ARLINGTON, Texas – There weren't many, if any, here in Jerry Jones' house on Sunday night who didn't envision the Dallas Cowboys blowing the game to the New York Giants like they always seem to blow games to the New York Giants.
Not professed fans LeBron James or Hulk Hogan up in a luxury box. Not the real deals in the DeMarcus Ware jerseys down in the standing room only sections. Maybe not even some of the Cowboys themselves.
Dallas had forced five New York turnovers, more than enough it would seem, to cruise to victory. Yet somehow with less than two minutes to go, here was Eli Manning, driving down the field, a touchdown from taking the lead and ruining the opening night of the season.
Here were the Giants, about to stay undefeated in this stadium, to do this to Dallas again.
Then Manning threw a short pass in the right flats to running back Da'Rel Scott. The ball got tipped, wound up in the arms of Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr and in an instant he was gone, the sixth turnover becoming a pick-six that all but sealed this game up.
It ended Dallas 36, New York 31. It's best to avoid grand conclusions from a single game, especially in Week 1. After all, Dallas beat the Giants in the opener last year and wound up 8-8 anyway.
Still, there was no denying this was, if nothing else, one satisfying victory.
"It was," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "It was."
The Giants were a mess for much of the night, but since when did that mean anything in the final moments of a game? Especially against Dallas. There may not be a team in football better at shaking off early disasters and pulling out games, seasons, Super Bowls.
And there may not be one worse at doing the same than the Cowboys.
Maybe the big take away from Week 1 is that the Cowboys didn't choke. That isn't much for the Super Bowl bandwagon in an NFC loaded with teams that put on impressive performances, but for the exhaling fans of America's Team here and around the country, it's something they gladly took as they danced off into the night. "It's going to be 60 minutes," Garrett said of finishing games. "We emphasize that with our team. That's just the nature of this league."
This may be how the Cowboys have to do things. It may not have the high-wattage, highlight-reel offense Jerry Jones covets and Tony Romo dreams about, but it can be efficient and effective. Romo went 36-of-49 for 263 yards, but nothing going for longer than 23 yards. Dallas won by taking the Giants up on the offer to run a short passing offense and mercilessly marching up and down the field.
Romo was patient even as he wished he could throw it deep.
"Yeah, you do," he said. "As a quarterback you always want to attack."
Dallas can be opportunistic on defense, where new coordinator, the 73-year-old Monte Kiffin, has focused on the forever goal of forcing turnovers. "It's the most critical statistic in football and it has been for 100 years," Garrett said, "the correlation between turnovers and winning."
Dallas forced three turnovers on the first three possessions. "Talk about starting fast," Kiffin joked.
And mostly it can be a team that doesn't blow leads and give away games, the hair-pulling trademarks of recent Dallas clubs. The Cowboys led throughout, bending but never breaking, or even coming all that close to breaking. The defense never really faltered, even when everyone expected it would.
"They had that feeling, even when [New York] got within one score, they just felt like they were going to take care of business and shut them down," Romo said.
Maybe nothing summarized the victory like Romo getting crunched on a sack. While nursing his banged up ribs on the sideline, a spent Jason Witten, seated on a bench behind him, puked all over the turf.
Combined those injuries and ailments caused them to miss just one snap.
"This is one tough player, one tough man," Jones said afterward of his quarterback. "And he will go out and play in pain and play hurt."
This is Romo's 11th season in the NFL and he's defined as much for what he hasn't done than what he has. His late game mistakes and history of pressing has left this franchise in a holding pattern. He's also still a gamer though, a competitor who worked throughout the offseason with the coaching staff on the implementation of the offense. He isn't the league's best QB. You can do a lot worse though.
Part of his development is realizing what you can do on a given night. If the Giants were going to shut Dez Bryant down deep (just four catches for 22 yards) then make them pay with a steady diet of check downs to Miles Austin, Witten and DeMarco Murray, a combined 26 catches.
"I think when Tony has played his best football across his career he's done that," Garrett said. "What we try to do in the passing game is provide him with answers. And he needs to find the right answers on each and every play."
This is what Garrett asks from his team. He wants guys – both individually and collectively – to understand who they are, accept it and maximize it.
"Establish an identity as an individual player and as a football team," Garrett said. "Be the best version of who you are."
And who can these Cowboys be after one victory that was equal parts significant and insignificant?
"A smart, tough, relentless group of guys who understand how to play winning football, who play 60 minutes, who always have each other's backs and do the right things play in and play out to help us win games," Garrett rattled off. Sunday they were. Sunday, even as the lead dwindled and a Manning drove and the whole big scene here in Arlington, full of celebrities and politicians and sideshows began gasping in fear that they'd seen this episode before, they just settled in and played.
This time it was Manning making the mistake. This time it was Tony Romo basking in the cheers, a new season begun, a new team, perhaps too.
Super Bowl runner-ups don't have the best track record. Get so close to the mountaintop and fall short, and it can be a long climb back to the top.
Colin Kaepernick is having none of that talk.
Seven months after getting within mere yards of a Lombardi Trophy, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback returned to the field on Sunday looking like a man who was ready to close the deal. Against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns. He also shook off a late hit from Clay Matthews to rally the Niners to a decisive 34-38 victory in Sunday's marquee game.
Throughout the game, the Packers yapped and sniped at Kaepernick, but he maintained the very definition of a game face. Indeed, he even coined a new catchphrase.
"If intimidation is your game plan," Kaepernick said after the game, "I hope you have a better one."
– Jay Busbee