A mild distraction between the mid-week episodes of "The Days of Our Wideouts." Because there is this thing called a football game coming up in two days.
Here come the Giants, fresh from a 20-14 loss to Philadelphia that was far more decisive than the score. New York scored on the last play of the first half when they blocked a David Akers field goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown.
The Giants scored again in the game's final minute, their offense finally recording a scoring march after the Eagles had pushed the lead to 20-7 at the two minute warning. Like the Cowboys, the Giants were affected by heavy winds. Their passing game could not get untracked in the wind tunnel Meadowlands. Neither could Philly's: the big gainers were the tight ends and RB Brian Westbrook.
This can be waved off as an aberration. The Giants had won seven straight prior. Even good teams are due emotional let downs. And New York had won six straight against winning teams.
Still, there are signs that the loss was the culmination of an overall downturn, a dip from the incredible peak the team reached in November, when it was playing on a different plane.
Let's go again to the first Cowboys-Giants game, a 35-14 beatdown. It was the first of four straight 30+ games for the Gaints offense. They hit Philly with 36 the next week, Baltimore for 30, then dropped 38 on Arizona. And they won in a bludgeoning style -- 200 yards rushing against the Cowboys; 219 against Philly; 210 against Baltimore.
Then, the fraying began. It was little noticed at first, but it's slowly become a trend. Plaxico Burress and Brandon Jacobs both missed the Arizona game. It didn't matter. Eli Manning ripped a weak Arizona secondary for three TDs. He again played superbly in the rain the following week, throwing for 305 yards, his only 300 yard game of the season.
But the running game was beginning to sputter. The trend began in Arizona, when the Jacobs-deficient attack gained 79 yards. The Redskins stacked the box and held the Giants to 107 yards. Losing blue-chip C Shaun O'Hara for a while didn't help. Last week, they were slowed to 88 yards by Philly. Suddenly, the rushing attack that couldn't be held under 200 yards in November couldn't get over 100. Their average since Jacobs began to hobble has been 92 yards.
And Jacobs is listed as questionable for Sunday. He injured his knee on the first 2nd-half play from scrimmage last week and never returned. Derrick Ward had a strong 5.0 average as the lead dog, but the Giants lost the dull edge to their ground attack.
Add the Plaxico effect, and the New York offense can be said to be in its own recession. The Giants scored 38 in Burress first absence and the cry was "Plaxico who?" But defense have adjusted to New York's passing attack without him. The Eagles last week doubled Domenik Hixon regularly, figuring he was the Giants lone deep threat. Manning completed a handful of 12 to 18 yard passes to his receivers, but he never got the big play downfield. And no receiver finished with more than 40 receiving yards.
Take Jacobs away and New York's O now is operating without it's best deep weapon and its hardest and best ground instrument. Add that Hixon has missed practice all week with two leg injuries and the New York offense suddenly looks mortal. Look at their points scored in the Post-Plaxico Era -- 38, 23, 14. A steady downward curve.
And they're playing a Dallas defense that has found its mojo. That same Giants loss marks the turnaround for the entire unit that suffered a forgettable October. In a four-game span beginning October 12th, Dallas was gouged for 30 points by Arizona, 34 by St. Louis and 35 by New York.
Wade's Wimps were giving up a ghastly 24.3 points a game and couldn't stop anybody on the ground. Then, the bye. Since then, the results have been quite different.
The Cowboys have allowed 15.3 points a game in their last month. That's good. Take Romo's Pittsburgh pick six off their total and that drops to 13.5. That's more than ten points per game better than before. That figure will take you far in the playoffs -- if the Cowboys can get there. Wade Wimps have transformed into Wade's Warriors.
They've done it two ways. The front eight, so porous before, has allowed 52.5 rushing yards per game since the bye. And while the corner position has been a revolving door, with Terence Newman, Anthony Henry, Adam Jones and Mike Jenkins all missing games, the rushers have taken the pressure off their mates by turning it up against opposing QBs. Look at the figures, starting with Giants I:
- vs. New York -- 3;
- vs. Washington - 3;
- vs. S.F. -- 4;
- vs. Seattle -- 7;
- vs. Pittsburgh -- 5
Total -- 22
The Cowboys upward trend coincides with a drop-off by New York's vaunted D. They were running with Pittsburgh at the top of the defensive charts. They gave up an average of 16.1 points their first eight games. That number has inflated some the last five games, with New York giving up 19.4 points in that span.
The primary reason? A much, much weaker rush. Steve Spagnuolo's marauders have six sacks their last five games, and four of them came against Washington. Baltimore and Arizona each held the Giants to one sack and Philly shut them out in both games.
Taken as whole, the Giants appear to be slowly straying from their game. Their running attack has gone missing recently, and their blitz has lots its fizz. They have continued to win, and this has negated any criticism. But they've clearly dropped a notch, which makes me wonder if we saw their peak last month?
-- The Cowboys triangle of Jay Ratliff, Bradie James and Zach Thomas vs. the Giants trio of C O'Hara, LG Rich Seubert and RG Chris Snee. It all starts inside. The Giants have been so good because they have an excellent O-line core. O'Hara should be the Pro Bowl starter. Seubert is very good going forward and pulling. Snee has simply been the best guard in the division the last four years. He has power and agility.
The Cowboys guys were stout early in the Giants game, with James and Thomas making a lot of plays run blitzing. They wore down as the game progressed. They'll have to get their hands on the turf and dig in. A strong start would put more emphasis on Eli Manning's arm and that's where Dallas wants it.
-- Stop the Giants perimeter runs: New York ran effectively against Dallas last year, even in the Cowboys' wins. They had their best success running sweeps and counter plays to the edges, where Seubert and Snee picked off the pursuing Cowboys ILBs, especially Akin Ayodele.
The Giants didn't use these plays very much in October. They went with two tight end sets a lot and hammered straight ahead with Jacobs. Since Derrick Ward looks to be the starter, I expect these plays to return to New York's game plan, since Ward is shiftier and is faster to the edge than Jacobs.
Watch for the weakside counter, a play New York ran at Philly with great success last week. They'll line up in a straight I, with TE Kevin Boss motioning to a wing, just outside one of the OTs. At the snap, New York will block down to the strong side and pull the strongside guard and Boss to the weak side. Add Madison Hedgecock, the NFC's best blocking FB to this group, and Ward will have three escorts around the weakside edge.
The Dallas OLBs will have to crash the edges hard against this play to prevent from being hooked inside. If Hedgecock wins these matchups, Ward will have big runs to the outside.
-- Orlando Scandrick and Alan Ball vs. Steve Smith -- He's Manning's 3rd down target. He works the middle of the field effectively, in the way that Kelvin Martin used to for the '90s Cowboys. He's especially effective at running stutter routes, where he'll feight a hook, stop for a quick count to freeze his man, then continue on a shallow crossing route. He beat Ball on a key 3rd down pass with this route in October. Slow him down, and New York will be punting a lot.
-- Pressure Manning inside: The Giants have done a much, much better job of protecting Manning this year, one reason they're 11-2. He's been sacked just 15 times all year. The Cowboys put some pressure on him overloading the middle, with Bradie James and Kevin Burnett coming on inside blitzes.
Philadelphia tried a similar tactic last week. In both games, Manning recklessly threw balls over the middle when the heat was in his face. Look for more of the same.
-- Keep Anthony Spencer and Greg Ellis producing on the weakside edge. New York slid its protection towards Demarcus Ware, as almost every team does. They kept tight ends in block on the rusher off the opposite side. Spencer had his first big day of the season abusing Michael Matthews. It will take another big game from the Spencer/Ellis connection to keep Manning off balance.
-- Anthony Henry vs. Amani Toomer: The old Giant just keeps rolling. He had a 40 yard TD bomb against Washington two weeks ago and Cowboys fans remember his 50 yard TD against Henry in last year's playoff game, when he caught a stop pattern at 10 yards, spun away from three tacklers and tightroped the sideline for the game opening score.
When the Giants played Dallas in October they worked Henry hard. A source who spoke to some Giants people told me they felt Henry could not turn as well as Mike Jenkins and decided to work the veteran instead of the green rookie. Toomer is the Giants biggest threat if Hixon is out or plays hurt. Look for them to attack Henry again.
When Dallas has the Ball
-- Small ball is fine: T.O. and Roy Williams might hate it, but there is nothing wrong with repeating the Eagles game plan, which used the tight ends and backs to great effect. Donovan McNabb moved the chains with short throws to the sidelines and over the middle. It helped Philly control the clock. They had nearly 35 minutes of possession, and they held the ball for all but five plays in the 3rd quarter, when New York had a strong wind at its back.
This means two things -- hammer Tashard Choice and throw to Tashard Choice. The Giants love to blitz, as we know. This will put Choice in a lot of one-on-one matchups against MLB Antonio Pierce in space. He gave the Steelers ILBs fits on circle routes last week.
And opposing RBs have been hurting the Giants ILBs as receivers. Clinton Portis and Rock Cartwright made huge gains on screens. Last week Brian Westbrook had 72 yards receiving, running delays and circle routes. He iced the game with a 40 yard TD catch against Pierce very similar to the 50 yarder Choice ran in Pittsburgh.
-- Work the right cornerback: Corey Webster has been New York's best CB this season. Aaron Ross has suffered a sophomore slump. In October, Dallas nevertheless attacked Webster. Roy Williams beat him on a deep fade early, but Webster snatched two picks later on weak Brad Johnson passes.
Ross left last weeks' game with an ankle injury. He's back this week, but Dallas should test him. His backup, Kevin Dockery, is a feisty nickel corner, but he's 5'8". Dallas might try to match him on wide against any of their WRs, as all of them are 6'2" or taller.
Possible Unsung Player -- Miles Austin:
These guys are all still new. Bennett has been around all year but is only getting heavy reps since the bye. Williams was obtained just before the trading deadline and Romo's hand injury limited their work. Choice made his first start today.
It doesn't matter. They've all shown they can produce -- if Tony will get them the ball. Bennett won the Redskins game with a late catch. Choice had as good a day against the Steelers as any back has this year. Williams is a breakout waiting to happen.
Romo will simply have to trust them more going forward. The season depends on this.
One reason I'm yawning at the ESPN reports from yesterday is that they simply tell us that the players are in sync with something many people on this site noted early this week -- Romo needs to work his ancillary players more.
He's already proven he can. The supporting guys won the Redskins game. Bennett made the last TD but the guy who caught my attention was Miles Austin. He got his first start as the 3rd receiver that game, putting Patrick Crayton on the bench. And Romo looked to him a lot in pressure situations. Austin caught a 17 yard deep out with a sliding catch that started Dallas first long drive of the night.
He made another big 3rd down catch on a slant in the 3rd quarter that was wiped out by a penalty. And on Dallas game winning drive, Romo twice looked to Austin for key receptions. He had Austin wide open on a shallow cross that Austin dropped. On the next play, a 3rd-and-7, Austin again got open on a shallow cross, caught a Romo shot put pass and twisted for the needed yardage. Romo hit Bennett for the game winner on the following play.
Austin wrenched his knee on that play and has not seen the field since. He'll be back Sunday night. He's Dallas version of Hixon. He's tall and he's fast. He makes plays. The Giants will give T.O. attention, and if Roy Williams really has plantar fasciitis, he's not going to be running full bore. He looked slow in the 2nd half last week, with no upfield burst.
Dallas needs another WR with playmaking ability. Austin is coming back at just the right time.
They have the perfect profile for a Dallas team that's running hot on defense and is making headlines with Heather's-like sniping among its receiving.
Bottom line: I expect both offenses to rebound, in the wind-free Texas Stadium. Manning was razor sharp against Washington in the rain the week before. The wind knocked him down as much as the Eagles' rush.
Romo, soap opera notwithstanding, should play much better this week, without the gusts, the cold and Troy Polamalu roaming the deep middle. Kenny Phillips looks promising, but he's not in Polamalu's class right now.
The game will turn on which team's understudies perform better. Derrick Ward will be the man again, with Jacobs out. Tashard Choice showed against Pittsburgh that he can navigage A-rated defenses.
This is the second match between division rivals. The first was a blowout. The rematches tend to be much lower scoring -- and close. Think Washington II. Think the Giants and Eagles rematches last year, which were far tighter than the free wheeling openers.
This will be more of the same. If the Dallas safeties play, I think they'll have more firepower overall, of fewer key injuries, than New York. They're also got a lot more at stake than New York.
And it's a prime-time game. Romo is 11-1 under the lights.
Dallas 21, New York 20