Glass half empty for Cowboys' defense

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Chalk up the first stage of Rob Ryan's two-part revenge tour as a failure.

Sure, this wasn't nearly as big a disaster as when the Philadelphia Eagles marched up and down the field at will against the Dallas Cowboys in an October blowout.

The second half saved the Dallas defense from another epic embarrassment in a 20-7 loss on Christmas Eve against one of their main NFC East rivals.

Of course, the folks wearing blue-and-silver shades would prefer to focus what happened after a Ryan halftime rant that owner Jerry Jones referred to as "very appropriate, very pointed and as it turns out, constructive," which is a fancy way of saying that the defensive coordinator cussed a bunch while rightfully calling out his players. The Cowboys responded by holding the Eagles to a couple of field goals and 102 total yards in the final two quarters.

Before you bruise your hands by applauding too hard, remember that this is a Philadelphia squad that was milking a big lead and had zero motivation after finding out at some point before the second half that it was eliminated from playoff contention.

And don't forget about the first half, when the Eagles rolled for 284 total yards and scored two touchdowns. It would have been three, but for some reason, Eagles receiver Jason Avant attempted a finger roll as he dived for the pylon, resulting in a touchback instead of a touchdown.

Which half you reckon is more indicative of what to expect from the Dallas defense in the NFC East title game against the New York Giants on New Year's Day?

If you picked the second half, you probably believe that a fat man in a red suit slid down the chimney in the wee hours of the morning to put all those presents under the tree.

"Are we looking forward to this? Yes," said Ryan, who wasn't wearing a red suit. "Are we going to have a great plan? Absolutely, and we are going to get after it. That's the way it is. We're excited about it. Trust me, it's for a championship and we couldn't be in a better spot. We can't wait."

Well, actually, the Cowboys could be in a much better spot. They could have already clinched the division championship.

All they had to do was protect a dozen-point lead with less than six minutes to go when the Giants came to town a few weeks ago. They failed miserably, allowing Eli Manning and Co. to finish off a 400-yard passing performance with a couple of quick touchdowns.

That's what made the final minute of Saturday's first half so alarming. Michael Vick's Eagles needed a grand total of 50 seconds to march 87 yards for a touchdown that pretty much put the game away, considering the Cowboys were playing a backup quarterback.

That continued the season-long trend of terrible performances by the Cowboys in two-minute drills.

This game had zero impact on the NFC East race, but the Dallas defense definitely didn't treat it like a meaningless game. All the starters played, including guys who have been dealing with injuries like outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, nose tackle Jay Ratliff and cornerback Mike Jenkins.

"Guys are still making mistakes not being where they are supposed to be and not playing as a [expletive] football team," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. "We've got to just step up and make the plays we're supposed to make."

That pretty much sums up Ryan's halftime message. He fell on the sword after the Eagles embarrassed the Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field, but this wasn't his fault.

Ryan had a sound game plan that contained running back LeSean McCoy and put pressure on Vick. ("Hell, we had a great plan," Ryan grumbled.) The players, in particular the secondary, simply didn't execute while Vick threw for 221 yards and two scores in the first half.

"I'm glad we're through with them for the year," said Jones, who has been brutally honest about his fear of the Eagles. "We'll talk about this next year. For us, let's go on to somebody else and maybe have a chance to win it all."

Whoa there, Jerry. If you want to point to the franchise quarterback as a reason for Super Bowl hope, even with Tony Romo's bruised and swollen right hand, that might be considered reasonable. But it appears the Cowboys will have to win despite this defense.

The Cowboys are done with the Eagles, but it's not about to get any easier. All the Giants did was roll for 510 yards and 37 points against the Cowboys a few weeks ago.

If Dallas wins that one, odds are they'll welcome the Detroit Lions to town for the wild-card round, and Matthew Stafford has thrown for 764 yards, seven touchdowns and no picks the last two weeks. Get past that point and the NFL's top two scoring offenses -- the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints -- probably will stand between the Cowboys and a Super Bowl.

So what gives the Cowboys confidence this defense is up for the Giants' challenge, much less what would come if they win that game?

"We don't have a lot of choice, to be honest with you," cornerback Terence Newman said. "We've just got to go out and play as hard as we can for as long as we can and hope that's enough."

Added Scandrick: "We've got one game to play. I don't want to talk about confidence or nothin'. Show some heart or not. We'll see."

Based on the relevant recent history, what we'll probably see is Romo try to overcome the damage done against Dallas' defense.

The good news is the Cowboys believe Romo's hand will heal over the next week. It will probably take a lot longer than that to cure the Cowboys' defense.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.