EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Inspired by Jason Witten's surprise appearance and sparked by Kevin Ogletree's unexpected star turn, the Dallas Cowboys kept the spotlight on football, not officiating.
The Cowboys waited all year for another shot at the New York Giants. When they got it in the 2012 season opener, they were ready, winning 24-17 on Wednesday night in a game that wasn't really that close.
Also ready were the replacement officials, who barely were a story with Dallas dominating the Super Bowl champions for much of night.
It won't make up for the New Year's Day loss that cost the Cowboys the NFC East title and sent the Giants on their way to the NFL championship. It sure could provide impetus for this season, though.
"We're judged by winning and losing," said quarterback Tony Romo, who threw three touchdown passes, "so the best thing was going on the road and getting a win. Not only a win, but it was against a division rival and obviously against the world champs. I don't know how many times teams go in and beat them in that first game of the year. It's a tough atmosphere, a tough game. Our team grinded it out and did good."
So did the officials, who were expected to be a big factor with the league's lockout of the regulars. But there were no controversies, no blatant mistakes nor rampant confusion.
"No problems, just as we said there wouldn't be," league executive Ray Anderson said at halftime. Nothing changed in the second half.
Romo threw for 307 yards, DeMarco Murray rushed for 131 yards and Ogletree had two touchdowns. Yet most of their praise was for Witten, who had only two receptions for 10 yards.
Witten missed most of the preseason with a lacerated spleen and was considered a long shot to suit up for the opener. Yet there he was, uplifting his teammates with his mere presence.
"Sometimes you don't care about yourself, you go out and play for the guys," Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "It was emotional. We were all behind him when he said he would play."
Witten didn't think it was such a big deal.
"I think and hope every other player on our team would do the same thing," he said. "At this point in your career, you want that mentality to leave it all out there."
Ogletree enjoyed his big night not far from where he grew up in the New York borough of Queens.
"A huge emphasis for us was big plays," he said. "I don't want the focus to be on me too much, but I am very, very humbled and appreciative of how we played today."
Dallas' defense frustrated Eli Manning and his offense with three sacks and a half-dozen pressures, all before the largest crowd at MetLife Stadium for a Giants game. The 82,287 saw the defending league champs lose in the now-traditional midweek kickoff contest for the first time in nine such games.
"We let them know where we are as a defense, and that we'll play that way every week," Ware said after getting two sacks to give him 101 1-2 for his career, now in its eighth season.
When the Cowboys were threatened late — a spot they often have folded in against the Giants — Romo hit Ogletree for 15 yards on third down to clinch it. That gave Ogletree 114 yards on eight catches; he had 25 receptions for 294 yards and no scores entering the game.
"I'm close to home, so it's a good feeling," Ogletree said. "But Dallas is my home now."
The Cowboys' big-time receivers — Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Witten — were eclipsed by Ogletree, who sure didn't resemble a backup. In the first half, he had five catches for 47 yards and a TD, and broke free for a 40-yard reception early in the third quarter, thoroughly fooling New York's top cornerback, Corey Webster to start the second half — the kind of big play the Cowboys couldn't make enough of in that Jan. 1 showdown that ended their season. And they got another huge play from Murray, who broke two tackles in the backfield, scooted down the right sideline for 48 yards, and set up Dan Bailey's 33-yard field goal for a 17-10 lead through three quarters.
After Manning connected with former Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett for a 9-yard touchdown with 2:36 remaining, Dallas never gave the ball back.
"Take a bite out of humble pie, that's basically what it is," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "It brings you right back down to earth."
Murray's counterpart with the Giants, Ahmad Bradshaw, scored on a 10-yard run — New York's first effective rush all game — for the hosts' first touchdown. And Ogletree's opposite number, Giants third wideout Domenik Hixon, made a spectacular leaping grab for 39 yards over two defenders to set up that score.
Dallas overcame its sloppiness late in the opening half basically on two big plays. Romo hit Bryant in stride over Webster down the right sideline for a 38-yard gain on third down. Two plays later, he sidestepped the pass rush and lobbed to a wide-open Ogletree for a 10-yard score.
America's thirst for football hardly could have been quenched by the first half — unless you enjoy strong defensive line play. Each team had one solid drive that was stymied in scoring position, and the only players moving the ball with consistency were punters Steve Weatherford for New York and Chris Jones for Dallas.
Sean Lee, the Cowboys' rising star inside linebacker, slammed into first-round draft pick David Wilson and the running back fumbled at the Dallas 29. Then the Cowboys moved 29 yards to fourth-and-inches at the Giants 37. Rather than try a quarterback sneak, Romo handed to fullback Lawrence Vickers, who never got close to converting.
Dallas showed similar strength after Michael Boley's 51-yard interception, throwing Bradshaw for losses on consecutive runs on which New York's line was overrun. Lawrence Tynes' 22-yard field goal made it 3-0 moments after the first murmur of officiating controversy.
Manning threw to Victor Cruz in the middle of the end zone and Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick arrived along with the ball. Manning and Cruz motioned for a flag, but it did not come, perhaps because the ball was thrown a bit behind Cruz.
Otherwise, the feared flops by the replacement officials didn't materialize, although Dallas couldn't have been happy with 13 penalties for 86 yards.
The Cowboys could be happy with just about everything else.
Notes: Dallas is 35-17-1 in openers, best mark in the NFL. ... Lee made 10 tackles to lead the Cowboys. ... Manning wound up 21 of 32 for 213 yards in the Giants' first loss since Game 14 of last season. ... Cowboys starting center Phil Costa aggravated a back injury that kept him out of most of the preseason. He was replaced by Ryan Cook. ... Giants cornerback Michael Coe left the game with a hamstring injury, the fourth Giants cornerback hurt this summer.
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