In beating the defending Super Bowl Champions in the NFL Kickoff game, the Dallas Cowboys not only won a game almost no one in the national media thought they could, but they posted a division win.
However, a certain head coach named Jason Garrett will caution against looking back. It is time for the Cowboys to look forward to the most important game, which in Garrett's world is always the next game on the schedule, which this week is the Seattle Seahawks.
The one useful thing in looking at the Giants win is what it tells us about the Cowboys.
First, the team is likely to be stronger. The only injury of note against New York was the back injury to Phil Costa, and there are already many who think Ryan Cook is a better option at center anyway. Several players who sat out the Giants game, including Jay Ratliff and Mike Jenkins, will probably see their first action against the Seahawks.
Tony Romo had an excellent night. He had a perfect quarterback rating in the second half, and except for one badly thrown interception, there is little to say about him except that the Cowboys are very fortunate to have him. On brilliant display against the Giants was the ability Romo has to sense pressure and move away at the last moment, extending the play. He showed this several times during the game, including on the first touchdown pass to Kevin Ogletree. Watching a replay of the game lets you see the way Romo leaves onrushing defenders flailing as they try and recover after overrunning the elusive passer.
Speaking of Ogletree, he may be the answer at third receiver. Or, more likely, the truth is that Tony Romo just needs someone who can run his routes and catch the ball, and Romo will make a successful receiver out of him. Call it the Laurent Robinson effect. With a breakout performance, including 114 total yards and two touchdowns, Ogletree now gives the Cowboys a three-pronged wide receiver attack, and with Jason Witten still coming back from his lacerated spleen, the coverage problems for opposing defenses just got worse.
While Ogletree's standout stat line may have overshadowed his more established teammates, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant did not have a bad game. Austin got a touchdown and 73 total yards, Bryant had 85 yards and a 21.3 yards per catch average, and all of Dallas' top three wideouts had at least fifteen more yards than Victor Cruz, the top receiver for the Giants despite his three dropped balls.
Dallas' offensive performance extends to the running game as well, with DeMarco looking to be back in top form. His 131 yards, including a highlight reel run where he pinballs off his own teammates and then takes a busted play 48 yards, setting up a near-automatic field goal from Dan Bailey, were exactly what the Cowboys are looking for, allowing them to take charge of the game late and eat up the time to get the win. This was a far cry from 2011, when the team repeatedly let leads evaporate.
That was not all on the offense last year, of course, as the defense faded late and was too frequently shredded. Rob Ryan's 2012 D looks to have achieved exactly what it wanted to with the offseason moves. The defensive secondary was solid, with Morris Claiborne starting next to Brandon Carr, and acquitting himself well. While both of the new starting cornerbacks go beaten at least once, Eli Manning, with his brand new Super Bowl ring, was only able to throw for 213 yards (187 net). Most importantly, Claiborne, while still learning, did not look overwhelmed, and actually seemed to settle in and get comfortable as the game went on.
Another question that was answered on the defense was whether the Cowboys had an inside linebacker to pair up effectively with Sean Lee. Bruce Carter handled all but four snaps beside Lee, and was second only to Lee in total tackles.
More importantly, the game seemed to validate the theory that better secondary coverage and better pressure on the passer work together. Although the Cowboys only sacked Manning three times, he was under constant pressure, and he seemed to be having trouble finding open receivers much of the time. There is a classic chicken or egg argument about which comes first here, but in the game, they clearly fed off one another.
The big question is just how good was the Giants team that the Cowboys faced? They clearly had several injury problems themselves, and Victor Cruz apparently had an off night. Watching the game, it did appear that Dallas was better prepared, and had more stamina as the game wore on. Hopefully, the success is due more to superior work by the Dallas staff than poor performances and execution by New York.
Now, the Cowboys get to take on the Seahawks. This will be an interesting test of Garrett's philosophy. The opening win is the kind that makes it very easy to overstate the case of just how good the Cowboys are this year (I have seen many references to how this is the week for blatant overreaction throughout the NFL).
The Seahawks have a rookie quarterback, who was decent but not impressive, and they were beaten 20-16 by the Arizona Cardinals, not one of the projected league powers this year. The Cards had to go to their backup quarterback, Kevin Kolb, after John Skelton hurt his ankle. This has all the hallmarks of being a "trap" game, especially in Seattle's raucous home stadium.
While the Cowboys, on paper, should have the edge in almost every aspect of the game, Pete Carroll is a crafty head coach, and the Seahawks' strength is their defense. Jason Garrett has to keep his players focused on not letting down. The Cowboys now have a somewhat unexpected chance to get the season off to a very good start, one that may carry them through a second half of the season that looks to be a bit harder than the first, but that does put Dallas at home five times in the last seven games.
The opening win was significant on a number of levels. But all that can be squandered unless Dallas goes out and plays the game they need to in Seattle. This is the second test for the team this year. At least fourteen more will follow.