A late-season Giants-Cowboys matchup usually has playoff implications for either one or both of the clubs and this year is no different. The Cowboys (11-1) are sitting atop the NFC East with a very comfortable three-game lead over the 8-4 Giants with four games remaining.
The Giants' loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday put a damper on this week's showdown with Dallas in more ways than one. It pretty much handed the Cowboys the division and put the Giants in wild card mode, a position in which they hold the top berth at the moment.
This Sunday's game means a lot more to the Giants than it does the Cowboys, since Dallas is already in the playoffs and the Giants need to win at least two of their last four games to solidify their invitation.
Another glaring fact that came to light in Pittsburgh is the continuation of the Giants' poor play on offense. There is plenty of blame to go around up and down the rank and file of the organization but at this late date, not much can really be done to turn the ship around.
The Cowboys do not have such problems. They were slammed for the last several years for drafting offensive linemen too high in the draft and then were castigated again this year when they took a running back with the fourth overall pick. Those critics have since run and hid.
The Cowboys' offensive line is the league standard. They are the best, plain and simple, and have been for the past two or three seasons. The running back they drafted was Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State. All he's done is trample opponents to the tune of 4.9 yards per carry and a league-leading 1,285 yards.
When QB Tony Romo fractured a bone in his back in preseason, the Cowboys were in a pickle on who would replace him. Rookie Dak Prescott, a fourth round pick out of Mississippi State this past spring, stepped in and has been nothing short of spectacular. He is third in the NFL in QB rating (108.6) behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.
Even though Prescott and Elliott have been the story out of Dallas this year, every cognizant football fan knows it's their offensive line that has really been dictating the course of games and is the real reason the Cowboys are literally running away from the rest of the league.
Giants scouts will be taking notes on how and why this Cowboys line is so effective. The answer is simple. They have a lot of talent. The line brags a three-time Pro Bowler in LT Tyron Smith and two-time Pro Bowlers in RG Zack Martin and C Travis Frederick. Veteran Doug Free, the RT and Ronald Leary, the LG, are also among the best at their respective positions.
The Giants have used three high draft picks on their offensive line, but the results have not been as positive, to put it kindly. They also don't have Elliott, a player that can make his own yardage as well as bust through open holes.
Beleive it or not, none of that really matters. Why? Beacuse the Giants are the only team to beat the Cowboys this season, albeit it was way back in Week 1 and it was only by one point. The Giants held Dallas to 101 yards on the ground in that game and 3.4 YPC. The Cowboys have gone on to raise that average since to 4.8 and the Giants' defense has been steady vs the run all year, ranking third in the NFL at 3.6 YPC.
That was both Elliott and Prescott's first NFL game. Elliott was held to 2.6 yards per agn 51 yards overall. Prescott threw the ball 45 times, completing 25 for 227 yards with 0 INT and 0 TD. His rating was 69.4.
The Giants' defensive line has a solid history here. They can compete against the Cowboys' offense. The goal will be to limit Elliott and put the ball in Prescott's hands again. Easily said as both players have gained a ton of experience and confidence since Week 1. If they can do that, they have a fighting chance in this game. That is, if their own offense can put some points on the board.
No doubt, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett will see how well the Steelers utilized the screen pass against the Giants. Elliott has caught 28 passes for 322 yards this season with a TD. They would be crazy not to get him into space, especially the way he can shed tacklers. The Giants' linebackers will have their hands full with this assignment.
And let's not mention the fact that TE Jason Witten can gain entry into Canton on his performances against the Giants alone. He is Prescott's second-favorite target behing WR Cole Beasley. It will take a team effort to keep the Cowboys in check. The Giants' defense has shown they are capable of doing such.
Giants DT Damon Harrison has been having a bit of Pro Bowl season of his own and DE Olivier Vernon has been heating up in the second half of the season. But they'll be without DE Jason Pierre-Paul (groin).
Safety Landon Collins will be all over the field as usual. The consummate box safety, he will be charged with limiting Elliott and perhaps even Witten. He's also headed to the Pro Bowl.
The gauntlet has been dropped. Now let's see if the Giants are up to the challenge.