For the Dallas Cowboys, the season ended where it began several months ago -- at MetLife Stadium.
As poorly as Jason Garrett's squad had played this season, it still had a chance to win the NFC East and host a first-round playoff game if it could defeat the New York Giants on a chilly, rainy Sunday night. For the Cowboys, this game was going to come down to two issues: Could they control the Giants' wide receivers from making big plays, and could they block the front seven to allow Tony Romo and his receivers to attack the secondary?
On both fronts, the Cowboys failed, finishing 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
Newman struggles for all to see
Terence Newman's struggles were obvious to anyone who watched the game. Watching Newman, you saw someone who was playing with no confidence whatsoever. His technique was poor, and the harder he tried the worse he played.
Newman's downfall started even before the pass to Victor Cruz out of the slot on third-and-1. With the Giants facing a third-and-9 from their own 5, Eli Manning took the snap and began to scan downfield. Tight end Bear Pascoe delayed his route to help block DeMarcus Ware, then released up the field to the flat. Newman was in a zone drop to the outside and saw that Manning was going to check the ball down to Pascoe in the flat. Newman drove on the route but two yards away from Pascoe ducked his head and then lunged at the Giants tight end. On the same side of the field, Orlando Scandrick was shoved inside and out of position. Pascoe was in the open field with Newman then jumped over the cornerback, who was in no position to make a tackle and prevent a first down.
On the pass rush on Manning, Jason Hatcher got free on a twist stunt but was a step late arriving on a potential sack. Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam drove Pascoe out of bounds after he gained the first down. Two plays later with the Giants facing a third-and-1, Rob Ryan stayed with his base defense. The Giants would spread the Cowboys out. Tight end Travis Beckum was wide right and covered by Elam. Cruz was in the slot to the left side and covered by Newman. Hakeem Nicks was wide left, picked up by Mike Jenkins on the outside. Pascoe stayed on the left side to help block Ware, who was rushing to that side. At the snap, Beckum drove across the formation. Newman was lined up 2 yards off Cruz. Manning looked at Cruz all the way -- the receiver drove up the field at Newman and got him on one leg, then broke hard to the outside. Sensabaugh was in coverage on Pascoe but when he stayed in to block he turned his attention to the outside and started in the direction of Newman and Cruz. Cruz was now four yards up the field as he caught the ball from Manning. Newman and Sensabaugh were both in a trailing position on the outside. Jenkins, like Scandrick, was shoved to the inside by Nicks.
Cruz went up the sideline clear of Newman and Sensabaugh with both in chase. The receiver has too much speed, with the Cowboys unable to run him down as the Giants score the first touchdown of the day.
The Cowboys had fought their way back and were down only seven in the fourth quarter. The Giants had the ball on their own 28 with 9:45 left. Ryan went with the dime package to match the Giants and their three receivers. Scandrick was matched up with Cruz out of the left slot. Sensabaugh was the safety to that side of the field. At the snap, Sensabaugh began to work his way to the middle and was at a depth of 20 yards. The Cowboys used "Man Free" coverage -- man coverage with a single safety in the middle of the field.
Scandrick jumped to the outside, which allowed Cruz a free release to the inside and a vertical path down the field. Sensabaugh read Manning, saw him looking to his right and begins to work that way. On the rush, Jay Ratliff got a nice push up the field but his back was to Manning. Ratliff was unable to get his arms around Manning because he was rushing backward up the field. Manning felt Ratliff and spun to his left, where only Hatcher was rushing. Ratliff, Ware and Spencer were trapped to Manning's right. Hatcher couldn't react quickly enough as Manning fired downfield. Cruz was to the inside of Scandrick, who didn't find the ball until it was already in the receiver's hands. Sensabaugh was late arriving to the play as Cruz caught the ball with Scandrick on his back, killing any momentum that the Cowboys had on defense.
Romo slips up on interception
On offense, the numbers for Tony Romo indicated that he had a productive game, but it might have been one in which he struggled the most with eye level and finding receivers downfield.
One of Romo's strengths is his ability to see routes develop and make those throws to open targets. I really do not believe that Romo's bruised hand was a factor in the way he played, but I do think the rush made him check the ball down more than trying to make those throws downfield.
The one thing that Romo had been able to do is protect the ball and not turn it over with interceptions. In the third quarter with the Giants holding a 21-7 lead, Romo made a mistake when he didn't see safety Antrel Rolle in the middle of the field covering Jason Witten. On the play, Robinson lined up wide left and Austin was in the slot left. Witten was the tight end in line on the left. Romo was in the shotgun, with Felix Jones lined up to his right.
At the snap, Witten chipped on Jason Pierre-Paul as Doug Free fell down. Miles Austin ran the out and Robinson on the slant. Witten sat down in the middle. Romo's eyes were to the right looking at Bryant, who was open at the sticks on the curl. Witten worked back to the outside. Romo was still looking at Bryant but didn't make the throw. He came back to Witten but didn't see Rolle to the tight end's right. Romo fired toward Witten, but Rolle slid in front for the interception.
Cowboys give it one last shot
The Cowboys have struggled the most in protection when teams run twist stunts. In this game, the Giants were able to get two sacks on blitzes that the Eagles ran last week. On their second sack on a third-and-4 the Cowboys used an empty formation, and the Giants countered with man coverage. At the snap, Justin Tuck drove inside on Kyle Kosier to pick off Tyron Smith, who was knocked off his block. Osi Umenyiora came clean around Smith and Kosier was unable to adjust back to the inside to pick up Umenyiora, who lined up for a shot at Romo. Romo wants to throw the ball inside to Witten but has to pull it down and take the sack.
Again, it was a stunt run by the Eagles last week that the Giants studied and they got the same results.
Not all was bad for the Cowboys offensively. With the Giants up 21-7 and 10:32 remaining, the Cowboys drove to the Giants 5 facing a second down. Romo brought the offense to the line with Robinson wide left, Witten slot right with Austin outside of him and Bryant far to the right side. Jones was lined up left to Romo in the gun. In the pre-snap, Romo saw that he was going to get a blitz from his left side and no safety in the middle of the field. Romo walked forward behind Phil Costa and bent down to signal to Robinson to run the slant. At the snap, Robinson ran the perfect slant as Jones picked up the blitz inside, allowing Romo the time he needed to throw a strike to Robinson without any pressure and cutting the Giants' lead to just seven, but that would be the Cowboys' final score of 2011.