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While Dallas may have saved its season, a tough road is ahead

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Rick Stewart / Getty Images
Mathias Kiwanuka and the Giants put great pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked five times.


Going into Week 8, the schedule didn't look like it was particularly filled with games that would create a lot of excitement. The can't-miss games didn't exactly jump out at you. But by the time the Giants-Steelers game was over, fans had their share of exciting, close games.

Washington came from behind to win at Detroit. The New York Jets, heavily favored against Kansas City and new starter Tyler Thigpen, needed a touchdown in final minute to win. Cleveland took the lead against Jacksonville midway through the fourth quarter and then blocked a field goal late in the game.

Snap judgment
Pittsburgh's trouble with its deep snapper Sunday reminded me of this story from the early '70s: Dave Manders, the Cowboys' starting center as well as deep snapper, was a preseason holdout (he wanted $27,500; we offered $25,000). In the final preseason game, backup deep snapper Jim Arneson lined up for a punt at the 10-yard line and snapped ball not only over the punter's head, but into the stands behind the end zone. Coach Tom Landry, in his typical stoic manner, walked over to me on the sidelines, arms folded, and said three words: "Get Manders signed." And of course, we did. -- Gil Brandt

Dallas saw Tampa Bay reach the 12-yard line with 14 seconds left before stopping the Bucs to secure a most important win. Carolina came from behind to defeat Arizona. Miami knocked off first-place Buffalo, thanks in part to a touchdown from Ricky Williams. Houston after losing its first four games, including the fourth when it led by 17 with just over eight minutes remaining, has come back to win three straight.

No question, Week 8 was a fan's delight. Here are some of the things we learned:

New York Giants 21, Pittsburgh 14

This game came down to a bad snap from linebacker James Harrison, who had been pressed into emergency duty when the Steelers lost first-string deep snapper Greg Warren to a season-ending knee injury on the last play of the third quarter. The team does not list a backup deep snapper and -- after what amounted to a tryout on the sidelines -- settled on Harrison, who had never handled deep snaps in a game at any level.

Of course, the safety that had been caused by that bad snap was not the only production from New York's fourth-ranked defense. The Giants, playing only their third game in Pittsburgh since 1971, sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and intercepted him four times, a single-game worst for Roethlisberger.

Meanwhile, the Steelers led NFL with 25 sacks going into this game -- and they failed to produce one Sunday.

Without a question, the Giants are the team to beat in the NFC, and the most complete team in the NFL in every phase of the game. This was a big win for Tom Coughlin's squad, as five of their next seven games are against NFC East teams.

Dallas 13, Tampa Bay 9

This may have been the most important regular-season victory in Cowboys' history. A loss would have left them at 4-4 with road games against the Giants and Redskins in the next two weeks. They also play Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on the road later this season. Bottom line: I think it will take at least 10 wins to get an NFC wild-card berth, so all of Dallas' remaining home games are must-win contests.

Coaches always talk about how hard it is to win when you lose the battle of takeaways and penalties. Sure enough, on Dallas' lone TD drive of the game, Tampa Bay committed three penalties -- two of which led to first downs.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, had no turnovers in a game for first time this season. The Cowboys' 172 yards of offense was their lowest output in team history for a winning game. Their longest play from scrimmage was 14 yards, and 24 of 62 offensive plays resulted in 2 yards or less. But they didn't turn over the football and that was the key.

The Cowboys had to play with two rookie cornerbacks after veteran Anthony Henry was injured in the third quarter. The irony is that cornerback was a real strength entering the season, with Henry, Terence Newman (injured) and Adam Jones (suspended). Jeff Garcia passed for 227 yards, but the Cowboys kept Tampa Bay out of the end zone. They also did a nice job against the run -- holding a Bucs team that was averaging 130 rushing yards per game to 48 yards.

Offensive coaches always remind their quarterbacks not to take a sack when you are in field goal range. Garcia was guilty of this in the second quarter, sacked for an 8-yard loss on third down. Had he thrown the ball away, the Bucs were facing a 43-yard field goal try. Instead, they missed a 51-yard field goal, and the resulting field position for Dallas led to the Cowboys' only touchdown -- a fade route to Roy William with one second left in the second quarter.

Dallas coach Wade Phillips rolled the dice in this game and won every time -- including going for it twice on fourth-and-1 and making it both times.

Philadelphia 27, Atlanta 14

The NFL is all about matchups, regardless of position. It's the defensive end against an offensive tackle; a linebacker charged with keeping the running back from making big plays. Eagles running back Brian Westbrook showed why he may be the NFL's toughest matchup when healthy. He carried the ball 22 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns, including a 39-yard TD run with less than two minutes to play, to ensure the win over Atlanta.

We always hear about teams failing to put their timeouts to good use -- using them when they shouldn't, not using them when they should. And in an unfortunate irony for Atlanta, rookie head coach Mike Smith did a great job using his timeouts Sunday.

The Falcons used their first timeout of the second half on offense with 4:32 left to play, and the result was a fourth-down conversion to keep a drive alive. The second came on defense with 3:01 to play; the third came one play later with 2:54 left, forcing the Eagles to punt with a 20-14 lead. But when the ensuing punt appeared to touch Falcons special-teams player Adam Jennings, an official ruled it a muff recovered by the Eagles. It was a call that most likely would have been reversed by instant replay, but Atlanta couldn't challenge because it was out of timeouts. The irony is that Smith had used his timeouts so judiciously. If he hadn't, there would have been less than two minutes left to play and the call would have been reviewed automatically.

Despite the loss, Atlanta (4-3) is not in bad shape. The Falcons play at Oakland this week, then are home for five of their last eight games, including hosting all three division opponents. A win in Oakland could leave the Falcons in good position for a 10-win season. No rookie quarterback has ever started all 16 games and led his team from last to first in a division.

New Orleans 37, San Diego 32

The Chargers and Saints gave English fans a terrific offensive show. I loved the pregame tailgate party outside the stadium, as well as the giant American and Union Jack flags on the field before kickoff. Once the game began, the two quarterbacks combined for 680 yards and six TDs. Philip Rivers accounted for 341 yards and three scores, while Drew Brees had 339 yards and three TDs.

The Chargers trailed by 17 in the fourth quarter before they started a comeback -- only to have a linebacker Jonathan Vilma come up with an interception to secure the New Orleans win. San Diego did get the ball back for a last-second Hail Mary attempt, but the pass fell incomplete.

I loved the way the fans chanted "Dee-fense! Dee-fense!" during the game -- even though there wasn't much defense in this game. Still, I don't think the NFL could have scheduled a better game for the British fans to watch.

Extra points

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones presented Wade Phillips with the game ball. ... Eagles coach Andy Reid won his 100th game and the Eagles recorded their 500th franchise win (including postseason). ... Joey Porter, who was labeled a flop after the Dolphins signed him as an unrestricted free agent in 2007, had two sacks in the win over Buffalo. After recording 5½ sacks in 2007, he's already got 10½ this season. ... Cleveland DT Shaun Rogers had nine tackles, a sack and a blocked field goal in the win over Jacksonville. Cleveland's run defense allowed 146 rushing yards per game coming into Week 8, then held the Jaguars' vaunted rushing attack to 59 yards. ... The Texans have won three straight -- the longest win streak in franchise history -- and the 35-6 rout of Cincinnati is the biggest margin of victory in team history. ... Buffalo trailed Miami by one point going into the fourth quarter but turned the ball over four times in the final period. ... Clinton Portis became only the second player in NFL history to rush for 120-plus yards in five consecutive games twice in his career. The first time he did it was when he was a Bronco. ... Miami's Ted Ginn Jr. led all receivers Sunday with 175 yards, his first-ever 100-yard game. Many people had thought the Dolphins should have used the ninth overall pick in the 2007 draft on a QB rather than Ginn, but this will be the first of many big games for the receiver.

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