Playoffs begin early for Giants, Cowboys

The 2011 NFL playoffs don't officially start for another week, though that's essentially not the case for the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

The two heated rivals will be going toe-to-toe in Sunday's regular-season finale from MetLife Stadium with a postseason berth on the line, with the winner claiming an NFC East championship and a No. 4 seed in the upcoming conference tournament and the loser having a campaign that had fostered high expectations come to a swift and bitter end.

"We are both fighting for the same thing," said Giants safety Antrel Rolle. "Our backs are against the wall and the best man continues and the loser goes home. That is the way both teams are going to approach this game."

This elimination bout that will be held in front of a standalone primetime national audience was set up by a crucial victory by the Giants this past weekend, with Big Blue's 29-14 triumph over the crosstown inhabitant New York Jets last Saturday ensuring a winner-take-all clash between the teams, both of whom currently sport identical 8-7 records.

The Giants' win also prevented the Cowboys, who had entered Week 16 with a one- game edge atop the NFC East, from clinching the division. That prompted Dallas head coach Jason Garrett to take a conservative approach to his team's Christmas Eve showdown with Philadelphia, with the Cowboys resting several players in an inconsequential 20-7 loss to the Eagles.

Dallas still didn't come out of the contest unscathed, however. Quarterback Tony Romo injured his right throwing hand on the Cowboys' first series after making contact with Philadelphia defensive end Jason Babin, placing the standout triggerman's status for this all-important matchup in some question.

Romo suffered only a bruise as a result of the incident, and was able to participate in this week's practice sessions in a limited capacity. Barring any setbacks, he's fully expected to be under center for Sunday's tilt.

"I just think everything is coming together like we thought," Romo said on Thursday. "Each day is getting a little better. We'll be good to go this weekend."

Running back Felix Jones, who's been hampered by a hamstring strain that also reduced his availability against the Eagles, is also probable to play for Dallas, while the Giants plan to have high-impact pass rusher Osi Umenyiora back in the lineup after sitting out the last four weeks with a sprained ankle.

Romo's anticipated presence ensures an intriguing battle between two of the NFC's premier signal-callers, both of whom displayed their talents when the teams squared off at Cowboys Stadium less than a month ago. Romo threw for 321 yards and a season-high four scores in that tilt, but the Giants ended up with a thrilling 37-34 decision when Eli Manning orchestrated a pair of touchdown drives in the final 3 1/2 minutes to rally New York from a 12-point deficit.

Manning, who edged out Romo for the final quarterback spot in the recently- announced NFC Pro Bowl squad, finished the night with 400 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns with one interception.

The Giants prevailed in spite of surrendering 444 total yards to the Cowboys, but their somewhat-maligned defense is coming off one of its best outings of the season last Saturday. The unit came up with five sacks of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and forced three second-half turnovers, while also registering a safety.

The winner of Sunday's game will host either Detroit or Atlanta in the Wild Card Round of the NFC Playoffs the following weekend.


The Cowboys lead their all-time regular-season series with the Giants by a 56-40-2 count but as previously mentioned, have lost in four of their last encounters with their longtime divisional foe. Dallas' only win over that stretch was the above-noted 13-point verdict at MetLife Stadium last season, which came in Jason Garrett's debut as the Cowboys' head coach. New York recorded home wins over Dallas the previous two years, however, producing a 35-14 rout in 2008 and a 31-24 ousting the following season to complete a home- and-home sweep.

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 game between the franchises to date.

The Giants' Tom Coughlin has an 11-8 record against Dallas as a head coach, having posted a 10-6 mark since arriving in New York in 2004 and a 1-2 ledger while at the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-2002. Garrett, a backup quarterback for the Giants for four seasons from 2000-03, is 1-1 against both Coughlin and his old club as a head coach.


Provided he's not hindered by his sore hand, Romo (3895 passing yards, 29 TD, 9 INT) should again be a stern challenge for the Giants' defense. The three- time Pro Bowl selection had been on a major tear prior to his early exit to last Saturday's game, having amassed a stellar 18-to-2 touchdown-to- interception ratio over a seven-week span highlighted by his top-notch performance against New York in Week 14. He also has a wealth of excellent targets to throw to in directing Dallas' eighth-ranked passing offense (263.3 ypg), with playmaker Miles Austin (41 receptions, 7 TD) headlining a quality trio of wide receivers and veteran Jason Witten (72 receptions, 5 TD) among the league's premier all-around tight ends. No. 3 receiver Laurent Robinson (50 receptions, 9 TD) also showcased his considerable skills by burning New York for a career-high 137 yards and a touchdown on just four catches in the first meeting, while talented second-year pro Dez Bryant (57 receptions, 9 TD) hauled in a 50-yard scoring strike from Romo in that game. The brittle Jones (545 rushing yards, 1 TD, 26 receptions) getting over his injury woes would be welcome news as well, as the former first-round pick tallied 106 rushing yards on only 16 carries in last month's loss to the G-Men and followed up with a 22- attempt, 108-yard outburst at Tampa Bay the subsequent week.

The Giants' best chance of slowing down Dallas' potent aerial attack is to come up with a persistent pass rush, which just happens to be the specialty of the defense. Second-year end Jason Pierre-Paul (81 tackles, 15.5 sacks) has put together a monster season, entering the week fourth in the NFL in sacks in addition to holding his own against the run, and the athletic 23-year-old took down Romo twice and recorded a safety in New York's critical win in December. Opposite-side starter Justin Tuck (35 tackles, 4 sacks) has also come on lately after being slowed by nagging injuries early in the season, while Umenyiora (23 tackles, 7 sacks) has produced double-digit sack totals in three of the last six years and would be a nice addition to the rotation if he's indeed ready to go. Though New York ranks fifth in the league with 42 sacks, it's just 28th in total defense (381.5 ypg) and has permitted over 400 yards in three of its last five games. The Giants also gave up 139 rushing yards to the Cowboys in the initial matchup, and the outside linebacker duo of Mathias Kiwanuka (79 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Michael Boley (84 tackles, 1 sack) will need to be disciplined in their assignments to avoid a repeat. The secondary is headlined by cornerback Corey Webster (48 tackles, 15 PD), who's come up with two of his team-best six interceptions in the past two weeks.


New York's offensive fortunes have predominantly rested upon the strong right arm of Manning (4587 passing yards, 26 TD, 16 INT), as the Giants are dead last in the league in both rushing yards (88.1 ypg) and yards per carry (3.5). They've been better in that area as of late, though, with 264-pound running back Brandon Jacobs (555 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 8 total TD) averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per pop over the last four weeks and gaining a season-best 101 yards along with two touchdowns on 19 totes in the first go- around with Dallas, and backfield mate Ahmad Bradshaw (602 rushing yards, 31 receptions, 9 total TD) again making contributions after missing substantial time with a foot injury. Still, the Giants classify as a pass-oriented team, with Manning having shattered the franchise's single-season record for yards through the air in the finest campaign of his up-and-down eight-year career and young wideout Victor Cruz (76 receptions, 1358 yards, 8 TD) also establishing a new club standard for receiving yards in a breakthrough year. The second-year pro, who connected with Manning on a momentum-shifting 99-yard touchdown against the Jets last week and ended the game with a personal-best 164 yards on a mere four catches, teams with 2009 first-round choice Hakeem Nicks (71 receptions, 1116 yards, 6 TD) a pair of dangerous outside threats, and the slated return of Mario Manningham (39 receptions, 4 TD) from a knee issue that rendered him inactive last Saturday brings another weapon into the fold. He had a 47-yard touchdown catch against the Cowboys last month, with Nicks amassing a career-high 163 yards on eight grabs in the wild win. The receiving corps will likely be without tight end Jake Ballard for a second straight game, however, after he hurt his knee against Washington in Week 15.

The Cowboys will be out to atone for a brutal showing in their previous loss to the Giants, in which the defense was shredded for a season-worst 510 total yards and allowed 28 first downs. New York did a terrific job of neutralizing pass-rushing terror DeMarcus Ware (53 tackles, 18 sacks) in that game, with the Pro Bowl outside linebacker failing to register a sack for only the fourth time in 15 appearances this season. He and counterpart Anthony Spencer (62 tackles, 6 sacks) will be asked to apply the heat upon Manning and protect a secondary that's shown some vulnerability. Dallas has been pretty solid in containing the run over the course of the year, though the bruising Jacobs did cause some problems in the first encounter, with a front seven anchored by inside linebacker Sean Lee (94 tackles, 4 INT) and disruptive nose tackle Jay Ratliff (35 tackles, 2 sacks) having held the opposition to 98.6 rushing yards per game (7th overall) in 2011. Ratliff received his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl citation on Tuesday, while Ware made the roster for a sixth straight year and enters the week tied for second in the league in sacks.


Romo's hand. If this game resembles the all-out shootout that the first meeting delivered, the Cowboys are going to need their prized gunslinger to be in top form and remain sharp with both his throws and decision-making skills. He certainly wasn't to blame for Dallas' late collapse against New York three weeks back, averaging an outstanding 10.4 yards per pass attempt and matching Manning score-for-score until the end.

Pressuring the quarterback. This was a major problem for the Cowboys in their Week 14 loss to the Giants, as Manning lit up the secondary while barely being touched by a Dallas defense that didn't post a sack at all on the evening. On the other side, New York's defensive backs will have trouble handling the Cowboys' strong contingent of pass-catchers if Pierre-Paul, Tuck and Umenyiora aren't wreaking havoc up front. The Giants had a combined eight sacks in their recent wins over Dallas and the Jets, but managed just one in an upset loss to also-ran Washington in between.

The fourth quarter. If this contest comes down again to which quarterback has the ball last, then it could be advantage Giants. The first Dallas game marked the fifth time this season in which Manning has engineered a fourth-quarter comeback, and the poised veteran's 14 touchdown passes in the final period in 2011 are tied for the most in NFL history. On the other hand, the Cowboys have blown a fourth-quarter lead in five of their seven defeats.


Though the Giants' roller-coaster season has been rife with inconsistency, they have demonstrated the ability to answer the bell in the biggest games on the schedule. New York downed AFC East champion New England on the road in early November, played then-unbeaten Green Bay to the wire prior to their pivotal win over the Cowboys, and came through with a big effort last week with the season on the line. Add in Manning's penchant for clutch performances at crunch time and Dallas' tendency to fade in such spots, not to mention a defense that sports more difference-making pass rushers than Sunday's opponent and the concern of Romo's injury, and New York seems to be the more logical choice to step up in this spotlight situation.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 34, Cowboys 27