There isn’t a whole lot of mystery to this one.
The Cowboys and Giants know each other well, the firing of Ben McAdoo certainly shakes things up but aside from him the coaching staff is mostly in place. It feels like interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo has been the Giants defensive coordinator for the past decade, but offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was not shown the door along with McAdoo.
So while there may be a few wrinkles thrown in to the gameplan that the Cowboys must be on alert for, as often happens following the firing of a head coach, there shouldn’t be much that surprises Dallas on Sunday.
On paper, long story short, the Giants are far inferior to the Cowboys, even without Ezekiel Elliott. New York has been riddled with injuries, from their best overall player in Odell Beckham Jr. to their two best offensive linemen in Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg to their best linebacker in Jonathan Casillas to their best cornerback in Janoris Jenkins.
Strengths coming into the season, such as the receiving corps, have become weaknesses, while weaknesses, such as the offensive line and running game, have become horrific train wrecks.
With all of that said arguably the biggest strength coming into the season, the defensive line, is still mostly intact. It’s been an underwhelming group for sure, but the primary pieces that elevated that defense to one of the best in the league last season are still there. The excellent bookend defensive ends, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, combined with one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the league in Damon Harrison will be out there on Sunday, along with promising rookie Dalvin Tomlinson.
Harrison and Vernon did not make First and Second Team All-Pro, respectively, last year for nothing. They are elite players, and while Vernon has missed a handful of games he seems healthy and ready to go. Combine that group with another 2016 First Team All-Pro in safety Landon Collins and there are obviously pieces on that defense who can give you problems, especially on the road in the cold and wind, and perhaps with some snow still on the ground.
Even taking all of that into account, and having given the opponent all due respect, the Cowboys are a far better team.
The offensive line is intact and seems ready to get rolling. Alfred Morris is no Ezekiel Elliott but he can keep an offense on track while busting a couple of 15-20 yard runs, which is more than I can say for Orleans Darkwa. The receivers and tight ends lack explosiveness but you aren’t playing guys named Robert Lewis and Tavarres King 50 snaps a game either.
And defensively, all that really needs to be said is Sean Lee will be back. The loss of David Irving will certainly hurt, but Lee is clearly the most important player on the defense and it isn’t even close. With Lee the defense is generally above average, and even excellent in stretches, while without him they are one of the worst in the league. Words can’t really describe the significance of having him back, hopefully for good this time.
Basically what I’m getting at here is that from a talent perspective, there’s not much of a contest.
What does give me pause though are the circumstances surrounding the game. Not only the very distinct possibility of a short-term emotional boost and adrenaline rush thanks to the McAdoo firing/Eli reinstatement, but also the weather. Dak Prescott, who grew up and played college football in the south, and who now plays professionally for a dome-team in Texas, did not look much like a cold-weather quarterback this time last year against the Giants.
If you’ll remember the Cowboys were on an 11-game winning streak going into a Sunday night matchup in New York. It was in the low-30’s with a mix of freezing rain and snow, and Prescott, who seemingly was trying to make a point by playing without sleeves, struggled mightily. And that was at a point where Prescott was being talked about as a possible MVP candidate, compared to now where he is in the midst of a month-long struggle and coming off a game where his hand was swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
Sunday’s game will be played under similar conditions, perhaps a bit warmer in the upper-30’s with the game being at 1 P.M. EST, but the ground will likely be hard and treacherous with several inches of snow fallen the day before.
Can Prescott perform in the cold?
Will this be one of the few games all year where the Giants play inspired ball before slinking back into the abyss that is their 2017 season?
It’s impossible to know, but what I do know is that if the Cowboys were playing this team on December 2 or December 16, it’s probably an easy 10-14 point win.
Nobody knows for sure, and the matter is only complicated without David Irving, who has been on a tear lately, but at the end of the day, this is a game a playoff team wins. This is a game a top coaching staff doesn’t allow their team to lose with a potential playoff spot on the line.
Yes, the Giants may come out extra hyped up with a few tricks up their sleeves, but if the Cowboys can weather the early emotional wave the game should settle down and start going according to script. Dallas must avoid buoying belief amongst Giants players and fans with early penalties and turnovers. Even better than simply weathering the early emotion, if the Cowboys can come out and sack Manning a few times early, take the lead, and with it their emotion, you better believe the Giants players and fans will go into a shell with a “here we go again” attitude.
Everybody loves to evoke memories of the 2010 game where the 1-7 Cowboys went in to New York and beat the 6-2 Giants a week after firing Wade Phillips. While there are clearly similarities, there are obvious differences too. The primary one being that the 2010 Cowboys were a severely underperforming bunch who were not getting absolutely dominated, but instead they found ways to lose games with penalties and turnovers, often times while significantly outgaining their opponent in yards. Before Phillips was fired they lost games by 6, 7, 7, 3, and 6. Five of their seven losses going into that Giants game were by a touchdown or less. The fact that they went 5-3 down the stretch is a testament to that.
The Giants on the other hand have an offense that is often simply non-competitive thanks to an offensive line, which was terrible to start the season, but has devolved since then thanks to several significant injuries. They are in the bottom 5-10 in basically every offensive statistic imaginable and there is no real solution to them bouncing out of that.
That 2010 Cowboys team, even with Jon Kitna at quarterback, had legitimate offensive talent, even elite talent in some instances with Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, Marion Barber, Doug Free, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, and Marc Colombo. Defensively they had DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer, and Terence Newman.
The Giants clearly have some excellent defensive pieces, but how many offensive pieces do they have who are simply average or better?
Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram?
John Jerry, Jon Halapio, Chad Wheeler, Roger Lewis, Orleans Darkwa, Brett Jones, and Tavarres King are all backup/replacement-level quality, and they’re all going to play at least 35-40 snaps on Sunday.
There is plenty to be weary of here; the weather, a “turn back the clock” performance from Manning, an inspired “win one for Eli” type of atmosphere, and the impressive defensive line talent of the Giants. But ultimately, if the Cowboys can simply avoid giving the game away with turnovers and penalties I feel like the Giants offense is simply too devoid of talent for them to overcome. Play a clean game, leave with a victory. Cowboys 23-16.