The inside track to the NFC East title is on the line when the Cowboys travel to New Jersey to take on the Giants. A Cowboys win would give them a sweep over New York, giving the Cowboys all tiebreaker advantages.
When the Giants Have the Ball
The Cowboys are the only team to hold the powerful Giants offense to under 20 points this year. That came in week six, when Dallas earned a 16-13 overtime win. The extent to which the defense controlled New York is not clear in the score. Eli Manning and friends gained only 270 total yards. 173 of them came in the last ten minutes of regulation, when the Giants attempted to erase a 13-6 Dallas lead.
Dallas approached that game, and will certainly approach this game, with four objectives. First, keep Tiki Barber from establishing the run. Barber has been the best running back in the NFC not named Shaun Alexander this year. He's limited the fumbles that have troubled him in year's past and is still the pass catching threat he has always been.
This year, he's playing behind an improved offensive line that New York's front office has signed to long term deals, ensuring continuity, something very few salary-cap-era offensive lines enjoy. Barber's game has two glaring tendencies. He's a much more effective runner on the perimter, where he can use his speed. He also gains most of his yards running left, behind LT Luke Pettitgout and LG David Deihl. Barber had success running left in October, right at Cowboys' ROLB Demarcus Ware. Ware has been better against the run of late, but Dallas will have to guard against runs right, where Scott Fujita and Kevin Burnett have struggled.
The second objective is limited Giants featured wideout Plaxico Burress. Dallas matched up RCB Anthony Henry on Burress and Henry won decisively, holding the receiver to just 55 yards on five receptions. Henry conceded hooks, and shallow crosses, but prevented Burress from getting behind him.
Henry is questionable because of a strained groin that has sidelined him for the past month. Third CB Aaron Glenn will start again if Henry cannot play. Glenn had a solid game against Denver's Rod Smith last week and should be ready if Burress tests him. However, he is giving up eight inches to the 6'5" Burress, who will use his size to play post-up basketball. Burress might frustrate the Cowboys with third down conversions, but this is not the type of play that can beat you all by itself. So long as Glenn does not concede deep passes, or miss tackles on slants, turning seven yard gains into 20 yarders, he and the defense should be okay.
Where Henry will be missed is on running plays. He is powerful in run support and backed up Ware in the first match, limiting Barber's outside runs to Ware's side. Glenn is a gritty player, but he carries less weight and therefore is less willing to throw his body at oncoming runners. This could give the Giants a small edge they lacked the first time.
The third key is keeping TE Jeremy Shockey under wraps. He ignites the Giants' offensive engine. Terence Newman smothered him the first three quarters in Texas Stadium and New York's offense went nowhere. When Mike Zimmer began playing standard zones after getting a lead, Shockey ripped through linebacker coverage and amassed 101 of his 129 receiving yards. I expect that Shockey will get more attention from Newman again this week, in the hopes of preventing a fast start, by both Shockey and the Giants.
Pressuring Eli Manning is the fourth objective. The Dallas line won the matchup the last time, sacking Manning four times and forcing two turnovers. Pressure came from all angles; Ware had a vital sack in the fourth when the Giants were in the Dallas red zone. LaRoi Glover had another key first half sack that pushed the Giants out of field goal range.
The line woke up last week after a sleepy extended bye. The pass rush missing against Philadelphia and Detroit wore down the Broncos line. Rookie Chris Canty led the charge. He'll probably get a lot of playing time at right end, next to Ware. The two can play games with Pettitgout and Deihl, who are much better run blockers and pass protectors. Pettitgout had an embarrassing number of false starts last week against Seattle. The crowd noise will be on his side this week, but a strong early push could give him the jumps yet again.
When Dallas Has the Ball
Keep the ball. That's the lesson of game one, where Sean Payton tried to pass the Cowboys to an early lead, as he did against the Eagles the week before. His plans were undone by three turnovers in game's first 20 minutes. The Giants secondary has been beaten up all year and Dallas found some mismatches. The biggest was Keyshawn Johnson against CB Curtis Deloatch. Johnson had 8 catches for 120 yards. Dallas threw a lot of deep in and skinny posts to Johnson, as the New York safeties were playing deep to help against Terry Glenn. Deloach is still having trouble with big receives; Seattle's Joe Jurevicius caught 8 for 137 yards against him and his mates last week. Look for Keyshawn to gain be the centerpiece of the passing attack.
Glenn did not have a breakout day against the Giants, but they gave him constant attention. He was still able to get deep a couple of times but was underthrown by Drew Bledsoe, once for an interception when Glenn had his man clearly beaten. Glenn will draw rookie Corey Webster much of the time. Dallas won't wait very long to test him.
One area where the Giants are vastly improved is run defense. They held Dallas to a 2.4 yard per attempt average last time. Last week, Shaun Alexander averaged a so-so 3.5 yards a carry. The key for both Dallas and Seattle wins was to keep pounding at New York's front. Alexander got 31 carries. Dallas, despite its poor running, had 38 runs. It's not pretty, but it's highly effective; Dallas was able to keep the ball for over 40 minutes in the early win. Expect more of the same. The best way to keep Eli Manning and friends off the scoreboard is to keep them off the field. Dallas has struggled throughout 2005 to put up big rushing numbers, but that won't dissuade them from running Sunday. Look for Marion Barber and Julius Jones to get a lot of ugly runs.
The tale of the game will be told on the line of scrimmage, where Dallas has two key matchups it must either win or draw if it wants to win. The more obvious has RT Rob Petitti facing New York LE Michael Strahan. Petitti received TE and RB help on almost every play of the first half last time. Dallas tried letting Petitti go one-on-one a few times, but sacks by Strahan pushed them back to a more conservative approach. Petitti will again get a lot of help.
The more open duel will feature LT TorrinTucker against N.Y. RE Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora had a breakout game in October against Flozell Adams, though it seems clear from the tape that Adams probably injured his knee in the first quarter and played on it until he was forced from the game in the third quarter. Tucker had to leave the bench cold and had a shaky start but finished the game respectably. He has slowly gained in confidence and is getting a lot less chip help since the bye. If Tucker can hold his own, Dallas will be able to field more three WR sets and attack the soft Giants secondary. If he loses out to Umenyioua, I have a hard time seeing how Dallas can get to the 20 point mark.
This one is hard to call. You've go the Giants 3rd-ranked scoring offense against the Cowboys' 4th ranked scoring defense. On the other side of the ball, you have the Giants 12th ranked scoring defense against Dallas' 13th ranked scoring offense. The matchups on both sides of the ball look fairly even. Each team has a weakness on offense the defense can exploit. Conversely, each team has a weakness on defense the offense will attack.
There are no invincible factors. The Giants looked unbeatable at home, then lost an ugly game to the Vikings at the Meadowlands. They are 4-3 the last seven weeks, including the Dallas loss. The Cowboys are 4-2 in that span, with three point losses to Denver and Seattle haunting them.
It's hard to know where to turn. This game is a rematch, which I rate above all other factors. Rematches after close first games tend not to be close. One team takes advantage of its second chance to show it is better. I see the winner taking this by seven to ten points. But which winner? The Dallas defense wore down the Denver offense before giving up a big play in overtime. The Giants dominated yardage against Seattle, but trailed for much of the game.
This game would be much easier to call if Anthony Henry was available, but he's not. A secondary of Newman, Glenn and Jacques Reeves handled Denver, however, so I can see them again keeping Dallas in the game, if not dominating.
The key, yet again, comes down to the offense. Dallas, quietly, has managed over 20 points per game the last month. They're not pretty, but they've been consistent in their inconsistency this year. Dallas has responded every time it has lost a close, painful game, which shows me mental toughness. I see them responding again.
Dallas 21, New York 14