A win, any kind of win, especially a division win, is cherished in the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys’ 24-17 win over the New York Giants, their nemesis that had won five of the six previous meetings, is only one win. But it’s a statement win stocked full of positives.
The defense is much improved: Landing two new cornerbacks was the key off-season makeover. It certainly was a noticeable upgrade in the opener. Holding Eli Manning and the Giants to 17 points and sub-300 total yards was a strong opening statement after a strong showing in preseason.
Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr and the nickel and dime defenses did a vastly better job against Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who consistently burned the secondary last season.
Capping off a solid defensive performance was the D-line stuffed the run game. The Giants rushed for only 82 yards, averaging 4.3 a carry which helped Dallas own a 34-26 edge in time of possession.
Defensive pressure: Led by All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware the Cowboys sacked Manning three times. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan isn’t shy on bringing pressure. If the secondary plays close to this level all season Ryan will devise schemes to harass a lot of quarterbacks.
Tony Romo: The much criticized Cowboys quarterback has compiled fantasy worthy stats but needs more big wins on his resume, especially late in the season. It’s only one game. It’s a long season. Sixteen games will provide a more accurate barometer. But Romo outplayed Manning on a night several offensive line penalties put Romo and the offense in some tough situations.
Close out a game: These are the type of big games the Cowboys often times have had difficulty closing out. The Giants scored two TDs in the final five minutes last year to rally for a win in Dallas, the pivotal game in the NFC East race. This time Romo and the offense converted a game-ending first down to squash any potential last-minute Manning drama. Murray’s tough runs and Romo’s clutch passes might have been the most positive development.
Murray is back to form: The former OU star was on his way to 1,000-yard-plus rushing yards his rookie season before suffering a fractured ankle in December. Durability will always be a question. But Murray’s never-give-up 48-yard scamper and 131-yard effort was a sign he’s fully recovered from the ankle injury. Murray picks up blitzes. He could rush for 1,300-plus yards if he stays healthy. He’s turning out to be a third-round steal.
Ogletree is an option: Kevin Ogletree never caught a touchdown pass his first three seasons with the Cowboys. In the season opener he caught eight passes for 114 yards and two scores. The Giants’ banged up secondary concentrated on Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Romo and Ogletree took advantage with what some might label the “third” option. It was a potent No. 1 option because of the matchup. Ogletree, if nothing else, will force defensive coordinators to game plan for all three. It’s noteworthy Bryant and Austin also combined for eight catches for 158 yards.
Offensive line plays OK: This is the biggest concern. There were way too many false start and O-line penalties. If it was a regular officiating crew instead of substitutes there may have been a few more holding calls. And they had a few that were called. But the O-line still gets a passing grade. Despite losing their starting center, plugging in a player who had been with the team for just one week, the O-line fared OK. The run blocking and protection for Romo were average. But against the Giants’ ultra talented D-line any kind of passing grade is a plus.
Witten less than 100 percent: Jason Witten was more of a liability than a plus. Witten struggled at times blocking, dropped a couple of balls and never got much separation on routes. He was rusty after being sidelined by a lacerated spleen. But getting Witten back Week 1 means in a couple of weeks the offense will only be more versatile, especially when a revamped O-line has more time to develop some chemistry.
Key NFC East win: Every division win is invaluable for tiebreaker advantages late in the season. This win has value when it’s 100 degrees in Texas. It will still have value when it gets near freezing in Green Bay in December.
Big road win: The Cowboys face one of the league’s more difficult road schedules. Earning a statement road win in Week 1 will be a reminder they can win just about anywhere if they play well. It wasn’t Dallas’ A game. But a B+ showing was more than enough to get the season off to a 1-0 start stocked with positives.