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Giants-Cowboys ‘things I think’: Giants have strayed from their winning path

The Giants established a winning formula early on, but have not been able to continue executing it

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Before Thursday’s New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game I laid out what I thought was the Giants’ narrow path to an upset of the heavily-favored Cowboys.

Here is part of what I wrote:

How can the Giants pull an upset of the Cowboys on Thursday?

They have to play the game on their terms. They have to be able to follow the formula that has allowed them to win seven of the 10 times they have gone to the post this season.

That formula has included winning the turnover battle, which they did. It also, though, included winning on third down (and fourth down) and in the red zone, playing mistake-free football and capitalizing on opportunities.

They couldn’t do those things against the Cowboys. Consequently, the Giants lost a game. We have talked a lot recently about how narrow the Giants’ margin for error is, especially as injuries have mounted. Thursday was an example of how the Giants, as gritty, determined, and resourceful as they are, have a difficult time hanging with good teams when they miss chances and can’t stick to their script.

The Giants missed opportunities throughout this game.

On Jame Gillan’s first punt of the game, Nick McCloud missed an chance to pin Dallas at the 1-yard line, dropping the ball into the end zone. That began a day filled with “almosts” for the Giants.

Dallas turned the ball over on downs at its own 40-yard line on its first possession of the game, with a curious decision to go for it by head coach Mike McCarthy backfiring.

The Giants could only turn that into a 57-yard Graham Gano field goal, though an apparent Daniel Jones to Isaiah Hodgins 24-yard touchdown pass was nullified by a questionable illegal man downfield penalty on right tackle Tyre Phillips.

Like the call or not, the call was made and it ultimately cost the Giants four points.

On Dallas’ second possession, Rodarius Williams intercepted Dak Prescott to end a Cowboy drive at the Giants’ 31-yard line. The Giants’ offense went three-and-out. That wasn’t a short field, but it was a turnover the Giants did not capitalize on.

That’s two first-quarter opportunities for the Giants and only three points.

In the second quarter, the Giants pinned Dallas at their own 7-yard line after a punt that included a Cowboys penalty. The Giants couldn’t flip the field, letting Dallas go 93 yards in 11 plays for their only points of the first half.

Before that Dallas drive even started, Daniel Jones missed an open Richie James on a third-and-four throw that would have been a Giant first down.

Dallas went 75 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown to open the third quarter. That Cowboys’ drive should likely never have gotten off the ground. Kayvon Thibodeaux was a force all day, but on the second play he missed a sack that turned into a 5-yard Prescott run and helped Dallas get their drive started.

There was a questionable holding call on Darnay Holmes on third-and-7 at the Giants’ 37-yard line that kept the drive alive. The Giants, though, also failed to stop the Cowboys on a third-and-12 and gave up a touchdown on a third-and-goal from the 15-yard line. Honestly, that should never happen — even with a depleted secondary.

The Giants’ defense struggled on third down all day, many of them third-and-long situations, allowing Dallas to convert 7 of 11 (63.6 percent).

Entering Sunday, the Giants were second in the league in red zone defense, giving up touchdowns just 43.59 percent of the time. Sunday, Dallas went 4 of 4 on red zone opportunities.

The failed fourth-and-1 conversion came next, and it was really the back breaker. The score was 14-13 Dallas at the time, and the Cowboys scored consecutive touchdowns after that to break the game open.

“I thought it was a good chance to go ahead and get the first down, but we didn’t get it,” said head coach Brian Daboll. “I thought we needed to change a little bit of momentum after the second half was going. They went down and scored. I thought Mike [Kafka] had a good play ready to go. We had an opportunity on it. I thought it was the right thing to do.”

It was. The players just didn’t execute. That includes the quarterback, the intended receiver, and whoever the 11th man was who was supposed to be in the game but never made it onto the field. That lack of an 11th man might have been why Jones ended up hurrying just a bit and being off target.

Jones, who threw a somewhat errant pass, and Saquon Barkley, who still should have caught the ball, both tried to accept the blame. Which is good, because both deserved some of the blame.

Jones has to throw a better ball. The illustration above shows just how much room Barkley had to run if Jones could have hit him in stride instead of putting the ball on his back hip.

“It was just a bad throw,” Jones said. “I’ve got to get it out in front of him. Bad throw. Can’t miss that.

“You want to be in those situations. You want to have the opportunity to convert those and make the play. We’ve got to do a better job executing that and I’ve got to do a better job.”

Still, Barkley is the Giants’ best player. They designed a play to get him the ball on the biggest play of the game, Jones gave him a throw he could get both hands on and the ball needs to be caught.

“I tried to get down and secure the catch and I didn’t make the play,” Barkley said. “Looking back on it, they went down and score. He trusted us to go for it on fourth down and one, and for us to make the play, and I didn’t make the play there for us.”

Former Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin always used to talk about players needing to play above the Xs and Os at critical moments to win games. In that instance, Barkley did not and it proved to be the missed chance that opened the floodgates for the Cowboys.

“I think we missed some opportunities,” Daboll said. “We’ve got to do a better job. It starts with me.”

What now for the Giants?

At 7-4, the Giants would be the sixth seed in the seven-team NFC playoff field. The Giants, though, have lost three of four games and FiveThirtyEight now has their playoff chances having dropped to just 47 percent.

Coach Brian Daboll was testy Thursday night, short with some of his answers to questions from reporters who made the trip to Texas. He did, though, give an expansive answer on what the Giants could do to get back on track.

“Just come back, do the same stuff we always do each week. Get ready to play a game, take some rest. It’s been a tough 12 days obviously — haven’t gotten the results that we were looking for. But I think we’ve got to just get a little bit of rest, mental recovery, physical recovery, come back on Monday and get ready to play another division game,” Daboll said. “They don’t get any easier. Each week is tough and we’ll stick with our practice, our preparation, all the things that we need to do to try to go ahead and give us an opportunity to win a game. It’s the ebbs and flows of a season.”

Jones also tried to downplay any concern that things might be slipping away from the Giants, losers of three of their last four games.

“We’ve got a really good opportunity going forward. We know that we have some big games down the stretch, and we put ourselves in a good position,” Jones said. “We’ve got to heal up and take advantage of this long week and get back and learn what we’ve got to learn off this film. We’re still confident. We’re 7-4. We’ve got a lot still to accomplish.”

The Giants need to get healthy. The cornerbacks they used on Thursday competed hard and didn’t play poorly, but Adoree’ Jackson and Fabian Moreau were missed. So were the plethora of offensive linemen who were left back in New Jersey. Wan’Dale Robinson and Sterling Shepard — who aren’t coming back this year — too. Tight end Daniel Bellinger would be a nice addition.

The Giants have 10 days before they host the Washington Commanders in a critical game. Hopefully, they will field a healthier team.

They need to figure out why Saquon Barkley, who led the league in rushing just a few days ago, has totaled only 22 and 39 yards in the last two games.

Daboll talks all the time about execution. The Giants, honestly, might not be the more talented team in any of the six remaining games they play this season. If they don’t execute, if they don’t take advantage of the opportunities they are presented with, they don’t win. They have to eliminate the missed sacks, costly penalties, missed catches and missed throws.

They still have an opportunity to make the playoffs. They need to be better, though, or they are going to miss that one, too.

Are they good enough to be better? Or, are the limitations we knew were there but that bubbled beneath the surface earlier in the season catching up to them?

We will find out over the next six weeks.