Games like this are hard to preview because the Cowboys have nothing to gain as far as playoff positioning - they’re locked into the fourth seed. Fans and writers debate whether or not to sit the starters, but coach Jason Garrett is being coy about the team’s intentions for how many players will play and how long they may stay in the game on Sunday.
But for the New York Giants, they’re not talking about sitting anyone they wouldn’t normally, because Sunday is the end of the road for the 2018 Giants. At 5-10, the G-Men already have two more wins than last year and have shown promise in the first year under new head coach Pat Shurmur. Eli Manning is coming to the end of the road as the starting quarterback, but the younger players on offense have enjoyed success.
This offense starts and ends now with rookie running back Saquon Barkley. Taken second overall in the draft instead of a quarterback, Barkley has done his fair share to quiet the critics of passing on Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen for the Penn State alum. Through 15 games, the rookie has run for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns, and also racked up 688 receiving yards, third on the team, and four touchdown receptions. He currently ranks third in the NFL in rushing yards, trailing second-place Todd Gurley by 53 yards. If the Rams rest Gurley this week, Barkley might be able to jump into second place and finish the year behind Ezekiel Elliott.
Barkley started the year with some struggles, including a Week 2 performance against the Cowboys in Dallas that saw him limited to 28 yards on just 11 carries and 80 receiving yards on 14 catches with no scores. Through the first nine games of the season, Barkley only had two games with 100+ rushing yards, but then he collected four consecutive games with well over 100 yards each. He’s come down to earth in the last two games, in both he failed to get 100 total yards of offense. Both games were losses for the Giants as well. It really does start and end with the rookie.
Barkley leads the team in rushing attempts with 244, and the second leading rusher is Wayne Gallman Jr., who has just 45 carries for 153 yards. The third leading rusher is Eli Manning, which tells you about how much they rely on Barkley. He also adds a dangerous element in the passing game, as alluded to earlier, and as the year has gone on he’s only gotten more dangerous.
Unsurprisingly, Barkley leads the offense in receptions with 87, but it’s Odell Beckham Jr. who leads in receiving yards with 1,052 even though he has ten less receptions. Beckham’s six touchdown catches leads the team, too, although it can still be considered a down year for the star receiver. He’s missed the past three games and appears set to miss the season-finale as well. Sterling Shepard has continued to establish himself as one of the league’s best secondary receivers with 62 catches for 805 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Evan Engram has been a solid contributor as well, with 496 receiving yards and two touchdowns, although he hasn’t been utilized in the red zone as much as you’d like for a guy with his size and athleticism.
The problem for the Giants offense has been at the most important position, quarterback. Manning is clearly a shell of himself, and while he’s completing 66.5% of his passes, he’s only averaging 7.5 yards per attempt and has 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Sure, he’s not as bad as Nathan Peterman or whoever the Jacksonville Jaguars are playing at quarterback these days, but it’s clear that Manning is old, worn down, and doesn’t possess the same skills that once got him two Super Bowls.
It doesn’t help that the Giants have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, either. Pro Football Focus ranks their entire unit near the bottom of the league, although veteran left tackle Nate Solder has rebounded nicely from an early season slump and rookie left guard Will Hernandez has emerged as a legitimate building block for this line. The rest of the bunch is pretty terrible. As a result, Manning has been sacked 46 times, the fifth most in the NFL.
Now, usually that’d mean a feast for the Dallas defense in a way that would put Thanksgiving to shame. After all, this is the same defense that sacked Manning six times in the last matchup and the defense is significantly better than they were in that game. But again, who knows how many starters will play? David Irving and Tyrone Crawford are both virtual locks to sit, and DeMarcus Lawrence has been playing with a torn shoulder labrum most of the season. Randy Gregory and Taco Charlton have both spent time on the injury report at various points in the season, as well as Maliek Collins more recently.
Dallas may opt to give some of their more banged up Hot Boyz a rest, or at least pull them after a few series, which would not only give Manning more time to throw, but provide less trouble up front for Barkley. The coaches certainly don’t want to send a message that it’s okay to lose, but it’s quite possible that the Cowboys effectively do that this week in order to rest players with injuries, and as a result, we could see Barkley have a big day. And if he has a big day, it’s usually good things for the Giants.