NFC East rivals headed in different directions are on tap this afternoon when the Dallas Cowboys meet up with the New York Giants at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX. Jason Garrett’s Cowboys (5-5) are looking to tie the idle Eagles for first place in the division, while Tom Coughlin’s Giants (4-6) are hoping to continue their remarkable turnaround. Since starting the season 0-6, the Giants have won four in a row and a victory at home this afternoon would tie them with the Cowboys, just a game behind the Eagles.
The Cowboys won the first meeting, 36-31, back in Week 1 and are going for their first regular-season sweep of the Giants since 2007. A Dallas win also would make them 4-0 in NFC East play, putting the Cowboys in the driver’s seat for the division title. The Cowboys have struggled on the road, entering this game with a 1-4 record as the visiting team, while the Giants have won three in a row at MetLife Stadium.
4 Things to Watch
Since Last We Met…
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, served as the season-opening backdrop for the two NFC East rivals when they first met back in Week 1. The Cowboys won 36-31 thanks in large part to six Giants turnovers. Eli Manning was picked off three times and David Wilson fumbled twice, as the Cowboys turned two takeaways into defensive touchdowns. The Giants moved the ball on the Cowboys with Manning throwing for 450 yards and four touchdowns, three of those to Victor Cruz, but just couldn’t overcome their own mistakes. The Cowboys had just one turnover, a Tony Romo interception, but otherwise played a clean game and got a little more out of their ground game (DeMarco Murray had a game-high 86 yards rushing) than the Giants. The loss sent the Giants into a tailspin; as they went on to lose their next five games by an average of 19 points per contest. The Cowboys weren’t able to build off of that season-opening win either, as they lost three of their next four. Fast forward to this week and the Giants are riding high, winners of four in a row while the Cowboys are coming off of their bye week sitting at .500. Despite their horrendous start, the Giants are very much alive in the division race and a fifth straight victory would only tighten up things between them, the Cowboys and the first-place Eagles (6-5), who are on bye. The Cowboys would love to sweep the Giants to get above .500 and grab a share of the division lead. With a six weeks left in the regular season, it’s not a stretch to say the road to determining the NFC East champion begins this afternoon at MetLife Stadium.
Where’s the D in Dallas?
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired after the 2012 season and replaced by 73-year-old Monte Kiffin, who had spent the previous four seasons in the collegiate ranks. While Ryan has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround of a New Orleans defense that set an NFL single-season record for yards allowed in 2012, Kiffin’s unit has struggled. And that’s an understatement. The Cowboys entered Week 12 last in the league in total and passing defense and have been abused by good quarterbacks. Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Matthew Stafford have all thrown for more than 400 yards against the Cowboys, the first time in NFL history this has ever happened to a defense. Even though Drew Brees didn’t join that club two weeks ago, he and his Saints did roll up a franchise-record 625 yards and NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 shellacking in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The 625 yards also is the most the Cowboys have surrendered in any game in their long history and was the fourth game of 500 or more total yards allowed this season. Unfortunately, the situation may not get any better any time soon, as Kiffin has several key players who are injured. Of them, the most critical missing piece is linebacker Sean Lee, who injured his hamstring in the loss to the Saints and is expected to miss a few more weeks. Sack specialist DeMarcus Ware has been dealing with a lingering quad strain and is questionable for this afternoon, while fellow lineman Anthony Spencer also has been sidelined for an extended period of time. Kiffin’s task isn’t easy, especially with all of the injuries, but he must find a way to “fix” his defense if the Cowboys consider themselves legitimate playoff contenders.
The Return of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew
At the start of the season, the Giants’ defense was having just as many issues as the Cowboys’ unit, if not more. Through the first six games, all losses, the Giants were giving up 34.8 points and 391.3 yards per game, along with nearly 25 first downs per contest. When it didn’t seem like things would ever get better, something clicked and an entirely different Giants defense emerged starting with the Monday night game against Minnesota to close out Week 7. In the last four games, the Giants are surrendering fewer than 12 points and 254 yards per game. In fact, Green Bay last week is the only team to gain more than 206 yards of total offense and throw for more than 176 yards during this stretch. No team has collected more than 16 first downs in any of these four games and one team (Oakland, Week 10) has gained more than 55 yards rushing. Takeaways (11 total) and sacks (9) have been a big part of this run and the defense/special teams units also have provided three touchdowns of their own. Critics will be quick to point out that these four games were against teams with less-than-stellar quarterbacks (Minnesota’s Josh Freeman, Philadelphia’s Matt Barkley, Oakland’s Terrelle Pryor and Green Bay’s Scott Tolzien), but the bottom line is that the Giants’ defense has taken care of its business over the last month. Just how far has the 2013 edition of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew come since Week 1? Tony Romo and company will have a front-row seat this afternoon.
Can Either Offense Gain Ground?
Back in Week 1 the Cowboys and Giants combined for 809 total yards of offense, but only 137 of those came on the ground. DeMarco Murray led the way with 86 yards on 20 carries, while Da’Rel Scott was the leading ground-gainer for the Giants with a total of 23 yards. Establishing any sort of running game has been a season-long problem for both teams, as they are tied for 28th in the NFL in rushing offense at 77 yards per game. Murray is obviously the key to the Cowboys’ rushing attack and he is coming off of an 89-yard effort with a touchdown in the loss to the Saints two weeks ago. One of the problems for Murray has been a lack of attempts. He has gotten 20 or more carries just twice this season, including exactly 20 in the first game against the Giants, and is averaging 10.8 carries in his six other games. Murray did miss two games because of a sprained knee, but coming off of the bye he should be fairly healthy and the Cowboys need to be sure to give them the ball if they want to take any pressure off of Tony Romo and the passing attack. As for the Giants, the only one who got a rushing attempt in Week 1 that will play this afternoon is quarterback Eli Manning. Scott is no longer with the team while David Wilson, who had just 19 yards rushing and two costly fumbles in that first game, sustained a neck injury in Week 5 and is on injured reserve. Instead, the Giants will turn to the two-headed monster of Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs to carry the load. Brown made his season debut two weeks ago with 115 yards rushing against Oakland after missing the previous eight games because of a broken leg he suffered in the final preseason game. Jacobs joined the team in Week 2 and rushed for 106 yards and two scores against Chicago before a hamstring injury sidelined him for a month. The two will likely share the carries in some capacity and try to take advantage of a Dallas rushing defense that ranks near the bottom of the league at 126.8 yards per game. The Giants meanwhile have really stiffened up against the run during their winning streak. The G-Men are giving up just 60 yards rushing per game and have moved all the way up to seventh in the league (98.0 ypg) in rushing defense.
Dallas Key Player: Miles Austin, WR
Austin got out of the gates quickly this season, catching 10 passes for 72 yards against the Giants in Week 1. Since then he has totaled nine catches for 53 yards. Austin has played in just five games, as a hamstring injury held him out of the other five games, but with the exception of the season opener, he has been virtually non-existent in the Cowboys’ passing attack. In the last two games Austin has played, Weeks 6 and 7, not only did he not record a single catch, he didn’t even receive a single target. Tony Romo doesn’t lack for options, starting with wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, and the emergence of rookie wideout Terrance Williams has been a pleasant surprise too. But if the Cowboys are going to continue to ask Romo to carry the load offensively, he needs a healthy Austin to make his presence felt in these last six games.
New York Giants Key Player: Hakeem Nicks, WR
Eli Manning may be struggling (12 TDs, 17 INTs) this season, but he hasn’t gotten a bunch of help from his wide receivers either. Victor Cruz leads the team in receptions (58) and yards (824), but he has just four touchdown catches and three of those came in Week 1 against Dallas. Rueben Randle leads the Giants with six touchdown grabs, but he has just 29 catches on the season and a catch rate (29 of 53) of less than 55 percent. That said, Nicks is the one who has been struggling the most, as the big target is still searching for his first touchdown catch of 2013. Nicks has gone over 100 yards receiving twice, but in his other eight games he’s averaging 3.5 receptions for 45.5 yards per contest. Nicks is still capable of making the big play, as he’s averaging 14.8 yards per reception and has 10 catches of 20 or more yards. Like Randle, however, Nicks is converting less than 55 percent (42 of 77) of his targets and sometimes seems to disappear completely from the offensive game plan. Injuries have been an issue for Nicks over the past few seasons. He did miss some practice time this week due to an abdominal strain and is listed on the injury report as questionable, but Nicks has said he will be out there. Dallas is dead last in the NFL in passing defense (313.0 ypg) and Nicks posted 114 yards on five catches (22.8) against the Cowboys back in Week 1. A repeat performance this afternoon could go a long ways towards not only helping the Giants earn their fifth straight win, but also jumpstarting Nicks’ season and put him in position for a strong finish. The latter is particularly important to Nicks since he will be a free agent after the season. Wide receivers who want to get paid like a No. 1 need to play like a No. 1.
Oh the wild and wacky NFC East. Philadelphia is currently in first place, but the Eagles are just 6-5 and own one of the league’s worst defenses. Dallas could pull even with the Eagles with a victory this afternoon, but things will get even more interesting if the Giants extend their winning streak to five games in a row. Either way, this is a pivotal game as it relates to how things will play out in their division the rest of the way.
The Cowboys are coming off of their bye, but probably still licking their wounds from the 49-17 debacle against the Saints two weeks ago. The Giants have all the momentum, are playing their best football, especially on defense, and are at home. The Giants have their flaws, but every team in the NFC East does, which is one of the reasons why this race is so tight.
Eli Manning has had his issues, but he did throw for a season-best 450 yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys back in Week 1. Plenty has changed since the season opener, as the Giants have a new backfield and the Cowboys will be missing several key members of their defense. In the end, I think Dallas’ personnel losses are too much for this struggling defense to overcome, despite Tony Romo’s best efforts to keep the Cowboys in the game. The Giants rely on ball control and an effective running game to secure their fifth win in a row, setting the stage for what’s shaping up to be another fantastic finish in the NFC East.
New York Giants 34, Dallas 24