Sunday, ladies and gents, means everything. A 3-4 Cowboys team with no Sean Lee and a slow-healing DeMarco Murray doesn’t catch a 6-2 Giants team for the division. And a 3-4 Cowboys team is in trouble for a wild-card, particularly since Dallas already handed Chicago and Seattle tiebreaker advantage. In this game against the Giants, Dallas is battling for its post-season survival.
This Giants team needs little introduction, so this will be more of a recap of how they've played since our September meeting and what looks to be different for Sunday's matchup.
As per usual, it all starts with Eli. The Dumbfaced Assassin has rebounded from a so-so showing against Dallas in Week One to lead the league in passing yardage with a healthy 8.0 YPA and twelve touchdowns against seven INTs. I said in the preseason preview that 2011 Manning gave the disturbing impression of a QB who had it all figured out, and 2012 has done nothing to make you think otherwise. What's been more impressive this season is that he's done it largely without the help of his best receiver as Hakeem Nicks has battled foot and knee ailments while playing maybe six healthy quarters in the first seven games.
Speaking of Nicks, he's probably as close to 100% going into Sunday's contest as he's been since the start of the season. Dallas is very fortunate to be able to combat him with two talented and sizeable corners, but a healthy Nicks is a tremendous downfield weapon who can also do damage if they get the ball in his hands on short throws and hitches. Manning loves to hit Nicks on deep outs and corner routes that really stretch the safeties' ability to provide sideline-to-sideline support.
Just as he did in 2011, Victor Cruz has been feasting on slot corners, LBs and safeties to the tune of 50 catches, 627 yards and seven TDs. Dallas benefited mightily from a few key drops from Cruz in their first meeting, but he seems to have gotten that out of his system and has been bringing it every week. Orlando Scandrick is likely to get most of the initial coverage on Cruz when he lines up in the slot, and it will be interesting to see how much safety attention Rob Ryan gives him if we're willing to leave our outside corners on islands. Cruz has been able to operate out of the slot because of the rotating three-headed monster of Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden and rookie Reuben Randle manning the other outside position. Hixon has seen the majority of the work - particularly in Nicks' absence, and when the Giants go three wideouts one of those three should be lining up outside on Brandon Carr. Carr's ability to shut these guys down with no safety help will go a long way towards determining Dallas' ability to contain Cruz and Nicks with added coverage.
Unfortunately, the Giants also have one additional weapon in the passing game this season - our old pal Marty B. I know in my bones who and what Martellus Bennett is as a person and a player, and while I'm happy to tip my cap to a coaching staff that can actually get something out of him, I'll never fault John Garrett and the rest of the coaching staff for failing to engage him. Bennett has finally decided to pay a modicum of attention to his craft as a receiver, and it's allowed his healthy size-speed combination to threaten the seams and occupy safeties. Dallas will need to give him a jam at the line to see if his new-found interest in route-running extends to getting back on track when he's been re-routed - and also because it's fun to run slow-mo replays of him getting hit in the face.
The other half of the Giants' offensive attack was largely left by the wayside last season, as the run game faced a season-long struggle to get anything going. Improved play from the OL and some healthy games from Ahmad Bradshaw have changed that tune this season, however, landing the Giants at an impressive #5 in Football Outsiders' run game DVOA. Bradshaw has logged a couple of huge games, with an insane 30-carry, 200-yard effort against the Browns in Week Five as the highlight. That may have been a little more wear and tear than his famously fragile feet were up for, however, as he's battled foot soreness since and has been limited in practice all week.
While he may see light duty against Dallas, the Giants' ground game has barely missed a beat when backup Andre Brown has taken over. Brown chipped in a 113-yard effort against the Panthers in relief of Bradshaw in Week Four, and brings a pretty solid speed/power combination to the table. Speed-burning rookie David Wilson may also be working his way into a bigger role - his key fumble against the Cowboys landed him in the doghouse for a few weeks, but in limited duty he's knocked out a 5.8 yard per carry average and features a different gear than anyone else in that backfield.
A ramshackle offensive line also contributed to the Giants' challenges last season (remember - this was a team that GAVE UP MORE POINTS THAN IT SCORED in 2011 and was basically handed a playoff berth through Terence Newman's sheer incompetence), but New York has seen much stronger play from this bunch in 2012. Left tackle William Beatty rebounded from a tough season to factor in as ProFootballFocus' 9th-ranked blindside protector this year - he'd be even higher in the rankings if not for five penalties. Kareem McKenzie absolutely fell off the table on the right side last year in a ‘got old all at once' collapse reminiscent of Marc Colombo's last season in Dallas. He's been replaced by Sean Locklear, who hasn't done much in the run game but who has done a far better job of keeping pass rushers at bay.
Guard Chris Snee also looked to be on the downside of his career in 2011, but he's been solid in the run and pass game this season. Fellow guard Kevin Boothe has been below average and is surrendering a good amount of pressure, but he's still worlds better than the horror show David Diehl phoned in for the G-Men last season. In the pivot, David Baas is another aging player who's hanging on - he has also surrendered a good bit of pressure but has done a great job of teaming with Snee to open up holes in the run game.
All in all, this is an offensive unit firing on more cylinders than it was in Week One. This is probably Dallas' toughest defensive test of the season to date considering how many stress points the Giants can place on a defense in their three-wide alignment. A limited Bradshaw could help in the run game, but this is a league of Adrian Peterson and a bunch of guys whose fortunes are primarily determined by their OL. The Giants' OL is playing at a fairly high level as a unit, so playing with five DBs will put some serious pressure on our defensive front to contain the run. As they'll also need to get upfield fairly quickly to keep Manning from settling into a rhythm and exploiting guys like McCray, Sensabaugh and Connor in coverage, Dallas' defensive front has a tough row to hoe this week. We'll not only need Ware to win his battle against Beatty, but Jay Ratliff needs to flash some old Pro Bowl form and create real problems in the gap between Baas and Boothe while Spencer will need to set a very strong edge on the defensive left - a tough task when he may face a 265-pound Bennett leaning on him on run downs. Hatcher has turned in one good game this season, but it came against the Giants - if he's up for a repeat performance, so much the better.
While a strong across-the-board effort from the Cowboys' D can keep Eli and company from running wild, the odds are it's going to take 27 points or better to win this one. Can Romo and the offense answer the call?