So much for that 6-2 start.
In what can be compared to a Twilight Zone episode, the New York Giants are embroiled in another second-half swoon, and have just four games left to redeem themselves and possibly save the job of head coach Tom Coughlin. The team stormed out of the gates in winning six of its first eight games of the season but have since plummeted to a 6-6 mark, leaving the Giants on the outside looking in on a postseason spot.
New York is currently one game behind the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East lead and will renew that rivalry Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium. Giants quarterback Eli Manning discussed the upcoming showdown on his radio show.
"We've had some good games there. So I think anytime you get to play in good weather, in a dome, on turf, it's always pretty good conditions to throw the football," Manning said. "Obviously [the Cowboys] are a talented team. They have a new defensive coordinator doing some different things this year. So we have to get prepared, but we've played well in the past. Hopefully we can continue to do that."
It's possible the Giants can still finish with a 9-7 record and win the division, one year after posting 10 victories and missing the playoffs completely. The NFC East has been a crapshoot this season, with the fallout of both Philadelphia and Washington and both the Giants and Cowboys scraping by with admirable records. Missing out on a chance to play for another Super Bowl has been the norm the previous two years for the Giants, who will also face Dallas at home in the 2011 finale along games against the Redskins and Jets on the remaining schedule.
Those won't be easy games for a New York team that almost put a chink in Green Bay's armor in last Sunday's 38-35 loss. Manning, who is having one of his finest seasons, pulled the Giants even at 35-35 with a two-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks that was followed by D.J. Ware's two-point conversion with 58 seconds remaining in the game. The defense, however, gave Aaron Rodgers too much time on the clock, and the Packers eventually moved into New York territory for the game-winning field goal with no time left.
Giants safety Antrel Rolle said he had fun playing against the NFL's best team and is looking forward to seeing them again. However, the Giants will have to take care of business first before prognosticating future matchups.
"It was fun," Rolle told the New York Post about last week's game. "Losing is never fun, but that was a great matchup and you know that you were going up against the best team in football at this point in time."
New York hasn't lost five in a row since an eight-game slide from Nov. 7-Dec. 26, 2004, when it finished with a 6-10 record. That was the last time the Giants finished with a mark below. 500.
The Cowboys are certainly no slouches and are coming off a tough 19-13 overtime loss in Arizona. It appeared they had won the game at the end of regulation on Dan Bailey's 49-yard field goal, but head coach Jason Garrett called a timeout before the ball sailed through the uprights. As fate would have it, Bailey then missed his next try and the Cardinals struck quickly in the extra period.
Garrett has a pressure-packed job working in Dallas and for hands-on owner Jerry Jones, who's been known to play ventriloquist with his coaches. The loss to the Cardinals made it tougher to seal up the NFC East for the Cowboys, who can send a thank you card to the Packers for upending this week's opponent and keeping them in the driver's seat. Dallas knows it can lose out on winning the division by dropping these two upcoming games to the Giants, and also has Tampa Bay and Philadelphia on the schedule.
All-Pro tight end Jason Witten knows what's at stake for his team.
"Everything we want is still out in front of us and we have to go get it," said Witten, who leads the team in receptions (61) and receiving yards (760).
Dallas' four-game winning streak was cut short with the loss to the Cardinals, but it was just the team's second setback in its past seven contests. Quarterback Tony Romo may have a few weapons back for this showdown as well, as wide receiver Miles Austin and fullback Tony Fiammetta are expected to return. Miles has missed the last four games with a hamstring issue and Fiammetta has sat out three in a row because of an illness.
Even though the Cowboys have won two of those three games, rookie running back DeMarco Murray's production has dropped off the last three weeks, having averaged just 66 rushing yards over that span. Murray was averaging 150 yards per game over the previous four weeks before his recent slump. He'll be trying to prove his struggles aren't similar to a major league baseball player who breaks out onto the scene with opponents having little video to study.
The Cowboys lead their all-time regular-season series with the Giants by a 56-39-2 count and halted a string of three straight losses to New York with a 33-20 win at MetLife Stadium during Week 10 of last season. That result avenged a 41-35 Giants' victory at Cowboys Stadium three weeks earlier in which Romo sustained a year-ending fractured collarbone. New York swept the home-and-home set between the bitter rivals in 2009, following up a 33-31 decision in Dallas with a 31-24 home triumph later in the year, and is 3-1 in its last four outings as the visitor against the Cowboys including the playoffs.
New York was a 21-17 road winner over Dallas in a 2007 NFC Divisional Playoff at Texas Stadium, which ranks as the only postseason encounter between the franchises to date.
Coughlin has a 10-8 record against Dallas as a head coach, including a 9-6 mark since arriving in New York in 2004. Garrett, a backup quarterback for the Giants for four seasons from 2000-03, defeated Coughlin and his old club in his head coaching debut during that previously-noted Week 10 meeting in the 2010 campaign.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Manning (3705 passing yards, 23 TD, 11 INT) recorded his second straight game with a passer rating of 100 or better in last week's tough loss. He threw for 347 yards with three touchdown passes and an interception for the Giants, who are fourth in passing yards this season (296.1 ypg). Manning has been especially dangerous in the fourth quarter, having thrown 13 touchdown passes and producing a 120.5 quarterback rating. He has also enjoyed plenty of success in his career against the Cowboys, having won three of his last four starts in this series with 10 touchdown passes in that span. In seven career meetings with the Cowboys in Dallas, he is 4-3 with 15 touchdown passes, five interceptions, a 60.3 completion percentage and an average of 243.7 yards through the air. Manning, who threw a career-high 25 interceptions a year ago, has been picked off in each of his last five contests (six total), however. The Giants, who have won in each of their last two trips to Dallas, got a boost with last week's return of running back Ahmad Bradshaw (478 rushing yards, 5 TD), who had missed four straight games with a stress fracture in his foot and ran for 38 yards on 11 carries against the Packers. Backfield mate Brandon Jacobs (379 rushing yards, 5 TD) did well as a starter again in that game, racking up 59 yards rushing and a touchdown. New York is still last in rushing yards per game (83.8 ypg), however.
In order to disrupt Manning and the New York offense, Dallas must have that mean streak going on Sunday. The player who can make that happen is All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware (42 tackles, 15 sacks), who has three sacks in his last four games and posted one of the team's five against the Cardinals a week ago. He owns sacks seven in the last seven meetings with New York as well. Fellow outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (46 tackles, 6 sacks) is second on the team in sacks and also registered one last week. The Cowboys are 14th against the pass, allowing 230.2 yards per game through the air, and must be aware of Giants wideouts Victor Cruz, Nicks and Mario Manningham. Cruz could be one of the best receivers the Cowboys will face this season. They had no problem shutting down Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, however, who had 55 yards on just four catches, but teammate Andre Roberts burned them for 111 yards on six receptions. If Dallas allows another no-name receiver to beat them, chances of the team making the postseason could be in jeopardy. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have to straighten out the secondary before the Giants roll into town. Even though New York has put up less-than-stellar rushing numbers this season due in part to Bradshaw's injury, he's back at full strength and Jacobs is running the ball well after a slow start to the season. Cornerback Terrence Newman (37 tackles) leads the Cowboys with four interceptions, while linebacker Sean Lee (77 tackles) is tops in tackles and second with three picks.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
The Cowboys will most likely try to get Murray (872 rushing yards, 2 TD) going against New York's porous run defense. He leads all rookies in rushing yards even though he hasn't hit the century mark in his last three games, but does have 799 yards over his last seven contests for Dallas, which is 14th in rushing (114.8 ypg). Witten (61 receptions, 760 yards, 5 TD) is Romo's favorite target and he create mismatches across the middle with his size and athleticism, and New York's linebackers will have to limber up for this one not only for the All-Pro tight end, but for a possible return of Austin (28 receptions, 4 TD). Wide receivers Dez Bryant (46 receptions) and Laurent Robinson (42 receptions) lead the team with seven touchdown catches apiece, but the latter is dealing with a balky shoulder he injured in the first half last Sunday at Arizona before returning to play the in the second. He said the shoulder is fine and there's no reason why he would miss Sunday's important contest, however. Bryant had eight catches for 86 yards and a score against the Cardinals while being targeted a career-high 14 times. Backup tight end Martellus Bennett (10 receptions) could miss Sunday's game with a rib problem, though. He left last week's loss in the first half and never returned. The offensive line will need to tighten up after Romo (3325 passing yards, 22 TD, 9 INT) was sacked five times in Arizona. He has been sacked 10 times in the past three games, and New York will key on that statistic.
The Giants have endured their fair share of injuries along the defense, having lost ends Justin Tuck (24 tackles, 3 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (23 tackles, 7 sacks) for portions of this season, and now safety Kenny Phillips (67 tackles, 2 INT) is hurt. Phillips went down against the Packers with a left knee injury and could miss Sunday's game. He is one of the team's leaders in tackles and also serves as the last line of defense on deep passes. Much like the Packers, the Cowboys enjoy taking shots downfield quite often with their array of wideouts and Witten. The injury to Phillips is the same knee he had microfracture surgery on during the 2009 season, causing him to miss the final 14 games, and Rolle (74 tackles, 1 INT) said his loss will definitely affect the defense. Rookie Tyler Sash (15 tackles) will need to get his head in the playbook and video room, as he'll likely receive more playing time along with veteran Deon Grant (48 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) with Phillips unlikely to shake the injury this week. Linebacker Michael Boley (63 tackles, 1 sack) is now back from a hamstring issue for New York, which can come out on top if it applies pressure up front. End Jason Pierre-Paul (53 tackles) is the man to do it, as he possesses a team-best 11 sacks. Getting to Romo early will be key for a Giants defense rated 23rd against the run, 28th in points allowed and 29th in both pass defense and total yards.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Cruz was an unknown wideout getting little time with the Giants until breaking out in midseason. He has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark and has helped Manning forget about his statistical nightmare from a year ago with a team-best 62 catches for 1,076 yards and seven scores. The second-year pro's production has been right up there with Calvin Johnson and Carolina's Steve Smith -- two players who have set the wheels in motion for their respective teams -- and has caught at least six passes in each of the last six games. He is on pace to break Amani Toomer's single-season record of 1,343 receiving yards established in 2002, and could get even closer if the Cowboys can't contain him.
The Cowboys are a solid 5-1 at home and can ill-afford to lose this game to the Giants, who will remain in the Empire State for their final three games of the season. In order to avoid a first-place tie atop the NFC East the Cowboys must protect Romo, who was knocked out for the season with a broken collarbone in a game against the Giants in 2010. Winning on Sunday would give Dallas a seemingly-comfortable lead in the division and possibly the tie-breaker, since New York already has six losses in the conference (3-6).
Manning has been playing rather well this season and is on pace to set career highs and Giants' single-season records in attempts, completions and passing yards, He is also aiming to become the first 5,000-yard passer in team history and will face a Dallas defense that has yielded 230.2 passing yards per game. He could also add to his team record of six 300-yard games this season.
The Cowboys let one slip away last week against the Cardinals and could have set themselves up for a knockout blow with Sunday's upcoming matchup with rival New York. Instead, Dallas let the Giants remain in striking distance of an NFC East title and will be searching for answers if it experiences its second two-game slide of the season. This is an ideal time for New York to have its ground attack running on all cylinders, and that will help Manning get settled comfortably for another strong week. Keeping the Cowboys guessing on defense is a complex task, but the Giants will make it look rather simple.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 27, Cowboys 13