Special teams miscues, occasional defensive lapses in the secondary and the usual failure to score enough points all added up to a crushing 20-13 defeat to Dallas in front of 61,821 fans at Texas Stadium.
For all intents and purposes, the loss ends New York's dimming hopes of qualifying for the post-season and attempting to defend its NFC crown. On the same field where they shocked the NFL and clinched the NFC East last season, Big Blue dropped its third consecutive contest, and sixth in the last eight games. Coupled with Philadelphia's win over San Diego, the Giants (5-7) find themselves three games behind the Eagles with only four to play. You do the math. It's all over, folks.
"We can't score points, I don't know what we're doing wrong," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "It's unbelievable to me. I'm going to stop focusing on what we need to do, because when I do, we don't do it. We fumbled snaps on punts and fumbled the ball."
"Last year it seemed like all the luck went our way," RB Tiki Barber said. "This year, it's different. Mistakes are costing us games. And it's not big mistakes; it's the little ones that are beating us."
The Cowboys (4-8) had nothing to play for but pride. It seems like the Giants don't even have that. Cowboys WR Raghib Ismail rocketed his way to 118 yards on 10 catches. He's the fifth consecutive receiver to blister the Giants defensive backfield for more than 100 yards. Among the special teams mistakes, P Rodney Williams dropped a snap and Barber fumbled away a punt.
Offensively, Barber was the only thing the Giants had going for them. He finished with 110 rushing yards, although 93 of those yards came in the first half. "As a team, we are not playing great football," understated CB Jason Sehorn. "The talent level expectations are higher. There is more expected of us than the 5-7 record that we have." "It's frustrating, all you can do is keep playing,"
LDE Michael Strahan added. "Everyone has a hand in it if you lose…Everyone has a hand in this season."
But what makes it most frustrating for Big Blue is that they weren't horrible all game – just during the second half. New York had a 13-6 halftime cushion that they managed to fritter away during the contest's second 30 minutes.
"Talk about a difference in two halves," said QB Kerry Collins, who completed 13-of-26 passes for only 122 yards, with a TD and an INT. "In the first we were running well and I was making throws. But in the second, when it came time to make plays, we did not make them."
"In the first half, we were rolling pretty good," WR Amani Toomer said. "We had some opportunities to make some big plays, but we didn't make them. We couldn't move the ball in the second half. I really can't explain that. I feel that we are just not clicking." Fassel thinks he knows why. "In the second half they were more aggressive than us," he said. "In the second half we didn't have the aggressiveness. We were more passive. The first half we came out aggressive, but didn't have it in the second half."
New York's first drive of the game was typical Giants this season. Big Blue stormed down the field, moving 48 yards in only three plays. Once they reached the 20-yard line – the dreaded red zone – the march came to a screeching halt. New York was forced to settle for a 35-yard field goal from Morten Andersen to open the scoring.
"We've just been so terrible in the red zone," RT Luke Petitgout said. "I don't know why; we just can't get it done there."
Cowboys K Jon Hilbert evened the score with a 38-yard field goal. Dallas got great field position when Barber muffed a punt with Cowboys RB Troy Hambrick recovering for Dallas at the New York 19. New York drove again later in the first quarter (11 plays, 47 yards), but settled for a 41-yard Andersen field goal before they even reached the red zone.
The Giants finally broke through the red zone and the goal line with 10:31 to play in the first half. TE Marcellus Rivers was wide open in the end zone and collected Collins' two-yard pass for a score. The score was set up by Barber's 30-yard run on which both he and Cowboys S George Teague were shaken up after a big-time collision. Toomer chipped in a 36-yard catch to kick-start the march. Toomer was running free down the left sideline, but had to slow up to gather in Collins' under-thrown pass. Then New York threw some defense at the ‘Boys. Michael Strahan and Keith Hamilton sacked Cowboys QB Quincy Carter on consecutive plays and then the defense smothered Carter on an attempted fourth-down bootleg.
The Cowboys continued to hurt themselves at the same time. Dallas had three big offensive plays in the first half negated by penalty. But the Cowboys were able to go 62 yards in 10 plays for a 41-yard field goal by Hilbert that forged the 13-6 halftime score. But midway through the third period, Dallas knotted things up. Carter led his troops 72 yards in seven plays.
The key play came when Carter threw a beauty of a pass and hit Ismail in stride down the middle for a 41-yard gain to the Giants one-yard line. Ismail ran right by Sehorn off the line and FS Shaun Williams couldn't get over in time to disrupt the big play. Cowboys RB Emmitt Smith took it in on the next play to tie the score at 13. New York's offensive dysfunction came to a head after Dallas tied the score. Collins was forced to call a timeout before first down. Then, still before they had even run a play, LT Lomas Brown was called for a false start. Brown was again flagged on third down – this time for holding – a penalty that cost New York a 24-yard gain by Toomer and a first down. Big Blue was forced to punt.
You had the sense something was about to go wrong – and it did. After Barber called for a fair catch at his own six, the Giants were about to punt again. The snap to Rodney Williams was perfect, but the ball went through his hands and hit his facemask. The ball dropped to the ground, where Williams picked it up and tried to run for the first down. He was stopped two yards short of the marker and Dallas took over at New York's 26.
"The snap was high and fast and I can't turn my hand very well," Williams explained. "But that's a catch that I'm supposed to make. I probably would have made it if I was 100 percent healthy. It was just a bad play on my part."
Despite the busted play, Williams thought he was going to reach the first-down marker. "I knew I was going to get it, but I just got grabbed," he said. And Dallas capitalized. On third-and-11 from the 14, Carter called his own number and gained 11 yards up the middle.
On the next play, Cowboys TE Jackie Harris fooled everyone and found himself all alone in the end zone for a three-yard TE. It appeared as if LB Jessie Armstead should have covered Harris, but didn't. On the play, Dallas sent 292-pound DT Michael Myers in motion as a decoy. With 12:50 to play, Dallas had taken its first lead, 20-13.
"I'm on the tight end there," Armstead said. "I have a two-way [decision] whether to stick with [the TE] or go to Emmitt. I chose the wrong one." The Giants still had life after Hilbert's 48-yard try hit the cross bar twice, but didn't go over. But on their ensuing possession, Collins' pass intended for Toomer was deflected by Cowboys CB Duane Hawthorne and picked off by Cowboys S Darren Woodson, his 21st career interception. With slightly over three minutes to play and Big Blue out of timeouts, Smith jumped over a pack of New York defenders for a four-yard gain and a third-down conversion, to all but officially end the ballgame…and for that matter, New York's season.
"I don't know if we're out of the playoffs or not," Collins said. "We've got to play these last four games for pride. Thinking about playoffs right now is kidding ourselves. We've got too many bad things going on right now. Our focus needs to be about trying to win football games."