The Dallas Cowboys came into this game brimming with inspiration. They played poorly a week ago, losing their undefeated record with an upset loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In that game, wide receiver Michael Irvin suffered a scary neck injury that left him on the sideline tonight, a sobering sight in a suede jacket and a neck brace.
Add to that the attraction of playing on Monday night in front of a national television audience, a stage on which the Cowboys typically shine--particularly when facing their bitter NFC East rivals, the New York Giants.
Tonight, though, the Giants pulled out a stirring victory, winning, 13-10, in front of 78,204 fans at Giants Stadium on a 21-yard field goal by Brad Daluiso with one second remaining.
The Cowboys thought they had won the game on the ensuing kickoff, but the play was disallowed because two of their lateral passes went forward. On the play, Daluiso tore a knee ligament and likely will miss the rest of the season.
Lacking Irvin and a home crowd, the Cowboys offered a lackluster performance. Dallas thus will face the Washington Redskins, whom the Cowboys defeated in the opener for both teams, Sunday at home having suffered two straight demoralizing losses. The loss dropped the Cowboys to 3-2 and left the Redskins (4-1) in first place in the division.
"I don't really know how to explain it," quarterback Troy Aikman said. "I'm surprised at our ineffectiveness, regardless of what areas. We feel like we have a good group. . . . Obviously to have the outing that we had, that's disappointing."
The game was won by Daluiso's kick, but it was seized by speedster Tiki Barber (University of Virginia). Barber not only scored on an 85-yard punt return with eight minutes remaining, he also turned a short crossing pattern into a 56-yard sprint to the Dallas 3 with 27 seconds remaining. That pass set the stage for Daluiso's game-winning kick. Barber eluded five Cowboys on his two long plays and accrued 233 all-purpose yards in the game.
Dallas had tied the game, 10-10, on a two-yard run by Emmitt Smith with 1 minute 57 seconds remaining, finishing off the Cowboys' most spirited drive of the night. A 36-yard completion from Aikman to Ernie Mills--Irvin's backup--highlighted the 67-yard scoring drive that consumed barely more than three minutes.
With just under eight minutes remaining and the score tied at 3, Barber improved the mood of the grumbling New York fans--and jolted, perhaps, the slumbering television audience awake--with his deft punt return in which he tiptoed down the left sideline for the game's first touchdown. The fleet return came on the 12th of 13 punts in the game.
If Dallas were playing to win one for Irvin, or to make amends for last weekend, or to shine on national television, none of that inspiration showed until too late. How sluggish were the Cowboys? Smith, who entered the game as the NFC's leading rusher, compiled 26 yards on 22 carries. The offense managed 274 total yards.
With the exception of a handful of clutch third-down completions, Dallas's offense hacked and coughed for most of three quarters. Dallas place kicker Richie Cunningham did little to help, converting a 38-yard field goal but missing from 48 and 41 yards.
A play that seemed to sum up the futility of the Cowboys' efforts came late in the third quarter. Dallas had put together a semblance of a drive, but on third and two from the Giants 21, it stalled on a play that was either poorly executed or poorly conceived--or possibly both.
Dallas lined up with three tight ends and no wide receivers, and the Giants (3-3) devoured Smith in the backfield for a three-yard loss. Cunningham then missed the 41-yard attempt.
A generous description of most of the game between these longtime rivals would be to call it a defensive showcase. A less complimentary assessment might say both teams' offenses looked as if they were running through knee-deep sand. The Cowboys' league-leading rushing offense was held to 15 first-half yards. The Giants managed 63 passing yards.
Giants quarterback Kent Graham finished with 183 yards on 15 of 21 attempts. Aikman completed 20 of 33 for 266 yards.
Dallas had an excellent chance on its first possession to steal the night's momentum. Brad Maynard's punt traveled a mere 16 yards in the air as Maynard tried hard--too hard, as it turned out--to avoid kicking to Deion Sanders. The Giants then were whistled for a 15-yard personal foul call. So a punt kicked from the Giants 28 ended up in Dallas's hands at the New York 29.
Even with such a fortuitous beginning, Dallas could not capitalize. Aikman, playing without his favorite target, looked uncomfortable and out of sync. When he wasn't missing his receivers, he was intentionally over- or underthrowing them because of pressure from the Giants' rush.
"We needed to win this football game," Giants Coach Jim Fassel said. "We were together in this thing. I was proud of the way we hung in there."