Friday, November 30, 2007

Clock Strikes Midnight for Favre, Cinderella Packers

Green Bay's fairy tale season ran headlong into reality on Thursday night in Dallas; the Cowboys knocked the seemingly indestructible Brett Favre out of the game early and then defeated the Packers, 37-27. Tony Romo completed 19 of 30 passes for 309 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception. Terrell Owens had seven receptions for 156 yards and one touchdown. Favre struggled mightily before getting hurt (5-14, 56 yards, two interceptions, no touchdowns) and the Packers actually looked better when his backup Aaron Rodgers (18-26, 201 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) played. Favre suffered an injured right elbow and a separated left shoulder when he took a big hit by cornerback Nate Jones in the second quarter; Favre experienced numbness in the fingers on his right hand and left a game due to injury for only the fifth time in his career. The Packers don't play again for 10 more days, so it is unclear whether or not his record streak for consecutive games started (249) is in jeopardy.

This was the first time that two 10-1 NFL teams met since the San Francisco 49ers beat the New York Giants 7-3 on December 3, 1990. If New England's 24-20 victory over Indianapolis was "Super Bowl 41 1/2" then this game may have been "Super Bowl 41 3/4" and it probably decided who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII. Favre and Romo had each posted five straight games with passer ratings of over 100, "the first time in NFL history that two such streaks have collided on the same night" in the words of NFL Network analyst Cris Collinsworth. I was a bit surprised before the game to hear several analysts predict a close game, including some who actually favored the Packers to win. I wrote a little over a week ago, "My suspicion is that the Cowboys will beat them (Green Bay) without too much trouble." The game turned out to be more closely contested than I expected but Dallas never trailed after the first quarter. Still, I agree with Deion Sanders' postgame assessment: "You've got to learn how to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer. When you get a team down, it's not a championship-type team if you can't put them away--and Dallas showed me today that they didn't know how to put the Green Bay Packers away."

Anyone who has watched NFL Films over the past few years has heard Terrell Owens declare, "Who can make a play? I can!" and, of course, "Get your popcorn ready." During Dallas' first possession, Collinsworth mentioned the "hocus pocus" that the Cowboys can do on offense due to all of the extra defensive attention that Owens, who he described as a "dominant" player, attracts. Only two opposing receivers had 100 yard games in Green Bay's previous 24 contests; Owens had six catches for 147 yards and one touchdown in the first half alone. He has now caught a touchdown in seven straight games. He had a quieter second half--and dropped a sure touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter--but Owens' first half production and the defensive attention that he drew throughout the game played an essential role in Dallas' win; also, as Collinsworth noted, when the Cowboys have a fourth quarter lead their modus operandi is to pound their opponents to death with the power running of Marion Barber. Owens became the first player in NFL history to have at least seven receptions and one touchdown in seven straight games and he tied the Cowboys' single season record with his 14th touchdown reception.

After the game, Dallas Coach Wade Phillips called Owens to the center of the locker room to address the whole team. The smiling wide receiver said, "We gave them the business! I like the way that we played." The sight of Phillips literally and figuratively embracing Owens is a marked contrast from how former Dallas Coach Bill Parcells kept Owens at arm's distance, referring to him as "the player." The NFL Network's Rich Eisen asked Owens how much Phillips has to do with Dallas' 11-1 record, the best start in franchise history. Owens responded, "Let me start out by thanking the Lord for giving me the opportunity just to come out and do what I did today. I couldn't do it without my teammates--Tony (Romo) and the offensive line giving him time. Wade has been very instrumental. He came in during the offseason, training camp, and he implemented his philosophy. I think that all of the guys have been very, very receptive to him and the record is a very good indicator of what he has brought to the team." Sanders asked Owens about his maturation process, exemplified by how Owens thanked the Lord and his teammates for his success: "Is that part of the 'new' TO or has that always been (part of you)?" Owens answered, "It's always been me. I think that now I have a great coach in Wade and a coaching staff that believes in me and utilizes me in the offense. We're just playing great as a team."

In a strange way it is fitting that Owens had a signature performance in perhaps the biggest game of the year but only a fraction of the NFL's fans could see it because it was televised on the NFL Network. Maybe the TV commentators and news columnists who have been riding this guy for several years now will give him the credit that they would have given Favre if he had authored a similar performance on such a grand stage--but I wouldn't count on it.

It is also worth mentioning that in addition to finally utilizing the full range of Owens' abilities, Phillips has led a defensive revival for the Cowboys. Last year, Parcells' defense leaked oil down the stretch, giving up 33 ppg and 425 ypg as the Cowboys went 1-3 in the last four games of the season, with all three losses coming at home. Overall, the 2006 Cowboys ranked 20th in points allowed per game (21.9) and 13th in yards allowed per game (322.8); coming into the Green Bay game, the Cowboys ranked 10th in points allowed per game (20.1) and seventh in yards allowed per game (299.1). Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett deserve all the credit that they are receiving for Dallas' tremendous offense but Phillips has done a good job shoring things up on the other side of the ball as well. The Cowboys' defense had a couple breakdowns versus Green Bay, including a 62 yard touchdown run by Ryan Grant on a 3rd and 1 play in the first quarter, but they came up big in the fourth quarter, holding the Packers to just a 52 yard field goal.

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