Approach to the Game – Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, November 24, 2013: After losing six straight to start the season, the New York Giants have won four in a row. Through hard work and perseverance, they have gone from a totally hopeless situation to an incredibly desperate one. But it is an improvement and we’ll take it. During the 4-game winning streak, the goal was always the same, just get to 4-6, hope the rest of the division falters a bit, and make the Week 12 game against the Cowboys and Week 13 game against the Redskins matter. Well, the team has achieved that once-considered unlikely goal. They have made this contest against Dallas incredibly relevant for both teams.
If the Giants lose this game, their season is officially over. But I think it is Dallas that is facing more pressure. A few weeks ago they were at 4-3 and seemed the class of the division despite tough losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. Now the Cowboys are 5-5 (3-0 in the NFC East) and have fallen behind the Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants? They weren’t even supposed to be able to get back into this thing. There is an incredible amount of pressure on Dallas to win this game to prevent charges of another late-season Cowboys’ collapse.
The hole is still gigantic for the G-Men. They could win the next two games and still easily miss the playoffs. They almost have to run the table. But just take it one game at a time and see where the chips fall. One thing is clear: football is fun again, at least for one more weekend. This game has a playoff atmosphere to it. Who would have thought that after the Giants fell to 0-6?
Giants on Offense: Eli took a step in the right direction last weekend against the Green Bay Packers. He looked more comfortable in the pocket and more assertive on the playing field despite still shaky pass protection. But Eli has to play the hand he has been dealt. It’s a six-game season at this point and every game is a playoff game.
Truth be told, though many of us don’t want to fully recognize it, Tony Romo has dramatically out-played Eli Manning this season. And it’s not even close. Romo doesn’t have much of a running game and his pass protection has been shaky as well (Romo has been sacked only four fewer times than Manning). But Tony has a 22-6 TD-to-INT ratio while Eli has a 12-to-17 TD-to-INT ratio. Ouch. Romo is also completing 65 percent of his throws while Manning is completing only 57 percent.
I say it all of the time: this is a passing league and in most contests, the team whose quarterback plays better usually wins. With the stakes as high as they are in this game, Eli must out-play Tony or the Giants don’t win this game. Eli has to play smart, not force the football, and throw it away or take sacks when necessary. But he also has to make big plays at big moments in the game.
Dallas’ 4-3 defense has struggled and they will miss MLB Sean Lee (hamstring), arguably their best defensive player and a Giant-killer. But with the bye week, DE DeMarcus Ware (thigh) has had two weeks to recover and DT Jason Hatcher (neck), a formidable opponent, returns. I expect the Cowboys’ defense to be sharper against a well-known divisional opponent that has struggled on offense. That said, the Cowboys continue to have issues in the secondary, and with Lee missing, the Giants should be able to make hay both running and throwing the football. Dallas is dead last in the NFL in pass defense and 29th in run defense.
Obviously, much depends on the offensive line. Everyone needs to play more consistently, especially veterans Will Beatty, Kevin Boothe, and David Diehl. Beatty versus Ware (5 sacks) is one of the key match-ups of the game. And Boothe will be facing Hatcher (7 sacks), who can also be very disruptive. Diehl seems to struggle now against most opponents and will battle Nick Hayden. Don’t forget LDE George Selvie (6 sacks) who will line up over RT Justin Pugh. Veteran journeyman Ernie Sims is expected to start at middle linebacker. SLB Justin Durant (hamstring) is out and rookie DeVonte Holloman will replace him (Late note: Holloman is also out with a neck injury). WLB Bruce Carter is now the best of the bunch at linebacker.
Aside from Manning and the offensive line, what is really hurting the Giants’ offense right now is the inability or unwillingness to get Hakeem Nicks more involved in the passing game. As The Star-Ledger points out, Nicks is getting open, but Manning isn’t always looking his way. And Nicks’ level of frustration is now beginning to boil over. Disconcerting was Nicks’ statement on Thursday that his agent suggested he get his abdominal issue checked out on Wednesday. Are we “all in” Hakeem? The Giants need each of their “Big 3” to get involved (Cruz, Nicks, and Randle). Those are the key guys who scare opponents in the passing game. And Dallas’ secondary will not be up to the challenge if all three are involved. See the first Giants-Cowboys game on opening day where all three had 100+ receiving yards. But Nicks has to not sulk and play well, and Eli has to be willing to throw him the football. In the secondary, LCB Brandon Carr and nickel back Orlando Scandrick are solid. RCB Morris Claiborne has been limited with a hamstring injury. And the safety spot has remained a problem for Dallas for years.
It’s going to be cold and windy. Expect a big dose of Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs behind John Conner. Eli needs to handle the wind better than he did two weeks ago against the Raiders. Don’t turn the football over and the Giants will win this game. People are pointing to Dallas’ 22 turnovers this year, but more than a quarter of those came in the opener against the Giants.
Giants on Defense: I don’t think there is any question that the Giants right now have the best defense in the defense-poor NFC East. But what we don’t know is how good the unit really has become due to the lowly quarterbacks they have faced in the last four games. Well that all changes this week with Tony Romo on deck, plus targets such as WR Dez Bryant, WR Miles Austin (who returns from injury), and Giant-killer TE Jason Witten. Speedster Terrance Williams (17 yards per catch and 5 touchdowns) also adds more firepower.
What fans are curious to see is how the additions of Jon Beason and Will Hill, the promotion of Jacquian Williams, and the surge in play from the defensive ends and Antrel Rolle have truly changed the dynamic of the defense since the first meeting on opening day. In that game, Austin caught 10 passes, Witten caught eight and two touchdowns, and RB DeMarco Murray surprisingly caught eight passes as the Cowboys really went after the Giants’ linebackers and safeties. The Giants did a good job on Bryant in that first meeting, holding him to four catches and 22 yards. Expect the Cowboys to take more shots down the field to Bryant in this game. I would expect Prince Amukamara to be on the spot there. But so will Trumaine McBride, who the Cowboys will probably really test, especially deep. McBride has been beaten deep a couple of times in recent weeks. The Dallas receivers versus McBride is the matchup that scares me the most. I doubt Corey Webster (high ankle sprain) will be sharp enough to contribute much, even if he is active.
Obviously, a huge factor in this game will be the ability or inability for the Giants to cover Witten. The Giants are now much more athletic at linebacker with the Williams-Beason-Keith Rivers trio. And Rolle is playing at a Pro Bowl level right now and Will Hill’s aggressiveness and athleticism will come in handy.
Of course, Romo may not have a lot of time to throw deep if the Giants’ defensive line continues its upward ascendancy on the pass rush. DE Jason Pierre-Paul squares off against Dallas’ best lineman, LT Tyron Smith. The Giants need a stellar effort (not just talk) from JPP plus strong games from ends Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka. The rest of the Cowboy line is not so strong, though the center Travis Frederick appears to have a bright future. The defensive line should and needs to control the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys are tied with the Giants in rushing, 28th in the NFL. But the Giants have been getting stronger running the ball, Dallas continues to putter along. That said, Murray is a guy who is capable of a breakout game, and he has hurt the Giants in the past (see the 2012 season opener). He’s also averaging almost five yards per carry despite Dallas’ overall anemic rushing numbers. Obviously the focus should be more on the passing game, but the Giants simply can’t afford to ignore Murray and let the Cowboys’ ground game get untracked.
If the defense wants to truly be considered a top defense, this is the kind of opponent and game where it needs to dominate. Get the Cowboys off of the field, force turnovers, create a short field for your offense, and hold Dallas to under 20 points.
Giants on Special Teams: Praise be, the Giants’ special teams actually helped to win a game last week. First and foremost, the Giants need the Week 11 Steve Weatherford in this game, not the Week 10 version who struggled mightily in the wind. After a rough couple of games, Josh Brown has been kicking very well. Rueben Randle has been threatening to break one and finally gave the Giants’ offense a big spark last week with a 32-yard return. Let’s hope that continues. Now if only the Giants could get the kickoff return game going.
Dwayne Harris returns both punts and kickoffs for Dallas and he is putting up very strong numbers in both areas, averaging over 15 yards per punt return and 32 yards per kickoff return. The Giants ability to limit those numbers is one of the keys to this game. Harris and ex-Giant Kyle Bosworth are the leading tacklers on Dallas’ special teams coverage units.
The Giants continue to threaten opposing punters with potential punt blocks.