Playoff hopes are on the line when these NFC East rivals meet in MetLife Stadium
Only in the NFC East would the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, two teams with a combined record of 11-19, enter Week 17 battling for a division title. But that's exactly where we find ourselves this weekend as one of the stranger NFL seasons in history wraps up.
The math is simple: the winner of this game takes the division if, and it's a big if, the Washington Football Team loses to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. If the Giants win, it means they'll own the dubious distinction as the first 10-loss team to make the playoffs in NFL history (6-10).
The fact these Giants are even in the conversation is remarkable in itself. Their best player, Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley, ran for just 34 yards before a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2. Quarterback Daniel Jones has battled a hamstring injury, leading to a three-game losing streak, as the offense has had its ups and downs under first-year coordinator Jason Garrett and 39-year-old rookie head coach Joe Judge. Instead, it's the defense driving their success, sparking an upset against the Seattle Seahawks last month while holding them to a season-low 12 points.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, lost their offensive leader in quarterback Dak Prescott to a compound ankle fracture in Week 5. They lost their next four games and were eventually left for dead at 3-9 before winning their last three to vault back into contention. Replacement Andy Dalton still has plenty of weapons and seems to have developed a new one in promising rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb. The former Cincinnati Bengals starting quarterback would earn a $1 million bonus for getting this team in the playoffs and deserves credit along with new head coach Mike McCarthy.
Which one of these teams and their sub-.500 record will keep themselves alive heading into Sunday night? It's a messy new chapter in one of the sport's classic divisional rivalries.
Dallas at New York
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 3 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Dallas -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How healthy is Daniel Jones, really?
The sputtering Giants offense didn't get a vote of confidence this week when Jones was asked about his pesky hamstring.
"I think you can tell from the tape that I'm not... I can't do a lot of the same things I'm used to doing," Jones said to reporters this week. "For the time being, I'll probably have to adjust the way I play. I've been doing that the last few weeks."
The quarterback went on to say he's not really capable of running, confined to the pocket in a public admission that seemed to annoy his head coach. Unless they're playing poker with the Cowboys, it's clear Jones will be less than 100 percent.
That's problematic considering the difficulty of the offensive line in protecting him. Jones has been sacked a season-high six times apiece in his last two starts, both losses, and hasn't thrown more than one passing touchdown in a game since Nov. 2. The Ravens in particular showcased his vulnerability last Sunday, making Jones uncomfortable on most offensive plays while limiting him to just 4.6 yards per pass.
The lack of a solid run game (no Barkley) also makes it tough on Jones. After posting 135 rushing yards in that Seattle upset, Wayne Gallman Jr. has posted just 113 total during the team's three-game losing streak.
2. Can Andy Dalton continue his recent surge?
While Jones is struggling, Dalton has found his stride with the Cowboys at the right time. He's got seven touchdowns and just one interception during this win streak, pushing the Cowboys to three straight games of 30-plus points on offense for the first time since replacing Dak Prescott.
Dalton's evolution has included more balance, throwing TDs to five different Cowboys during this stretch. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Tony Pollard, and Dalton Schultz have each caught one while stretching the field; Dalton averaged a whopping 12.57 yards per pass attempt last week against the Eagles. Dalton's three pass plays of 50-plus yards were the most by an NFL team in one game this season.
The Giants' defense, in theory, will present a tougher challenge. But they've let down their guard the last three weeks, recording just two sacks while allowing an average of 24 points to Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. The trio combined for five touchdown passes, zero interceptions, and completed better than 73 percent of their attempts, driving down the field seemingly at will. It's hard to see that pattern changing Sunday.
3. The x-factor: Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott has had a disappointing year, struggling as defenses have focused on him without Prescott under center. A nagging calf injury also has plagued him at times as the year wore on. But the running back put his best game together against the Eagles last week, posting a season-best 105 yards on the ground, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, and adding 34 receiving yards.
When's the last time Elliott was that effective? Arguably against the Giants in October. He racked up 91 yards on 19 carries and posted two touchdowns (his only multi-TD game of the year). His performance was key in a game the Cowboys won 37-34 despite losing Prescott for the season. Just 63 yards Sunday also will get him to that key 1,000-yard rushing marker for a third straight year, the type of streak Elliott wants to keep intact.
It feels like the Cowboys are clicking on all cylinders, putting themselves back together at the right time. Not only does it put them in a position to steamroll the Giants, winning eight in a row against their divisional opponent, but it makes them a dangerous team at 7-9.
If Washington were to lose on Sunday, would you want to play this Dallas offense? The 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) and 2014 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) won their playoff games after sneaking in. It's hard to see the Giants breaking that mojo with a team that feels a year or two away.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Giants 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.