DALLAS COWBOYS (8-3) vs. Giants (6-5)
THE TEAMS: The Giants need to win this one, their second matchup against the NFC East leaders, to save their season and keep their playoff hopes alive. That'll be a big feat, and an impossible one if they don't make a quantum leap from their level of play last Thursday in Denver. The Giants have already beaten the Cowboys once, 33-31 in Game 2, on a Lawrence Tynes field goal as time expired. But the Cowboys ran on them all game to the tune of 250 yards. The Giants have lost five of six, and barely beat Atlanta in overtime. So, a sense of urgency is not only a cliched notion, but an assumed one. "I don't know if we can get any more sense of urgency," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Our sense of urgency is maxed out." Guard Chris Snee also recognized the Giants' season is on the line here. "It's a huge game," he said. "Dallas is looking to deliver the knockout blow to us. We're looking to land one on them. We'll see who delivers it Sunday." The Cowboys won their fifth game in six last Thursday, beating Oakland 24-7. They, too, have struggled in losing to Green Bay 17-7 and barely squeaking past Washington 7-6 in the two games before the Raiders. The offense under Tony Romo has been inconsistent, as Romo has gone a combined 57-of-95 for 718 yards and four touchdowns against two interceptions. The running game has done well of late, however, producing two 150-yard-plus efforts the last two games, but with only one touchdown.
THE HISTORY: Of the teams' last 23 encounters, 13 have been decided by a touchdown or less, and three of those have been decided in overtime. The Cowboys hold a 55-38-2 advantage overall, and the Giants have split the season series three of the past four years. But this is a dangerous time of year for the Cowboys. They tend to fade toward the end, as Romo's 5-8 lifetime December record indicates.
THE INJURIES: Giants -- RB DJ Ware (concussion) is out. RB Ahmad Bradshaw (ankles and foot), S Michael Johnson (groin), and TE Travis Beckum (groin) are questionable. LB Michael Boley (back), WR Derek Hagan (hamstring), and QB Eli Manning (foot) are probable.
Cowboys -- T Marc Colombo (ankle) and S Ken Hamlin (ankle) are out. LB Victor Butler (knee), QB Tony Romo (back), S Gerald Sensabaugh (thumb), LB DeMarcus Ware (foot), and TE Jason Witten (foot) are probable.
WATCH THIS: The ground game comes off a Denver loss in which it put up all of 57 yards, 27 by Brandon Jacobs. That's going to have to change bigtime if the Giants expect to beat Dallas. With Ahmad Bradshaw probably seeing action, but likely limited because of his sore ankles, and DJ Ware out with a concussion, Jacobs will have to carry the load, and the coaches will have to commit to him longer than they have. "If Danny Ware is out and Ahmad is iffy, do I expect to see more carries?" Jacobs said. "Who else are they going to give it to? I’m joking, man. I do expect to see more carries, I do expect more playing time than I normally get. I am looking forward to that challenge and looking forward to that opportunity." That won't be easy, however, as linebackers Bradie James, DeMarcus Ware, and Keith Brooking are quick, mobile defenders. Guards Rich Seubert and Chris Snee are going to have to get out ahead of Jacobs to snag those guys, since running straight up the middle will be tough in the presence of the 3-4 front that includes defensive ends Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. Not coincidentally, James, Brooking and Ware are the Cowboys' top three tacklers with 131, 121, and 73, respectively. They form the league's ninth-best run defense, allowing just 102.7 yards per game. And they've only allowed four rushing touchdowns this year.
In other words, if you score on Dallas, you generally do it through the air. But the Cowboys have one of the better secondaries in the league, too, and that will be a problem for Eli Manning and his group of young receivers. A return to the short passing of the San Diego game may be in order here since Manning will not want to consistently test cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins, the latter of which leads the Cowboys with three interceptions. They, of course, get helped out tremendously by quarterback pressure supplied predominantly by Ware, one of the league's fiercest pass rushers. He has eight sacks this year, and comes off an Oakland game in which he had a career-high seven hurries to go along with a sack, six tackles, and a forced fumble.
Look for tight end Kevin Boss to take a bigger part in this one than he did against Denver. Manning will want to raise the tempo of play, and that means a lot of shorter throws to the tight end, whose two touchdowns against Atlanta showed his potential to be a force, especially in the troublesome Red Zone. The Giants are ranked 27th in Red Zone offense after failing to score touchdowns in three trips there Thanksgiving night. The good news is that Dallas' defense is ranked 26th in the league in that area, as they've given up 13 touchdowns in 22 penetrations. Liberal use of Boss and Steve Smith (team-high 72 catches for 869 yards and five touchdowns) on the intermediate patterns over the middle might help loosen things up for Jacobs, Bradshaw, or third running back Gartrell Johnson. It has also become expected that first-round rookie Hakeem Nicks will follow his MO and produce at least one big play, if not multiple ones. That could come on the slip-screen he does so well.
Part of the offensive solution will also involve getting the offensive line to block. "We all know the running game hasn't gotten into a rhythm," Snee said. "People say they're walking safeties up, but last year you would factor in the safety and still get four, five yards. It hasn't been the same as last year, but we still have time to crack it."
Manning may need to send this offense into overdrive, since the Giants' banged-up defense hasn't made a truly key stop in six games. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and Tom Coughlin are trying to spark that unit through some changes, the major one involving middle linebacker. Jonathan Goff, a fifth-round pick last year, will replace Chase Blackburn in hopes of bringing more speed up the middle. "He's a guy who has been developing and we have a lot of faith in him," Sheridan said. "We just wanted to give him an opportunity to play. Chase is still going to play. We didn’t feel we needed to make a move. We just wanted to get Jon on the field – get some of the younger guys who haven’t played much that we think are going to be good players." Goff has only had a handful of defensive plays this year, having spent most of his time becoming one of the Giants' top kick coverage guys. He'll be getting a lot of help from unit mates Michael Boley and Danny Clark, along with Antonio Pierce, who Coughlin has urged to stick around the team despite placement on the IR. Goff is faster than Blackburn, a plus here considering the Giants will have to be quicker to shut down a ground game that gashed them for 251 yards the first time around. Between Marion Barber (137-633 and four TDs) and Felix Jones (61-421-2 and a 6.9-yard average), the Cowboys can eat up huge chunks on the ground and keep the clock running. Their total ground game, which also includes Tashard Choice (58-330-3), averages 5.3 yards per carry. They ran for nearly 200 yards last week against Oakland.
Another change could involve Osi Umenyiora on certain first and second down situations. Look for Mathias Kiwanuka to take his spot, since Umenyiora has been weak against the run this year. That will allow the former Pro Bowler to stay fresh and concentrate on what he does best, rush the passer. And they'll need to get pressure on Tony Romo because the streaky passer can be explosive at times. Romo came within a yard of his third 300-yard passing effort last week, going 18-of-29 with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He's only thrown four picks in the last nine games, but the Giants did pick him off three times in Week 2. Look for a lot of nickel alignment, with Aaron Ross going in at safety in place of starter C.C. Brown, who takes the place of Michael Johnson. Ross could turn into a presence in centerfield while Aaron Rouse comes up on run support.
It's the linebackers that will have the biggest problem, however. After an off year, Jason Witten has once again become one of the league's most feared pass-catching tight ends. Considering Boley has had problems covering the better right ends, the Giants may have to bracket Witten (team-high 59-588-1) with Ross and leave corners Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster to cover a blossoming Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton with little help. The Cowboys like to go three wide a lot, going so far as to split Witten beyond the wide receivers. So the Giants may well start out in the nickel and stay there.
If the Giants have one advantage, it's at right tackle. Starter Marc Colombo broke his ankle and is gone, replaced by young Doug Free. Tuck doesn't know much about the 313-pound, third-year player, but he certainly has the experience edge. He'd like nothing better than to even the score against left tackle Flozell Adams, whose trip caused the season-long damage to Tuck's shoulder. But Tuck said he's more concerned about his upcoming battle with Free, since that's who's across from him. "It’s pretty much over for me," Tuck said of his issues with Adams. "It is what it is and that’s it. Like I said, I think I told you all last week, it’s timeout for individual battles. Just go out there and help this football team get a win."
Crayton is the league's third-best punt returner with a 13.6-yard average, so it's no wonder Jeff Feagles was boning up on his sideline punting. Mat McBriar has the league's sixth-best net punting average at 40.1. If it comes down to a field goal, remember that Lawrence Tynes' 37-yarder with no time remaining won it in Week 2. But Nick Folk, 15-of-21 on the year, has only missed one from inside of 40 yards. Tynes isn't nearly that consistent -- note his 29-yard miss against Dallas that necessitated the final kick-- though he has come through twice with game-winning field goals. David Buehler handles Cowboys kickoffs and has 20 touchbacks, a far cry from Tynes' six.
PREDICTION: There's no doubt about the Giants' recognition of this game as a must-win. Nor is there any doubt they'll play with fire, as Dallas-Giants games always come packed with emotion. But despite the changes on defense, that unit is too banged up to perform to the level needed to beat a quality opponent. Unless Romo throws three or four interceptions and the Giants take advantage with touchdowns, not field goals, I see little hope here. As Manning said earlier in the week, they need to make a jump, not a gradual improvement. Can't see that happening at this point. Cowboys 35-21.