Breaking down Sunday's New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys game (8:15 p.m., Eastern, NBC) ...
1. First a question: What should we take away from these two teams' losses last week? For the Giants, very little. I still see them as the class of the NFC but they can't afford another day like last Sunday, when dropped balls and poor tackling -- plenty of it by Antonio Pierce; got something on your mind, Antonio? -- cost them dearly against the Eagles.
From home I was reminded of one of my most unpleasant live football experiences ever, watching New York throw away an easy win against Washington from frigid nosebleed seats at Giants Stadium on Dec. 16 last year. Having won three of their last four, the Giants were met with freezing rain and 20 mph winds on that evening, and they came out flat, their receivers dropping eight balls. Eli Manning was irate. So was I. I'd been served ice cold hot chocolate and got laughed at when I complained. Tough night for the both of us.
Three hundred fifty-six days later, with a game time temperature of 35 degrees and 21 mph winds, I saw the same thing. The Giants, winners of seven in a row, kept things close with two blocked field goals (one returned for a touchdown) but the offense couldn't sustain a long march until it was too late to matter. In all, six of their nine drives last week went six plays or fewer, including a trio of three-and-outs, and the receivers were largely to blame again.
Case in point: Down 3-0 early on, Eli rainbowed a deep strike to Domenik Hixon, who was cutting from right to left 55 yards down the field. Hixon looked the ball into his chest -- and then dropped it; six points off the board. Two plays later Amani Toomer had a sideline ball go right through his hands. And two plays after that fullback Madison Hedgecock dropped a well-placed swing pass that would have gone for an easy first down. In the end, New York settled for a field goal attempt, which was blocked. Seven points would have been the difference in the end.
If last week was, as I suspect, a simple matter of discipline, then the Giants will bounce back. Discipline is Tom Coughlin's middle name. But it was certainly disappointing to see a running team (read: cold-weather team) struggle so mightily against the elements.
As for the Cowboys, I think their loss at Pittsburgh stings a little worse, even beyond the obvious fact they needed a win more than the Giants did. Whereas the Giants played four quarters of up-and-down football, Dallas played three solid quarters and one lousy one. The latter scares me more, especially after the fallout between Terrell Owens, Tony Romo and Jason Witten this week.
New York's loss came down to a few individual lapses at the moment of execution, whether it be Pierce losing Brian Westbrook in the flat on that 40-yard catch-and-run touchdown or Hixon's knuckleheaded drop. But Dallas' collapse was a total team effort. Romo and Owens share the blame for an interception on the first drive of the game. Same thing goes for Romo's pick-sixth in the fourth. Romo, Witten and right tackle Marc Colombo (who allowed heavy pressure from his side) all share the blame for that play.
Coughlin's task this week is to regain some focus. Wade Phillips, on the other hand, needs much more. The Cowboys' season hinges on the ability of five or six players to get on the same page, which seems unlikely as long as Owens is part of that equation.
2. So who's actually going to play this week? Starting from the top, we know Plaxico Burress won't be on hand, and you can't understate his importance in the Giants' plans, not only in freeing up other receivers but also in the run game. It used to be that every defender in Burress's vicinity had to peek over in his direction on every play, lest they get burnt on play action. But that's not the case anymore. Without that extra peek, defenders are moving faster to the line of scrimmage. In two games without Burress the Giants have posted their worst and second-worst run averages of the year.
Last week Plaxico's absence stood out to me on one crucial play in the first quarter: Facing second-and-five at Philadelphia's 32, Manning pass-faked at the line of scrimmage, which kept the corners on two wideouts, then he handed off to receiver Mario Manningham coming around on an end reverse. Playing about 10 yards off the ball on the side of the field that Manningham was headed, safety Quintin Mikell saw this all unfolding, but he also had Hixon (covered by cornerback Asante Samuel) coming his direction. Had it been Burress on that side, Mikell likely would have rolled back to aid Samuel. Instead he kept his focus on the line of scrimmage, better allowing him to break on Manningham, whom he pinned 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, knocking the Giants out of field goal position.
Another key element of the Giants' attack will be missing -- Brandon Jacobs, who will sit out with a lingering left knee injury. Coughlin has played it safe with Jacobs in the past, but he has to be aware of the consequences. In that game against the Cardinals, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 3.25 yards per carry. That won't cut it against Dallas's ninth-ranked rush defense (94.8 yards per game).
The Cowboys face some of the same questions. Marion Barber hadn't practiced as of Thursday, which would push Tashard Choice into the starting tailback role. And they could do worse. Last week Choice did more damage against the league's top-ranked run defense than anyone else had done previously.
Whoever goes, they're both gritty, pass-catching Brian Westbrook types, which has proven an effective weapon against the Giants. Romo's ability to keep plays alive rivals Donovan McNabb's, so he'll be looking for Choice -- or Barber -- to make some plays catching the ball in the same way McNabb-to-Westbrook worked so beautifully last week.
Another reason Romo might be looking to his running backs out of the backfield: Roy Williams, who's supposed to be Owens' complement, is nursing a sore foot. And Witten's got a bum ankle on top of the broken ribs that have been hampering him since November. Witten practiced Thursday, but Williams didn't. Neither did safeties Ken Hamlin (foot) or Keith Davis (knee), which could open a lot of things for Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
3. One more thing to consider: December records. Over the last two years Manning has been pretty money down the stretch. And Romo? Not so much. In his 15 December and January games between 2006 and 2007, including playoffs, Manning's Giants are 9-6, and he's thrown an impressive 22 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. In the same period Romo's Cowboys are 4-7 while he's tossed 11 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Thirty-seven percent of his career regular season interceptions have come in the last quarter of the year.
Romo did nothing to kill his choker's reputation against Pittsburgh last week, and he laughed it off days later by saying, "If I play about eight years and we stink in December every year, maybe we can talk about it. But the first year you are just kind of running around with your head cut off, you don't really know what is going on." Not exactly what you want to hear from your quarterback. It'll take a strong effort against New York to shut people up.
Every week we ask NFL assistants with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what two assistants from 2008 Cowboys opponents had to say about their defense and what New York can do to exploit it:
On DeMarcus Ware: "You have to be aware of him, and if you can get the protection going, you should be able to get after them in the secondary pretty good. DeMarcus has presented more problems for us than even Justin Tuck does because he can rush and he can drop into coverage. He can go from one sideline to the other sideline. He's a major factor for their defense.
"He's the one you have to focus on. You have to pay particular attention to their pass rushers, but if you get them blocked you can make some things happen down the field."
On their secondary: "They aren't playing quite to the level they did last year. Newman's fast and he's very smart. He can play the corner and also in the slot. Hamlin's real good, too. But the rest of the secondary is solid, not great.
"When we played Dallas, we really spread them out and ran the ball well, so it opened up the passing game. We ran some play-action and we made some plays down the field."
On how the Giants should attack: "How they do against Dallas depends on Manning. If he can hit some guys early it makes a big difference. Losing Plax hurts. Other guys have stepped up, but they're not Plaxico Burress. I don't think Jacobs matters as much as he used to. Derrick Ward is having an awesome year, especially the way they use him in the passing game."
Dallas has revenge on the mind -- for last January's playoff game; for a 35-14 Giants win in Week 9. That fact alone should keep the Cowboys nice and close well past halftime. After this week's media spectacle, Romo's bound to find Owens for points at least once against a Giants secondary that's allowed an uncharacteristic 263 passing yards per game since Nov. 23. But when that fourth quarter rolls around I'd simply rather have New York's backs -- running behind that powerful line, even if it's just Bradshaw and Ward, and against a defense that may be starting subs at both safety positions -- than Romo against the Giants' daring defensive backs. With all the in-fighting and miscommunication going on lately in Dallas, there are just too many chances for something to go bad.
Don't think for a second that the Giants, having wrapped up the division, will take this one lightly. They don't have any cakewalk games left this year, so Coughlin will have his defense all riled up with the goal of cementing a first round playoff bye while they still can. Back in September, no one could have imagined that Dallas could get knocked out of the playoff picture this early. The Giants won't blow the opportunity. New York wins 30-24.