.5 underdogs. I hope they celebrated that 0.5.)
 
Quothe Tony Sinisi, odds director for Las Vegas Sports Consultants: “They do have a pretty big injury with Romo (broken collarbone), but it’s hard to say it any other way -- the last couple weeks they’ve just quit.” (from Bloomberg)

There are a million theories for how a team this stacked – DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, the Pro Bowl-laden defense – could fall this far, even with Romo’s injury. The biggest consensus, though, seems to be that they lack oomph. Phillips was a notoriously passive coach, but with seasoned vets like Ware and Terrence Newman on the squad, it’s hard to believe that his being the football equivalent of Toby from “The Office” is that much of a game-changer. Instead, some point the finger straight up – at Jerry Jones. Former Cowboys’ fullback Daryl Johnston went on record last week, blasting Jones for turning training camp into what he believed to be a travel-heavy media extravaganza – all in pursuit of the mighty dollar.
 
"I went to their training camp, and it's not an environment that's conducive to preparing for a season," Johnston was quoted as saying in the story. "They didn't work hard enough, and there's too many distractions. There's too much outside stuff with them.
"How can you be effective in training camp with over 20,000 people at the majority of your practices? How can you be a tough, physical team when you only [practice] full-padded three times the entire training camp? They really didn't put themselves in the best position to have success this year."
 
Whatever it is, even the Giants are flabbergasted to see their old-time foes suffering so badly.
 
Big Blue Keeps on Keeping On…Maybe

Now, if you’re a Giants fan, this is the type of thing you take as a warning signal – a sense of impending dread to keep you warm on a November afternoon. After all, this is historically the type of game the Giants lose. There are no stats to tally it up but: swooning opponent with nothing to lose + glowing media coverage + string of steady, dominant wins = frustration.

But no worries*, Eli Manning said last week that there’s no underestimating going on. Let’s face it, if something’s going to spark the Cowboys out of their stupor, it’ll the Packers-Wade Phillips double-whammy, with a side order of Jason Garrett Has Something To Prove.

“Whenever a new coach comes in, you feel like you have a new season,” Manning said. “Everything has been erased, and you can start over. They’re going to come in fired up and we know they’re talented all over the field.”

(* You can keep worrying if you want.)
 
But hey, the Giants have a good thing going, right? So let’s put the pessimism on hold for a second and see what’s been going right.

If you wanted one ringing endorsement of the Giants offense, look no further than Big Blue’s comprehensive 41-7 win over the Seahawks last week, led by Manning with three TDs and 290 yards on the day.

They’ve scored 28 points or more in their last four wins, outscoring opponents 144-72 in that stretch. They’re fourth in the NFL with 27 ppg, average 401 yards (second), 249.1 passing (fourth) and 151.9 rushing (third). They’re first in yards allowed (250.6). They’re tops in the NFC East and a win today means keeping pace the Falcons for tops in the conference.

So yes, they’re steamrolling the competition. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily in for a cake walk. It only sort of means they might be. Still, the Giants are plagued by injuries this week (more on that below).
Let’s check out some variables in today’s matchup.
Keys to the Game:
-          Steve Smith: Smith is out and the Giants are all the weaker for it.  (Details, as if you haven’t already read everything about it already) So, what will Eli do without his favorite target? Go to one of his other favorite targets, of course. With Hakeem Nicks jumping into the No. 1 spot, Mario Manningham will take No. 2, with Ramses Barden getting the start. It figures that Manningham and Barden will both see time in the slot position. Manningham is as trusted a reliever as the Giants have had, especially early on in the season, and, though Smith will surely be missed, his reliability is key to the Giants’ continued success. If anything, Smith’s injury will mean that Nicks will be the one getting all the extra unwanted attention.Nicks adaptability, his ability to work with Manningham, and how he handles the double-team and CB Mike Jenkins are all things to watch.
 
-          Not-Tony Romo: Ok. I’ll officially stop calling him that. Second-string QB Jon Kitna can deliver when called upon. He did lead the Seahawks to a AFC division title, after all. After a strong 2003 season with the Bengals, he settled into a second-string role before showing up on the Lions and throwing for over 4.000 yards in both 2006 and 2008, a franchise record. So what’s his deal? He’s a’ight (you saw the stats linked up high), the Giants D is just better.  The Giants excel at defending against both the pass and the rush and, with 31st-in-the league 75.6 rushing yards per game, it doesn’t leave Dallas with all that many options. Throw sack-happy Osi Umenyiora (eight sacks) and Justin Tuck (four sacks) into the mix, and we got ourselves a party.
 
-          DeMarcus Ware and the Giants O-Line: So here’s an interesting little dance. LT David Diehl (hip/hamstring) is out and Shawn Andrews has the super-special assignment of preventing Eli from getting creamed by DeMarcus Ware. Fun times. Ware has recorded nine career sacks in 11 games against the Giants and, with the weakened o-line, Eli can pretty much bank on getting flattened by him one or more times. Mostly a guard, Andrews will be playing tackle for the first time since college. C Shaun O’Hara (foot) is also out, so it looks like Rich Seubert may move to center and Kevin Boothe will take Andrews place at left guard. Rookie Mitch Petrus may also see some playing time.
 
-          And what of Eli? Well, that new o-line will likely mean less protection and more pressure and, seeing that he’s on pace for a career-worst 22 INTs this year, that’s probably not a good thing. He threw three picks against the Cowboys (three of five Giants turnovers), turning what should have been a laugher into a slightly tighter 41-35 victory. Otherwise, he has 17 TDs on the year (Phillip Rivers has a league-high 19 in one more game) with a rating of over 100 in the last three contests. His 11 INTs, though, are only two behind league-leading (who else?) Brett Favre. I feel like I may be typing that same sentence in 2015. Fun fact: Do you know who tied Eli for a league-high 20 picks in 2007? None other than Jon Kitna. Small world.
 
Anyway, if the Cowboys can exploit Smith’s absence and the weaker o-line and thus, a more vulnerable Manning, this game might just be closer than that ugly 13.5 point spread.
 Ok. Game time. Stick around for the liveblog!
COWBOYS WIN, 33-20
FINAL KEY STATS -
Dallas
Kinta - 13-for-22, 327 Y, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Bryant - 3 rec, 104 Y, T TD
Jones - 14 car, 51 Y, 3 rec, 85 Y, 1 TD
McCann - 1 INT (ret. for TD), 5 tac
New York
Manning - 33-for-48, 373 Y, 2 TDs, 2 INTs
Bradshaw - 20 car, 73 Y, 6 rec, 62 Y, 1 fum
Manningham - 10 rec, 91 Y, 1 TD
Hicks - 5 rec, 82 Y
Boss - 5 rec, 81 Y, 1 TD
Tynes - 2 FG, 25 and 45
Fourth Quarter: 33-20, Cowboys
Key Plays: Brady James stops Jacobs on fourth and inches to turn the ball over to the Cowboys on downs at the Dallas 42. Kitna's 42-yard pass to Bryant is deemed incomplete after the challenge (he bobbled and regained possession out of bounds. Kitna goes deep to Bryant into double coverage, but gets picked off by Deon Grant in the end zone for the touchback. Later, a Hicks's 45-yard TD catch is erased on a holding call on Kevin Boothe. It's the Giants eighth penalty. They fumble the snap on the next play to give Dallas possession with about 7:00 left on the clock. After a five yard drive, Buehler flubs the 34 field goal, wide right.
Key Plays, Part Two - Revenge of the Key Plays: With fewer than 3:00 on the clock, the Giants kick off a nine play, 58-yard drive that gets cut short at the 17-yard line on an interception by Alan Ball off Eli's pass up the middle to Mario Manningham. Ball streaks up the middle for a 27-yard return in his first pick of the year to essentially ice the game.
Third Quarter: 33-20, Cowboys
Fifth Cowboys Scoring Drive: 3 plays, 71 y, 1:04, Jones 71 y pass from Kitna
Key Plays: The lights go out at the Meadowlands and the Cowboys break for dawn...sorta. After the right side of the field is bathed in darkness, Kitna's third-and-10 screen pass hits Felix Jones and the Giants man-to-man flat falls apart, as Jones takes off untouched upfield.
Third Giants Scoring Drive: 8 plays, 58 y, 8:00, Manningham 8 y pass from Manning
Key Plays: Manning's play-action pass to Manningham over the middle was good for the easy score. Dallas' illegal contact penalty on second-and-7 gave the Giants the first down at the Dallas 20.
Sixth Cowboys Scoring Drive: 6 plays, 85 yards, 2:29, Austin 24 y pass from Kitna
Key Plays: All Kitna, all day. On third-and-22 on the Dallas 49, Kitna hits deep left on the post for a 27 yard pass and a huge third-down conversion. Kitna's toss over the middle to Miles Austin on the ensuing play is good for the TD.   
Fourth Giants Scoring Drive: 2 plays, 73 y, 1:08, Boss 35 y pass from Manning
Key Plays: On second-and-7 on the Giants 30, McCann gets flagged for pass interference on Manning's incomplete pass to Nicks for a Giants 35 yard gain. The penalty gives the Giants a first down at the Dallas 35. Manning hits a wide-open Boss on the 20 yard line, and he goes careening into the end zone for the TD.
Game-changers: DA - Kinta, 13-for-20, 327 y, 3 TDs; Bryant, 3 REC, 104 y, 1 TD; NY - Manning, 23-for-33, 273 y, 2 TD; Bradshaw, 17 CAR, 59 y; Hicks, 5 REC, 82 y; Boss, 3 REC, 48 y, 1 TD.
Notes: Before this year, Kitna hadn't thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2008. His career-high in yards is 446. He's only notched over 300 yards 13 times in 132 games.
Halftime:
Key Players, Giants: 
Manning - 17-for-26, 188 y, 1 INT
Nicks - 4 REC, 74 y
Tynes - 2 FG, 25 y and 43 y.
Key Players, Cowboys:
Kitna - 8-for-11, 161 y, 1 TD
Bryant - 2 REC, 58 y, 1 TD; Jones - 6 ATT, 41 y
McCann - 1 INT (TD return), 4 tackles.

Halftime notes: Jenkins, the Cowboys CB was injured during the game and taken to the locker room for X-Rays......The Giants have amassed five penalities for a total of 34 yards, while the Cowboys have just one for five......The Giants have more total yards (226 to 205) but, perhaps most shockingly, have all but controlled the clock. They've had possession for 20:03 to the Cowboys 9:57, but trail by 13....P Matt Dodge has struggled for the Giants, averaging 33 yards on three punts....The 31st rushing offense in the league have 47 yards at the half, nine more than the Giants.

Second Quarter, 19-6, Cowboys
Second Cowboys Scoring Drive: 7 plays, 60 yards, 2:45, Buehler 22 y field goal
Key Plays: After kicking off the quarter on second-and-goal at the one-yard line, Kitna follows up with the short toss to Chris Gronkowski, which he hits the ground. Kitna gets sacked (Umenyiora). Cowboys settle for the David Beuhler field goal.  
Third Cowboys Score: McCann 101 yard INT return
Key Plays: Bryan McCann picks off Manning's throw to Nicks in the endzone and he takes off unmolested up the right sideline. Lots of missed chances for the Giants here. False start on Will Beatty on second-and-goal at the 2 yard line likely cost them the easy score, as Bradshaw took it on the next play for a five-yard gain. Eli's pick nestled comfortably in McCann's waiting arms after Nicks seemed to stutter step in the end zone, possibly costing him the catch. Extra point was good for the 13-point advantage.
Fourth Cowboys Scoring Drive: 5 plays, 39 yards, 1:55, Buehler 23 y field goal
Key Plays: Kitna hits Martellus Bennett over the middle for a 32 y pass to the Giants 32 to set up the eventual field goal. Giants penalties on the previous possession - face mask for 10 and illegal formation for 5 - killed the drive before it started.
Second Giants Scoring Drive: 7 plays, 61 yards, 1:40, Tynes 21 y field goal
Key Plays: The Giants wanted to come out of this with more than a field goal. Manning almost threw his second interception of the game on second-and-goal at the Dallas 7. His next attempt, a toss to Kevin Boss was dropped in the end zone. Manning had previously set up the field goal with a 44-yard pass to Manningham to bring the Giants to the Dallas 30.
First Quarter: 6-3, Cowboys
First Giants Scoring Drive: 10 plays, 55 yards, 5:11, Tynes 43 y field goal
Key Plays: Manning, with some excellent blocking by that rag-tag o-line hit Nicks on the first play of the drive for a 23-yard pass. On third-and-2 at the Dallas 33, Ahmad Bradshaw takes the short pass up the right sideline and breaks two tackles for a first down at the 23. After a two-yard loss, Eli drops back and goes deep left to the endzone, but misses Manningham and nearly gets picked off by Mike Jenkins. The Giants settle for the field goal.
First Cowboys Scoring Drive: 3 plays, 71 yards, 1:36, Bryant 13 y pass from Kitna

Key Plays: Kitna came up big on the second play of the drive - a 45 yard pass to Dez Bryant to the Giants 13 yard line. Kitna hits Bryant with the carnival-catch TD. It's ruled incomplete but the ruling is overturned on the challenge. Bryant held on on impact. Extra point is tipped after the snap and goes wide.

Other Stuff: Matt Dodge muffs the punt something fierce - looks like he hit it with the side of his foot - and the Cowboys set up pretty at the Dallas 36. Kitna, who's looked phenomenal, completes a 44 yard pass to Antrel Rolle. Cowboys end the quarter first-and-goal at the 8-yard line.

Game-Changers: DA -- Kitna: 4-for-5, 115 yards and one TD; NY -- Nicks, 3 rec, 58 yards

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