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Week 17 Primer: Cowboys at Giants

So it all comes down to this for the Cowboys.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It’s a bit of poetic justice that the season all comes down to this Week 17 matchup against the New York Giants. The last time these two teams met, after all, the Cowboys were dealt a devastating blow to their season when Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending injury. It seemed like the final nail in the coffin for a Cowboys team that had struggled out of the gate. But here they are in Week 17 still with a shot at the playoffs.

The stage has been set for both the Cowboys and the Giants. Loser gets eliminated, while the winner has to wait all day long to see if the Washington Football Team can beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football. An Eagles win (or a tie) means the winner of this game gets crowned the NFC East champion and earns is gifted the right to host a playoff game.

It’s odd to say, but the Cowboys are a better team than they were in that last game, too. Back in Week 5, this team was a few lucky bounces away from being 0-4 and owed their sole victory at the time to an incredible performance from Prescott in their miraculous comeback win over the Falcons (plus a watermelon onside kick). The defense was getting steamrolled in a new way each week, Ezekiel Elliott was turning the ball over left and right, and the special teams had yet to show any real improvement. Worse than anything, though, this Cowboys team didn’t know how to finish.

Today, none of those descriptions match the Cowboys team that’s won three in a row. Obviously Dak is gone, and they’ve cycled through three different quarterbacks in that span, but the defense and special teams have made big strides lately to help their efficient but undermanned offense, led by Andy Dalton. Zeke, of course, has been a big part of that as well; after fumbling five times in the first six games, the star running back has just one in his last eight games. And yes, this team has learned how to finish out games in the final stretch of their first year with Mike McCarthy in charge. In their last five games, the Cowboys are outscoring opponents 56-47 in the fourth quarter, with 21 of those 47 points allowed coming in just one game.

The Giants, on the other hand, have also improved since that Week 5 meeting, but they haven’t hit their stride quite like the Cowboys. After losing in Dallas that week, New York looked listless at 0-5 and questions were starting to creep up around first-year head coach Joe Judge. But the Giants went on to win five of their next seven, culminating in an upset victory over the Seahawks in Week 13 with backup quarterback Colt McCoy starting over the injured Daniel Jones. Since then, though, it’s been three straight losses to the Cardinals, Browns, and Ravens. While all three of those teams are very talented, it was the way the Giants lost - being outscored by a total of 73-26 - that begs concern over their chances heading into this season finale.

A big part of the Giants’ success during their run was a suffocating defense that allowed just 18 points and 336 yards a game while generating 14 takeaways. During their current three-game losing streak, however, New York is giving up 24 points and 404 yards a game with just one takeaway. In terms of efficiency, New York ranks 23rd in defensive DVOA, a far cry from where they sat earlier in the year. Combine that with a struggling offense - coordinated, of course, by Jason Garrett - that ranks 26th in offensive DVOA and was without their starting quarterback for one of those three games, and you get a team unable of doing much at all.

But Jones will be suiting up for this season finale against the Cowboys with a chance to potentially lead his team to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. The big challenge for Jones, though, will be holding onto the ball against a very opportunistic Dallas defense. While Danny Dimes has only turned the ball over once in his last five games, ball security has been a major issue for him throughout his young career; he had 13 turnovers in his first eight games this year, with at least one turnover in every one of those games.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, have seemingly become ball hawks overnight. After tallying just three takeaways in their first seven games, Dallas has 18 takeaways in the last eight games, with at least three takeaways in each of their last three games. The Giants will have to hope their quarterback continues his recent trend of ball security, or it could derail their chance at making the playoffs. As for the Cowboys quarterback, Dalton has been hitting his own stride, with 1,474 yards on 67% completion rate and 13 touchdowns to just four interceptions. His 337 yards against the Eagles last week were a season high for the Red Rifle, who has been getting better each week.

Now, he faces an ailing defense in Week 17 on a red hot streak. His first real action as the Cowboys quarterback began against this same team, and it involved him driving down the field for a game-winning field goal. Can the Red Rifle engineer another win over the Giants to keep the Cowboys’ playoff hopes alive? Only time will tell.

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