The Dallas Cowboys’ defense might have won the game in the first half when it held the New York Giants to field goals instead of touchdowns.
Or maybe it was earlier than that.
Maybe it was when Orlando Scandrick got mad.
The Giants’ pre-game demonstration at the 50-yard line, combined with their game-week chatter about spilling blood and treating the game like the Super Bowl, had the Cowboys cornerback ready to go.
And he delivered his part by limiting the Giants’ Victor Cruz to two catches for 27 yards in the Cowboys’ 24-21 victory.
“It was just extra incentive, the way that they came out and they talked in the media,” Scandrick said. “I’ve never heard a team that was 4-6 talk like that. And we’re 5-5 ... 6-5 now ... we had no room to talk. That uses up too much energy of your game plan. You’re just focusing on the task at hand and getting the job done. For them to change up their whole thing pregame and meet us at the 50-yard line and like have music on cue with it, it was laughable to me.”
Scandrick’s performance helped a Cowboys defense that had to play again without cornerback Morris Claiborne, who left the game because of a hamstring injury, and the temporary loss of safety J.J. Wilcox, who had a head injury but returned to the game.
But the unit also played without middle linebacker Sean Lee and another linebacker, Justin Durant, absences perhaps felt most clearly on run defense, as the Giants went for 202 yards on the ground.
To compensate, the Cowboys used safety Barry Church as a nickel linebacker, teaming with Ernie Sims, and bringing rookie cornerback B.W. Webb into the game. That left rookies Jeff Heath and J.J. Wilcox as the safeties, with dime help from Danny McCray.
“They ran the ball too well, still,” defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. “But again, we had new people playing in there. Run fits and stuff like that. And Ernie hadn’t played a lot of nickel until this time.
“The guys really hung in there really, really well. Played their tail off.”
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher added two sacks.
In the first half, the Cowboys held the Giants to two field goals on two red-zone trips, helping the Cowboys take a 14-6 lead into halftime.
But the play of the game came in the first quarter when Scandrick stripped the ball from Cruz and popped it into the arms of Heath, who took it 50 yards for a touchdown. It was only 10 minutes into the game, and the lead was only 7-0, but it broke the ice for the Cowboys.
Scandrick loved it.
“I just need to get my hands on more balls,” he said. “I did a good job on ripping it out. That turned out to be a pivotal play in the game.”
For Scandrick, the game was a proving ground. He heard questions about whether the Cowboys could do what they needed to win this game.
“I was watching ESPN this morning,” he said. “I see Michael Irvin, Mike Ditka — I don’t remember who else is on there —but I remember they were talking about the game. They went for the Cruz matchup. And so I kind of perked up, looked up in my bed, sat up. They showed a couple highlights. They said they don’t have anybody on this team that can stop Victor Cruz.
“When I heard that, I mean, I told you guys earlier in the week I was ready to embrace the challenge — the guy’s good, I respect him, he’s a Pro Bowler — that’s hopefully where I can be: in the Pro Bowl one day, so I went out and, I mean, I felt like I proved, I proved once again that I’m a good player, I’m getting better and I’m not going to stop working. I’m going to continue to improve.”