Was last week a fluke?
Was it more a case of the Eagles imploding than the Cowboys improving?
Can Dallas finally win two in a row?
Is Eli Manning the real thing and can he be stopped this Sunday?
All these and other early season questions should come into focus around mid-afternoon, when the Cowboys and Giants concluded their first meeting. Both are coming off promising wins. Dallas destroyed Philadelphia 33-10 last week in a game that saw tight, dominant performances from the offense, defense and special teams. New York, coming off its bye week, obliterated the Rams 44-24 in Eli Manning's best game yet.
Who Are These Guys?
The Giants, for their 3-1 record, are perhaps the most enigmatic division leader. They've been outgained in all their games. They've lost the time of possession battle and have only come close to 30:00/30:00 time of possession parity once. Their running game is performing at the same level as Dallas'. Their passing game, for all the Manning ballyhoo, is not as good as Drew Bledsoe's crew.
Their defense has only recorded half as many sacks as the Cowboys. Without Michael Strahan, they would barely have any at all. Their pass defense is next to last in the NFL. And yet, they are in first place. How have they done it?
By playing to their strengths. That defense has let opponents march up and down the field, but has been relatively stingy in giving up touchdowns. On offense, they have been manic about protecting the boy king Manning; he has been sacked only six times so far this year.
Two of New York's redeeming skills have been their special teams play and their defensive opportunism. The Giants amassed 400 return yards in the opening win over the Cardinals, returning a kickoff and a punt for scores as they broke away early in the second half. The Rams and Saints kept the ball away from Manning and Co., but the Giants stole it back -- repeatedly. They intercepted Marc Bulger three times and recovered two fumbles while avoiding any turnovers of their own. The Giants registered six more takeaways against the Saints against one giveaway. Their plus-10 turnover margin is the best in the NFC.
When the Giants Have the Ball
Dallas will again face another top-drawer offense. New York is not as highly ranked as Philadelphia, but it has far more balance. What's more, the Giants have an offensive plan. They paid a king's ransom for Manning in last year's draft and have invested as heavily in building an offensive line to protect him. GM Ernie Accorsi acquired RT Kareem McKenzie from the Jets and the lesser known C Shaun O'Hara from the Browns. The two have meshed quickly with high pick LT Luke Petitgout and RG Chris Snee to form a line that offers Manning water tight protection.
At the same time, Accorsi added WR Plaxico Burress to a fearsome skill position unit that already featured Tiki Barber, Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer. The Burress signing drew some criticism, mostly because Burress had overpriced himself in the free agent market. His contract looks like a bargain for New York. He gives Manning the deep threat to team with Toomer, who is starting to age a bit. With time to throw, Manning's learning curve has accelerated. Look at his QB ratings for his four games:
Manning had a rocky rookie year, but he's not playing like a rookie right now. He's playing high-stakes football, throwing almost exclusively downfield to his receivers and Shockey. Consider that Barber, who has averaged 66 receptions the past six seasons, has only six so far.
Manning's men will present another stern challenge for a Cowboys secondary coming off its best game of the year. Leading the way is CB Terence Newman, the clear defensive MVP thus far. Newman spent most of last afternoon working over Terrell Owens, holding him to just 50 yards on five receptions. Newman got almost exclusive coverage on Owens in the second half, when Dallas went exclusively to the nickel, waiting for a trailing Eagles' offense to throw the ball. Newman got physical with Owens and made it hard for him to get off the line. Playing so close also offered Newman a few chances at blitzing. He recorded a sack while lining up as a tackle between LaRoi Glover and Greg Ellis. Newman will likely draw Toomer.
The other outside matchup to watch will pit Anthony Henry against Burress. Henry was signed in part because of his size. He'll need every bit of it against the 6'5" Burress, who torched the Rams for 204 yards.
One major question concerns Mike Zimmer's blitz philosophy. Zimmer started the season in a very basic 3-4 scheme, to ease the mental burden on a front seven rotation thick with rookies. He's slowly added complexity to his schemes and rushes and last week finally turned the dogs loose on Donovan McNabb. He unveiled personnel packages he did not show even in camp.
Zimmer may continue his experimentation but a lot will depend on his outside linebackers' ability to contain the run. The Giants run the ball more often and more effectively than the Eagles. However, they are not a power-running attack. Barber is still a speed back at age 30 and most of his yards come on the perimeter; he averages over 5.0 yards per carry on outside runs but only 1.9 yards between the tackles. This suggests that any exotic rushes Dallas runs this week will come inside, as Zimmer does not want to surrender contain by Demarcus Ware and Scott Fujita, who got a lot of reps in the base 3-4. Almost all of those plays saw Fujita rushing.
This week is also a pivotal game for Bradie James. The third year ILB had his best performance, showing certainty and consistency in his pass drops. James and Scott Shanle will be tested by Shockey, who has recovered from his drop-heavy '04. We might also see more play from Kevin Burnett, who is finally healthy.
When Dallas Has the Ball
The Cowboys have one of the largest tape libraries in the NFL available for their staff to study. They also have a large archive of all past games. It seems Sean Payton took some inspiration from the Norv Turner/Ernie Zampese tactic of passing first and running second, in sequences and in games, to jumpstart his potent but sputtering offense. (More on this topic next week.)
The Giants look like a prime target for a repeat game plan. Corner Will Peterson is out with a back injury, meaning either rookie Corey Webster or second year player Curtis Deloatch will start at right corner opposite Will Allen. Whichever corner Giants DC Tim Lewis selects will likely get some early work from Terry Glenn. Glenn looks like a rookie again after being reunited with Drew Bledsoe. He is currently fourth in NFC receiving yards and is second only to Randy Moss in yards per catch average.
The New York secondary has not been helped by the suprisingly poor Giants rush. New York has only eight sacks so far. 3.5 of them have been produced by Strahan. RT Rob Petitti draws Strahan this week. Look for him to get lots of help from TE Dan Campbell and the Cowboys running backs. Petitti had tight end or running back help on nearly every Cowboys pass play last week, when he faced Jevon Kearse. The tactic worked, as Kearse had only one assisted tackle on the day.
The Giants had trouble against good running teams last year and were pounded by San Diego two games ago. LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 192 yards, as the Giants front was helpless to stop him in the red zone. Red zone performance has been a key indicator of Dallas performance in '05. When the Cowboys have excelled in the red zone, they have won. When they have struggled, they have lost.
This game will be no different. DC Tim Lewis likes to play aggressive schemes, having learned his trade playing and coaching under Bill Cowher. With so much inexperience in his back seven, I expect to see a lot of zone, as the Giants will concede yards, but hope for red zone stops or turnovers. Dallas will need to be patient when it gets close to the Giants end zone. Fortunately, Drew Bledsoe has been Mr. Efficiency thus far, throwing only three interceptions. one of them a failed Hail Mary prayer on the last play of a half.
More importantly, Dallas must build on the running efficiency it showed last week. The Eagles like to run blitz and count on creating lots of negative plays. Dallas had its share of no gains, but it was able to balance those plays with long runs. Julius Jones got his season-long run of 24 on a 4th-and-1. In the second half, when Philadelphia knew Dallas was running, the offense was still able to grind out two time-consuming drives. Tyson Thompson got 20 carries in the second half alone. If Thompson can equal or even slightly surpass last week's performance, Dallas will get sevens instead of threes and have a strong chance to control the game.
The Giants' returners are dangerous, but they've quieted down since their blowout against the Cardinals. Dallas, on the other hand, has seen its once leaky coverage units improve, by adding Keith Davis, Willie Pile and Kevin Burnett to the lineup. The Cowboys should be able to control this aspect of the game.
It's tempting to pick the Cowboys in a romp, because their offense seems to have such a mismatch against the Giants D. However, last year's matchups looked good too, and New York swept both games. I think the game turns on the Dallas offensive line. They kept Bledsoe clean last week and blocked well enough for Dallas runners to have their best day. They are facing a weaker unit this week. If they can keep Strahan under wraps, Dallas will score.
That said, the keys will be avoiding turnovers and scoring TDs inside the 20. Eli Manning will get his yards and the Giants will get their points, but if Bledsoe continues to play under control, he should be able to match -- and surpass -- anything his young rival produces. This is also a big week for Tyson Thompson. Julius Jones has been unlucky, but Bill Parcells doesn't care about luck. He wants his players on the field. If Thompson runs hard again -- and protects the ball better -- expect Jones' rehab to get a lot faster.
Dallas 31, New York 21