By Daniel Jamieson, USDR Senior Editor
Oh, how the woes of the Dallas Cowboys continue to grow. Just 250 miles down Interstate-45, the Houston Texans were busy setting their own franchise history. But under the scrutinizing eyes of 90,000 fans packed into Cowboy Stadium on Sunday night, playoff dreams were being dashed. The Cowboys had a twelve-point lead over the New York Giants with just over four minutes remaining, yet somehow found a way (as they seem to have a knack for lately) to throw the game away with the clock winding down. It might be time to seriously wonder how much of a future head coach Jason Garrett has left in Jerry Jones’ kingdom; the last two weeks it seems that the heartbreaking losses have as much to do with bizarre coaching decisions as they do player mishaps.
Many will credit the win to the thematic fourth-quarter dominance of Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning, as well they should. It might be more romantic to praise the driving winner than it is to lament the forlorn loser, but this game came down to guts – the final desire of New York versus the lackluster finish by Dallas. On what should have been their final drive, the Cowboys meekly ran the ball up the middle for a predictable three-and-out, virtually handing the ball to Manning. The Superbowl-winner gladly took the ball back and stormed down the field with very little time to spare, finally hitting a receiver for six points. The drive was helped by two crucial Dallas defensive penalties in the final forty yards, essentially gifting the game to the grateful Giants. The Cowboys had one last chance to surge down the field with under a minute remaining and trailing by three, and were heart-stoppingly able to get into feasible field-goal range with six seconds to go. The snap came, the kick went up and it was good! But wait, hold the cheers – The Giants had called a time-out microseconds before the snap, ‘icing’ the kicker. It was time to re-group, and on the second serving, the ball was rifled to the holder, rookie kicker Bailey booted the ball, and was heroically blocked by the player of the game, defensive-end Jason Pierre Paul. 90,000 people fell silent. Hard to imagine what’s going on in the minds of the front-office cats, but some heads might be rolling quite soon.
The Houston Texans were able to finally give their optimistic faithful some great cheers after a decade of waiting. With the demise of not one, but two starting quarterbacks in the last three weeks, the weight of Houston fell upon the shoulders of young TJ Yates, a fifth-round pick from last year who some say snuck under the draft radar. The Texans, who were leading the AFC South at 9-3 coming into this week, could clinch the division with a win and a Titans loss. Tennessee was playing a solid New Orleans team at the same time on Sunday, and as both games wound down, a dramatic end seemed inevitable. In Houston, the game hung in the balance of a goal-line stand with just two seconds remaining. The Texans trailed by 19-13, and TJ Yates obliged with a pass to reliable Kevin Walter to blow away a stunned Cincinnati crowd who were sure they had won the game. With the ebbing drive that would have made any veteran quarterback proud, Yates put the Texans into their first ever playoffs.
The Tim Tebow Factor seems impossible to ignore these days. The Chicago Bears had a 10-0 lead over the Broncos with just two minutes left in the game. Everyone expected the Tebow-rally to be done with on this chilly afternoon, but up stepped the game’s current golden boy. He drove hard and fast and somehow converted plays that no one yet seems able to explain. After a quick touchdown and recovery, Broncos’ kicker Matt Prater hammered a 59-yard field goal with time expiring to send the game into overtime. Once that happened, well, it seemed that there was only ever going to be one outcome. Sure enough, Prater converted again from 51 yards with six minutes left in OT to give Denver their sixth-straight win. A team that had been written off early on this season has found its catalyst and that young hero – love him or hate him – is inarguably Tim Tebow.
The San Diego Chargers have put together two-straight wins after a six-loss streak, and some are optimistic about their playoff hopes. But with their obvious talent paired with the poor record they currently possess, something is rotten in the state of California, and a long run seems unlikely.
New England, whose defense I defended just three weeks ago, is looking awfully shaky. With only slight wins over two very beatable teams in a row, the Achilles heel of their team, the defensive secondary, seems to be fair-game for offenses in the know. They have been able to get away with it up until now, but with the progression of the season and with rivals being able to hone-in on this weak-spot through careful analysis, it will only take a bad day by QB Tom Brady for them to be hugely upset.
Three weeks remain, and the wheat seems to be separating from the chaff. But as we know, the playoffs are a mysterious monster, and if some sneaky late-runners can find their way into playoff contention, the remainder of this season could well be fantastic.