The stakes are high enough as it is. In fact, they couldn't be higher during a regular-season game. Rarely are there games where a division title and a playoff berth is on the line and the loser will be eliminated entirely.
That's what's on the line on Sunday night in what might just be the Game of the Year in the NFL between the Giants (8-7) and the Cowboys (8-7) at the Meadowlands. The winner wins the NFC East and locks in the fourth seed in the NFC playoffs. The loser's season is immediately over and there's a chance they could slip all the way to third place.
And hard as it is to believe, that's not all. The ramifications for the loser goes way beyond wins and losses. The Giants are at a crossroads with their 65-year-old coach, Tom Coughlin, who could be facing an uncertain future. Ditto for their once-heralded defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. And in Dallas, they all work for a reactionary owner in Jerry Jones. Who will he blame for failure? Jason Garrett? Tony Romo? Both?
Maybe the loser will realize how close they came and they'll decide to stay the course and take their chances with the same key players in 2012. Change, though, tends to be inevitable in the NFL especially in big markets. So both teams might really be playing for a lot more than a playoff berth and a division championship.
Both teams could be playing for a lot of people's jobs.
What if the Cowboys lose?
Is there anyone who thinks Jerry Jones will quietly accept failure, considering the Cowboys have just one playoff victory in the last 15 years?
The brash owner has voiced mostly support for his sometimes embattled quarterback, Tony Romo, but how many times is he really going to watch him come close and fail? And considering the rash of rookie quarterbacks who have had stellar debuts this year, it's a pretty good bet that Jones will at least eye Romo's successor at some point – likely early – in the NFL draft. If he doesn't replace him immediately in the event of a loss, he will very likely make sure the replacement is on the roster looking over his shoulder.
And what about Garrett, who just a few years ago was considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL and the next great up-and-coming coach? Jones thought enough of him to pay him millions when he was just Wade Phillips' offensive coordinator. But Garrett's fate could have been decided the moment he iced his own kicker in a loss at Arizona. If the Cowboys had won that game they could've clinched the NFC East last week against the Eagles, instead of having to rest their starters and set up one final, do-or-die game.
Jones may like Garrett, but he's a showman at heart. If they fail to make the playoffs, can he really resist the urge to bring in one of the bigger names on the market. Can he just sit quietly while Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher and Jon Gruden all get away?
There will be other decisions, too. Felix Jones was supposed to be the next great Cowboys running back and they even jettisoned Marion Barber to give him his chance. But the best Cowboys running back this season was DeMarco Murray. Jones still has one year left on his contract, but as much as he's a favorite of Jerry Jones, the emergence of Murray makes it seem unlikely he'd get a big offseason contract extension. And if he doesn't, could he be trade bait to a team that needs a running back so the Cowboys can bolster their depth?
What if the Giants lose?
The Giants are a franchise that craves stability, and they have a coach that ownership absolutely loves. But the cold, hard truth is that they haven't been to the playoffs since 2008 and in Coughlin's eight-year tenure their only postseason wins came during their Super Bowl championship run in 2007. That has given Coughlin a lot of milage, but the honeymoon can't last forever.
It will be a painfully hard decision for the owners and one the Giants don't want to make, but can they really ignore what would be a 2-6 second half, the latest in a string of second-half collapses on Coughlin’s watch? Can they ignore no playoffs in the last three years and no playoff wins in seven of eight seasons? Maybe they can be seduced by all the big names standing on the sideline, too. And there's also the question of whether any change they make will include GM Jerry Reese, because a good argument could be made that any failure by this team had more to do with the makeup of the roster and the depth than anything a coach did or didn't do.
They won't have any Romo-like decisions to make at quarterback, where Eli Manning will be coming off his finest season, but there could be other parts of the team that need a makeover -- their defense in particular. That will bring up the status of Fewell. Coughlin rarely fires his assistants, unless he does so under pressure. And if he fires Fewell, the Giants will end up with their fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons. That's usually a bad sign.
What would make ownership make Coughlin make a change? Well, what if the Rams fire Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLII? That might make them think about it, at least.
One thing is certain, though: The prize for losing this game isn’t just an early vacation and a second- or third-place schedule in 2012. The prize could be a long, painful offseason and plenty of changes along the way.
By RALPH VACCHIANO