A team mired in the NFC East cellar finally looked like the championship contender that many expected prior to the season. The penalties, turnovers and inexplicable mental mistakes that had plagued the Cowboys disappeared against the Giants.
Maybe it was Garrett's insistence on having his squad practice at a quicker tempo in pads or his renewed emphasis on paying attention to the details in meetings that led to the improved play. It could've been his implementation of a dress code -- suit and tie -- that reflects professionalism that had been a hallmark of the Cowboys for years.
Regardless of the methods, Garrett's team responded to the no-nonsense approach with an outstanding performance against a team that many regarded as one of the best in the league.
Naturally, most would expect the offense to spark the team based on Garrett's background as offensive coordinator, but it was the defense that stood up to the challenge in his debut. The much-maligned unit forced three turnovers, including a 101-yard interception return from Bryan McCann that changed the complexion of the game, and held a hot offense to only 20 points.
Although the game was far from perfect, the defense played with the passion, energy and relentlessness that had been missing. The Cowboys flew to the ball with reckless abandon and kept the Giants' playmakers in check by limiting their space with gang tackling.
In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, the fourth-down stop of Brandon Jacobs illustrated their commitment. The Giants aligned in an I-formation with the strength to the right, and Jacobs as the tailback. On the snap, Eli Manning retreated from center and handed the ball to Jacobs on a counter. The backside guard pulled around to lead Jacobs through the hole on the left. However, Bradie James quickly read the down block by the play-side guard, and flew downhill to meet Jacobs in the hole. He hit Jacobs squarely in the chest and Barry Church joined in to hold for no gain on the play. In making that critical stop, the Cowboys showed how energy and effort yields positive results in clutch situations.
While the renewed effort and hustle was apparent from the first snap, it was a more disciplined game plan that ultimately led to better results from the defense. New coordinator Paul Pasqualoni incorporated more zone coverage and scaled back on some of the aggressive man blitzes that had been a staple under Wade Phillips. The increase in zone coverage reduced the number of balls that had previously flown over the top of the defense because more defenders played with vision on the ball. The safeties, in particular, were in better position to make plays on the ball due to Pasqualoni's decision to rely more on zone coverage.
In looking at Alan Ball's pivotal interception late in the game, it was the combination of zone coverage and attention to detail that led to the turnover. The Cowboys are playing "quarters" coverage with Ball aligned deep and over the top of the Giants' slot receiver (Mario Manningham) at about 10 yards. On the snap, he slides slightly to the inside of Manningham to take away any in-breaking routes. With his eyes on Manning the entire time, Ball makes a break on the ball before Manningham can cross his face on a short post from the slot. The subsequent interception sealed the game, and gave the Cowboys a much-needed victory over their bitter rival.
Although one game doesn't right the many wrongs of a disappointing season, the dramatic transformation in the Cowboys' effort and execution makes me wonder what could've been if Garrett's predecessor had demanded more commitment and accountability from his players.
Bears go back to the future
It was fitting that the Chicago Bears wore their throwback uniforms from the Monsters of the Midway era against the Minnesota Vikings because they are starting to look like a championship contender in that mold.
Sure, the thought of Chicago emerging as the top team in NFC is laughable to some when considering its scattershot offense. However, it is the opportunistic defense and special teams that has the potential to carry the Bears on a deep postseason run.
The Bears excel in scoring defense and takeaways, the two most important aspects of defensive football. The combination allows them to survive when the offense struggles to produce points on a consistent basis. Their ability to keep teams out of the end zone helps them stay within striking distance against even the most prolific offenses. Just look at how well they neutralized the high-powered offenses of the Dallas Cowboys (13 points allowed), New York Giants (17) and Green Bay Packers (17) to see how their defense is capable of keeping the game close despite getting little production from the offense.
Given the Bears' knack for keeping opponents out of the end zone, their ability to create turnovers makes facing Chicago a scary proposition. They repeatedly set up scoring opportunities for their offense or they turn the takeaway directly into points by returning it for a score. The Bears believe that their defense should score points, and they are relentless in searching out the football.
In looking at their four-turnover effort against the Vikings, the defense repeatedly set up Jay Cutler and Co. for easy scoring opportunities. D.J. Moore's third-quarter interception of Brett Favre led to a Robbie Gould field goal that pushed the lead to 17-10. In breaking down the play, the Bears' pressure led to the tipped pass that landed in Moore's hands. While the tip could be described as random, Moore's awareness and reaction to the ball is a result of a focus on takeaways that is part of the Bears' daily practice regimen. When I visited their training camp over the summer, the defensive staff emphasized intercepting passes off tips and overthrows, so this is a prime example of diligent offseason work paying huge dividends.
In addition to having a defense that specializes in creating extra opportunities for the offense, the special teams units are making a significant impact. Led by the electrifying returns of Devin Hester, the Bears enjoy an advantage over their opponents and the hidden field position frequently leads to points. Against the Vikings, it only led directly to three points, but it kept the Bears working on a short field.
In breaking down Hester's 68-yard kickoff return in the middle of the third quarter, you can see the production in the kicking game is stressed. Hester is the most dangerous returner in the game, and his presence on the field encourages his blockers to hold onto their blocks a little longer because they understand that he is capable of taking it the distance at any time. On this particular instance, Hester did a good job of setting up his big return by working initially to the middle of the field before breaking to his right behind the wedge. By heading to the middle at the outset, he drew the Vikings inside and created better angles for his blockers at the point of attack. That resulted in a crease along the right sideline and gave Hester enough space to get to the second level. Hester took care of the rest by eluding Ryan Longwell and running behind the wall before the pursuit from the backside pinned him to the sideline. The synergy between Hester and his blockers is clear.
The Bears have been viewed as inferior challengers to the title for most of the season, but their dominant play on defense and special teams gives them a serious chance to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
McDaniels unleashes creativity
The Broncos used a heavy dose of deception and misdirection to generate big plays in the passing game. Their opening 15-play script included reverses, play-action and reverse-action passes designed to slow down the Chiefs' aggressiveness up front, and create uncertainty in the secondary. Kyle Orton masterfully executed the sleight of hand in the backfield by hiding the ball on play fakes before firing high-arcing bombs down the field.
Orton's 40-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney illustrated the impact of play-action on the Chiefs' young secondary. Facing a second-and-7 following a running play, the Broncos broke the huddle in a "12" personnel package (one back, two tight ends) with a one-back set, a slot on the left and a tight wing on the right. On the snap, Orton ran hard to his right, faking a stretch before setting up behind the tackle to take a deep shot to Gaffney. The Broncos sold the run action by having the tight end (Robert Quinn) work across the formation faking a trap. The overall movement caused the Chiefs to hesitate, and allowed Gaffney to sneak behind the defense on a post pattern. Although Gaffney had to make a highlight reel catch, the clever play design created the opportunity downfield.
McDaniels also incorporated his creativity near the goal line when he inserted Tim Tebow as the "Wildcat" quarterback. The Broncos aligned in a double tight end, double wing formation out of their "13" personnel package (one back, three tight ends) with Tebow in the shotgun and Spencer Larsen lined up at fullback. Prior to the snap, Larsen motioned to the left to lead Tebow around the corner on a quarterback sweep for a 1-yard score. This play later set up a counter pass off the same action that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown toss to Larsen in the flat.
McDaniels took full advantage of the bye to create a deceptive game plan that caught the Chiefs off guard and resulted in an easy win.