On the night of September 20, a disturbing, albeit short-lived trend emerged for the Dallas Cowboys defense.
With a Felix Jones touchdown, the Cowboys took a 33-31 lead with only minutes remaining in the game. Dallas, despite three interceptions by Tony Romo and a fumble by Jones--on which New York capitalized, with 24 of their points--had a very real chance to win a crucial early-season division game.
All the team needed was a defensive stop. A turnover, maybe. Something.
As it happened, the Giants drove methodically, allowing Lawrence Tynes to split the uprights with a relatively easy 37-yard field goal. 33-31, Giants, and around 100,000 fans trudging into the parking lots of JerryWorld, bummed and unfulfilled. In Denver, two weeks later, the team fell, again victims of a late, game-winning drive. These are still painful memories.
What the Cowboys and their fans are hoping, going into Sunday's rematch at the Meadowlands, is that these defensive struggles, particularly late in the game, are behind the team. There is some evidence to legitimize such hopes. Dallas is now the NFC's top scoring defense, allowing 16.5 points per game; they are seventh in total defense and, after a (very) slow start, fourth in sacks, with 28.
Aside from turnovers--Dallas is tied for the league-low with 13--the defense has spent the better part of eight weeks making a pretty good case for their being one of the elite units in the conference. On Sunday, they hope to showcase these changes for the better on the ultra-visible stage of an NFC East battle.
After that, the Cowboys say, the sky's the limit.
"We're more consistent," said linebacker Keith Brooking. "For the first few weeks of the season, we'd play really good football for three and a half quarters and it seemed like for half a quarter, all hell would break loose. Our standards are extremely high and we want to be the best--we're not there yet. We're not close to being there yet.
"You're never 'there' in this league, we've just got to progress, continue to get better...We have what it takes to be great defensively. We can't be scared to get to that level."