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NFL Preview - Dallas (8-3) at N.Y. Giants (6-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New York Giants begin a make-or-break portion of what's been an up-and-down 2009 season with this Sunday's critical showdown against the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys from the Meadowlands.
New York's prospects for a second consecutive NFC East crown are likely hanging in the balance when the slumping club starts up a very challenging December slate. The Giants currently trail the 8-3 Cowboys by two full games for first place in the division and are one behind the rival Philadelphia Eagles, who will head up the New Jersey Turnpike for a key late-season battle with Big Blue the following weekend, in the race for one of the conference's two Wild Card berths.
The Giants, who enter the stretch run having lost five times in a six-game span after roaring out to a 5-0 start, also have to face the one-loss Minnesota Vikings on the road in the regular-season finale.
New York's early-season surge included a thrilling 33-31 victory over Dallas back in Week 2 that spoiled the official grand opening of the palatial new Cowboys Stadium. Quarterback Eli Manning led the charge by throwing for a season-best 330 yards and two touchdowns, while a swarming defense intercepted Tony Romo three times and harassed the Dallas triggerman into his most unproductive outing of the year.
Neither Manning nor the defense has been able to maintain that level of play as of late, though. The Giants have surrendered an uncharacteristic 31.7 points per contest over their six-game swoon, while a nagging stress reaction in Manning's right foot has sapped the former No. 1 overall pick's effectiveness more than he or the team would care to admit.
Manning could muster only 28 passing yards during the first half of the Giants' most recent test, a forgettable 26-6 defeat to the previously- struggling Denver Broncos on Thanksgiving. The offense converted just 3-of-12 third-down opportunities on the night and finished with season-lows for points and total yards (267).
Dallas has also had its troubles on the offensive side lately, as the team managed only a single touchdown in back-to-back games with Green Bay and Washington before breaking out against the hapless Oakland Raiders on Turkey Day.
Romo racked up 309 yards and two touchdowns in the Cowboys' 24-7 triumph, with both wide receiver Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten each eclipsing 100 receiving yards in the rout. Dallas also found plenty of success on the ground, with its outstanding backfield trio slicing through a submissive Oakland defense for a combined 196 yards.
The Cowboys now look to avoid a repeat of recent history in their postseason quest. Dallas entered last December in seemingly good position to reach the playoffs with an 8-4 record, but proceeded to lose three of its four remaining games and was denied a chance to extend its season after receiving a 44-6 shellacking by the Eagles in the finale.
Since Romo took over as the team's starting quarterback in 2006, the Cowboys have gone just 5-10 in December and January.
Like the Giants, Dallas has a tough road ahead, with its five remaining opponents owning a 35-20 cumulative record at the moment.
The Cowboys lead the all-time regular season series with the Giants by a 55-37-2 count, but as mentioned, were 33-31 home losers when the clubs met in Week 2. That contest was the first meaningful game played at brand-new Cowboys Stadium. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split last season. Dallas was a 35-14 loser when it visited Giants Stadium in Week 9, but exacted revenge with a 20-8 primetime win at Texas Stadium in Week 15. The Cowboys last won a road game in the series in 2007.
On Sunday, the Giants will be vying for their first home-and-home sweep of the Cowboys since 2004.
New York was a 21-17 road winner over Dallas in a 2007 NFC Divisional Playoff, a game that ranks as the only postseason meeting between the franchises to date.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has a 8-7 record against Dallas as a head coach, including 7-5 since arriving in New York in 2004. Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 3-4 against the Giants in his career as a head coach, with one of the defeats coming for his Bills team in 1999. Phillips is 4-3 against Coughlin head-to-head, including a victory for Buffalo over Coughlin's Jaguars during the 1998 season.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas had little trouble moving the ball on the ground in its earlier meeting with the Giants, generating a season-high 251 rushing yards and getting huge performances out of top backs Marion Barber (633 rushing yards, 4 TD, 15 receptions) and Felix Jones (421 rushing yards, 2 TD, 7 receptions). Barber came through with 124 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries in that game, with the dynamic Jones contributing 96 yards and another score on only seven touches. The second-year speedster also delivered a 46-yard touchdown run in the Thanksgiving Day win over the Raiders and is averaging an impressive 6.9 yards per rush this season. Romo (2933 passing yards, 17 TD, 7 INT) stymied his backfield mates' efforts against New York with a miserable 13-for-29, 127- yard, three-interception showing, but the two-time Pro Bowler has been plenty good recently. sporting a 13-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last seven games and surpassing 300 yards four times during that stretch. The emergence of Austin (42 receptions, 824 yards, 8 TD), the NFL's leader in yards after catch, as a go-to receiver has certainly helped matters, while Witten's (59 receptions, 1 TD) 107 yards on five grabs versus Oakland was an equally-encouraging sign for an offense that stands fourth overall in total yards (392.1 ypg) and sixth in rushing (138.0 ypg). Highly-scrutinized wideout Roy Williams (26 receptions, 4 TD) has produced lately as well, having recorded a touchdown catch in three of the last five weeks.
A Giants defense that's allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in the league (182.6 ypg) posed major problems for Romo back in September, but a host of key injuries and an inconsistent pass rush have rendered the secondary an easier area for enemy quarterbacks to navigate in the season's second half. New York has missed the presence of free safety Kenny Phillips, who picked off Romo twice in that Week 2 tilt before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the same game, and fellow starter Michael Johnson (44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) could miss Sunday's matchup after exiting the Denver game with a groin strain. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce (55 tackles, 1 sack), the defense's primary signal-caller, is also out for the year due to a bulging disc in his neck, with untested sophomore Jonathan Goff (7 tackles) slated to take over that role and make his first career start this weekend. The Giants do possess two accomplished pass rushers in ends Justin Tuck (38 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (20 tackles, 5 sacks), but both have been having what can be best described as down seasons.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
New York was able to shred the Cowboys through the air in their Week 2 encounter, with a razor-sharp Manning (2684 passing yards, 18 TD, 10 INT) hitting on 25-of-38 passes and the young receiver duo of Steve Smith (72 receptions, 869 yards, 5 TD) and Mario Manningham (45 receptions, 4 TD) teaming up for a whopping 284 yards and two scores on 20 catches. There's evidence to suggest that Manning's foot problem has taken its toll on the durable quarterback, though, as he's completed only 58 percent of his attempts and thrown eight interceptions over the team's last six games. The regression of a once-mighty ground attack has had an impact as well. The Giants, who led the league in rushing offense during last year's 12-4 campaign, have averaged under 100 yards in that department since mid-October, while top back Brandon Jacobs (683 rushing yards, 3 TD, 15 receptions) has yet to surpass the century mark this season and was limited to a harmless 27 yards on 11 carries by the Broncos. The 264-pound bruiser may have to carry the load alone this week, with counterpart Ahmad Bradshaw (549 rushing yards, 4 TD, 10 receptions) considered a game-time decision because of a sprained ankle and third-stringer D.J. Ware (51 rushing yards) having been ruled out after sustaining a concussion on Thanksgiving.
Smith and Manningham were able to routinely get open on a Dallas defense that ranks just 21st against the pass (224.9 ypg) and has garnered only seven interceptions on the year, making it imperative for the Cowboys to bring the heat on Manning come Sunday. Dallas failed to record a sack in its earlier clash with the G-Men and probably won't have regular free safety Ken Hamlin (39 tackles) patrolling center field for a third straight week due to a high ankle sprain, although substitute Alan Ball (17 tackles) hasn't been a liability filling in. The Cowboys do have one of the game's premier pass rushers in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (40 tackles, 8 sacks), who's notched eight sacks over the last seven games, while counterpart Anthony Spencer (40 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) came through with his first two of the season in the Oakland win. Dallas comes in a respectable ninth against the run (102.7 ypg) and sports a strong interior core in disruptive nose tackle Jay Ratliff (31 tackles, 4 sacks) and inside linebackers Keith Brooking (82 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bradie James (78 tackles, 1 sacks).
Romo owners could be a bit skittish due to his woeful last appearance against the Giants, but the Dallas field general's overall consistency and New York's glaring defensive problems should ease those concerns. Austin's big-play potential has made him a weekly lock at wide receiver, and the budding young star's ability to draw coverage has had a positive fantasy impact on the often-underachieving Williams as well. Witten's breakout game on Thanksgiving puts the somewhat disappointing tight end back in the must-start category, with Barber the best alternative out of the Cowboys' crowded backfield situation, although Jones figures to get enough chances to warrant consideration as a flex player. As the only healthy running back on the New York roster, Jacobs possesses enough upside to outweigh his overall decline in production for the season, but Manning's recent downturn and injury issues attach a fair amount of risk to his outlook. Smith's week-to-week reliability has been an asset to his backers, with Manningham and rookie receiver Hakeem Nicks (32 receptions, 4 TD) a pair of boom-or-bust options among the New York receivers. Keep an eye on Giants tight end Kevin Boss (26 receptions, 4 TD), who's hauled in four touchdowns over the past four games, and kicker Lawrence Tynes, whose 23 field goals are the second-most in the NFL this year.
The Giants beat the Cowboys in September because Manning thoroughly outplayed Romo, but the recent performances of both quarterbacks suggest that may not happen this time around. That could wind up being a moot point anyway, since games in Giants Stadium in December are often won by the team that's better able to establish the run. If that's the case, then Dallas seems to have a decided edge here. The Cowboys' offensive line bullied New York at the line of scrimmage earlier this season, and Austin's development at wide receiver lessen the chances of Romo experiencing a repeat of his Week 2 meltdown. While another Dallas December collapse can't be ruled out, the Giants' shortcomings on defense and in red-zone execution make it less likely one will begin this week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 31, Giants 23
12/03 18:04:03 ET