What a difference a half can make.
The Dallas Cowboys’ defense had a nightmarish first half. The New York Giants had no issues moving the ball against them or making plays.
Nobody will soon forget the catch by Giants rookie standout Odell Beckham Jr. on the first play of the second quarter. Beckham sidestepped down the sidelines and, somehow, hauled in Eli Manning’s heave with a one-handed, off-balanced catch for a 43-yard score.
All Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr could do was watch it unfold as he went to the turf and the Giants took a 14-3 lead.
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It was that kind of half for the Cowboys, who struggled to get pressure on Manning, that allowed the Giants to go convert 7-of-8 third downs and trailed 21-10 at the break.
But something changed in the second half.
Maybe it was Manning reverting briefly to his five-interception self from the previous week. Or the Cowboys getting more pressure up front. Or a combination of both.
Whatever the reason, the Cowboys desperately needed it to escape with a 31-28 victory on Sunday night.
“It was just a little discussion of that’s not who we were,” Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton said. “That’s all it was. Are we going to show up and play or are we lay down and let the guys get a win that we should have? It was a little talk like that. We came out [in the second half] with a whole different demeanor.”
The defense came through with arguably the two biggest plays of the game.
Linebacker Rolando McClain made a game-sealing tackle on fourth down with 46 seconds left, essentially ending the game by wrapping up Giants running back Rashad Jennings just short of the first down marker.
Prior to that, safety Barry Church had the biggest play, courtesy of Manning. With the Giants deep in Cowboys territory, Manning overthrew an open Preston Parker that would have led to an easy touchdown and into the hands of Church.
Church returned his second interception of the season 45 yards, setting up a drive in which the Cowboys took their first lead of the night. Church had a similar impact play against the Giants in last year’s season opener when he returned a fumble 27 yards for a touchdown.
In this game, though, it marked the fifth consecutive drive that the Cowboys held the Giants scoreless. They extended it to six, but couldn’t get a seventh.
The Giants put together a 14-play, 93-yard touchdown drive that gave them a late lead. They converted a third-and-7 early in the drive, and then benefited by a 27-yard catch-and-run by Jennings on a misplay by Anthony Spencer to get to the Dallas 14.
Two plays later, Jennings got it to the 1-yard line for a first-and-goal. The Cowboys’ defense made two stops, however, struggled on third down once again.
Manning curled out and found an open Adrien Robinson to give the Giants a 28-24 lead. But the Cowboys’ offense answered and the defense ended up making one final stand to close it out.
“It’s a 60-minute battle,” Carr said. “They made some plays on us in the first half. They kind of caught us on third down, we couldn’t get off the field. Just trying to find a way to get off and we made some adjustments in the second half. Guys just buckled down, and we started playing our solid football.”