EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – Playing a meaningful NFC East game in the second half of the season is nothing new for the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
It happens annually. Two years ago, the teams met on the final weekend of the season for the division title. The Giants won and it fueled a Super Bowl charge.
The difference this year is the game is before Thanksgiving. It has the potential to get the Cowboys (5-5) back into a tie for first place with idle Philadelphia, and to end the Giants’ bid to get back into contention after losing their first six games.
Make no mistake, this is a must win for the Giants (4-6), who are trying to become only the second NFL team to lose the first six and win the next five. Tennessee did it in 2009 en route to an 8-8 record.
The Cowboys returned two of six takeaways for touchdowns in the season opener, a 36-31 win. If Dallas sweeps the series Sunday at MetLife Stadium, it would have a two-game lead over New York and the head-to-head tiebreaker with five to go.
The Giants’ chances of winning the division would be slim if they lose, and seven losses might not be good enough to make the playoffs as a wild card.
While a loss would not eliminate the Giants from postseason contention, defensive end Justin Tuck says the team understands the situation.
“Instead of us digging ourselves out of a hole there, if we lose this football game, it’s more like them throwing dirt on it,” Tuck said. “Mathematically is would not put us out of it, but we are looking at it as a must win.”
The Cowboys come off a much-needed bye week. They were crushed by New Orleans 49-17 before the bye when the Saints had an NFL-record 40 first downs.
“I think in the NFL you’ve got to be able to put the last game behind you, win or lose, no matter what happens, and go get the next one, and that’s our approach,” said Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who has 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.
One thing the Cowboys won’t have to worry about is their coach. Owner Jerry Jones said Jason Garrett will return next season.
“I’m disappointed we don’t have a better record, but he has got us in position to win the division and got a team here I firmly believe has the ability to be one of the better-playing teams at the end,” Jones said.
Dallas will face a somewhat new-look Giants, especially on defense. The unit has given up two touchdowns in the current winning streak, the first on a 5-yard drive by Oakland after it forced a fumble on the opening kickoff.
While the Giants haven’t had a breakout game on offense, they are playing better. Eli Manning has had two interceptions in the winning streak after throwing 15 in the first six games. The line has stabilized and the return of Andre Brown from a broken leg two weeks ago has the running game in gear.
Here are five things to watch when the Cowboys visit the site of this season’s Super Bowl:
SPECIAL TEAMS MISMATCH: Dwayne Harris of the Cowboys ranks second with return averages of 32.3 yards on kickoffs and 15.1 on punts. The Giants have struggled in both areas, allowing three punt returns for TDs and several long runbacks on kickoffs. The Giants are averaging 7.8 yards on punt returns, with a long of 32, and 20.8 on kickoff returns, with a long of 46.
ROMO’S ROUGH ROAD: While Manning is trending upward, Romo is headed in the opposite direction. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes in two of the past three games after he hadn’t been that low since 2009. Before getting just 193 yards against the Saints, the Cowboys only once failed to gain 200 yards in a Romo start. He has struggled since throwing for a franchise-record 506 yards with five touchdowns in a 51-48 loss to Denver in Week 5.
GIANTS’ NEW FACES: Romo will have to account for two new players on New York’s defense, middle linebacker Jon Beason and safety Will Hill. Beason was acquired from Carolina on Oct. 4 and has 36 tackles and an interception in the last five games. Hill, suspended for the opening four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, has 34 tackles and a pick.
GETTING HEALTHY: Dallas is still without linebackers Sean Lee and Justin Durant because of injured hamstrings. However, safety J.J. Wilcox (three games, knee), receiver Miles Austin (three games, hamstring) and cornerback Morris Claiborne (two games, hamstring) are expected back. Pass rushing star DeMarcus Ware (thigh) says he’s going to play.
THE WEATHER: The forecast for Sunday calls for a blustery day, which should help the Giants, especially if it limits the passing game. Brown has been running well. The Cowboys, struggling on the ground, will be facing a defensive line that has shut down Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy and Eddie Lacy.
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