EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- He saw the linebacker racing down the field the other way with the ball in his hands, and he didn't know if he could catch him but he knew he had to try. Tyron Smith, the Dallas Cowboys' second-year offensive lineman, took off after the New York Giants' Michael Boley as the linebacker raced toward the end zone for what looked like a sure touchdown. They arrived simultaneously at the 2-yard line, where Smith grabbed Boley by the back of his collar and hauled him down just short of the goal line. Yellow flags flew. The tackle was illegal -- a horse-collar, they call it -- and Smith knew it as he was making it.
"I just didn't care," Smith said with a smile in the Cowboys' locker room after his team's 24-17 upset victory in the NFL's regular-season opener. "Anything to keep him out of that end zone."
Smart play, really. The penalty, enforced at the 2, was only a 1-yard (half-the-distance) penalty, and it did keep the Giants out of the end zone at a time when the game was still scoreless in the second quarter. Boley was sure he was returning an interception for a touchdown, and instead the Giants' offense had to take the field against a fired-up Cowboys defense.
"When you see a guy like that get down the field to make a tackle on a play like that, you know you've got to make the stop," Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher said.
And they did. They stopped the Giants three times and held them to a field goal. They scored a touchdown of their own just before the end of the first half. They built a double-digit fourth-quarter lead, just as they did last Dec. 11 in Dallas, but this time they held it and won the game. And if you don't think that's just flat-out huge ... well, you just haven't been paying attention.
"This was a very significant win for our franchise," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We made a lot of mistakes against a good team that might should have beaten us. But they didn't, because this bunch persevered and stayed the course."
I don't think Jones is overstating things here. This was a much bigger win for the Cowboys than it was a loss for the Giants. The Giants played lousy, sure, and have reason to be angry about starting their title defense 0-1 against a division rival they owned when it counted last year. But recent history tells us that the Giants can overcome pretty much anything, and there's little reason to doubt that they can get things tightened up.
But for the Cowboys, who had more than a few of their own sloppy moments in this one, this victory was a statement of toughness. It was a vital bit of proof, for themselves and for the outside world, that things have a chance to be different this year. That maybe they can hold the fourth-quarter leads, convert the big third down when they need it, stop the other team from beating them with big play after big play. You spend a whole offseason believing and proclaiming that you've fixed last year's problems, it has got to be fun to go out there the first night and show people you just may be right.
"We've seen it," Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Every day in practice, we've seen that we're a defense that's able to make a play and lock a game down in the fourth quarter and win a game. We've seen it. Having the opportunity to do it just gets you that much more excited to do it the next time."
Make no mistake. This was not a perfect effort. The Cowboys committed 13 penalties for a total of 86 yards. Five of those penalties were false starts by the offensive line, which had a rough night and looks as though it could have more. But the point here is that they overcame it all. Tony Romo made the plays he needed to make with his feet to sidestep the rush, keep plays alive and convert with clutch throws to receivers Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree. Running back DeMarco Murray, who couldn't find room to run in the first half, kept pounding away and ended up with 131 yards, including 35 on the long fourth-quarter drive that led to their final touchdown.
And on defense, which was such an Achilles' heel for the Cowboys last year, they made their plays. Their coverage in the secondary, with Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne at cornerback, was good enough to allow defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to get pressure and sacks with the blitz -- something he couldn't do last year because he couldn't trust the coverage. They got enough pressure on Eli Manning that he was just off with just enough throws, and they made the stops when they needed to make the stops.
"Was it pretty? No," Carr said. "But we knew that going in. We knew we were going to find out something about how tough we were, and I think tonight we did."
Romo outplayed Manning. The defense held. They converted the third down that kept the fourth-quarter drive alive and Manning on the sideline. Smith, beaten up all night by Jason Pierre-Paul and those false-start whistles, made the game's critical goal-line tackle. They found a way. All of the things the Cowboys couldn't do in last year's two critical late-season games against the Giants, they did Wednesday night. And while that doesn't mean they're in the clear or that the Giants are toast or that the division race is decided, what it does mean is that maybe the 2012 Cowboys are going to be a little tougher to knock out than the 2011 Cowboys were. And if their first game did anything to prove that -- especially to themselves -- then it was a very important victory indeed.