John Lopez: Giants-Cowboys showdown could come down to which team rediscovers running game - Sports Illustrated

How NFC East is won could turn on Cowboys, Giants running games

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New York Giants (6-6) at Dallas Cowboys (7-5)

1. The NFC Least may be bad, but at least it's boring and inept.

OK, so perhaps that is not exactly a description worth putting on a calling card. But all you need to know about the NFC East heading into Week 14 is that all four division coaches are strapped firmly to the hot seat. There have been "Fire Andy Reid" chants in Philly and similar sentiment in grandstands, on blogs and even full-fledged websites dedicated to axing coaches in New York, Washington and Philly.

For a division that features, top-to-bottom, the most recognizable brands in the NFL, the NFC East has become a punchline for league parity. How bad is it? Not only are the 21 total wins by the division the worst in the league, but also no team from the NFC East ranks in the Top 10 in the league in offense, defense or scoring offense.

It's often rhetorical when commentators and critics utter the words, "Doesn't anyone want to win this thing?" But in the case of the NFC East, it literally could be a worthwhile question. Still, by default, either the Cowboys or Giants figure to wobble and stumble off into the sunset with a division crown and playoff berth.

Sunday's affair figures to go a long way toward determining the inside track. The Cowboys appeared to have the edge with a much easier stretch-run schedule, but looked shaky in wins over Miami and Washington before losing in embarrassing fashion to Arizona last week. The Giants have lost four straight, but are getting healthy in key spots and played the unbeaten Packers to the wire last week.

The moral to this NFC East story: No matter how bad things may get, there's always hope.

2. What are the odds Jerry Jones adheres to Jason Garrett's "24-hour rule?"

OK, we probably know the answer: Jones doesn't forget. The blunders -- plural -- Garrett made in an embarrassing loss to Arizona once and for all stripped the "Boy Wonder" tag from Garrett's resume. Now, people just wonder.

Is Garrett in over his head with the Cowboys? By any gauge, this is an underachieving team led by a rookie coach who's made a number of rookie mistakes. Play-calling and game management issues directly led to Cowboys losses at the Jets, vs. Detroit and at New England.

Finally last week, Garrett inexcusably did not call a timeout when he needed one. Then he called a timeout when he should not have, leading to a 19-13 overtime loss, a DefCon 4 level of angst in the Metroplex and Garrett invoking a self-imposed unwritten rule.

"We have a 24-hour rule that we stick with around here," Garrett said, when pressed on his decision-making.

No one needs a big showing Sunday night more than the Cowboys coach. A bad run of decision-making like Garrett has endured can splinter a locker room and raise doubt. Winning coaches rally troops, tighten ranks and find a way to excel.

In Garrett's rookie season as head coach, already he could be facing a defining 60-minutes of football.

3. Will the real DeMarco Murray and/or Ahmad Bradshaw please stand up? And run.

It's safe to say the road to the NFC East title will go to whichever team rediscovers its ground attack. No matter the success Tony Romo and Eli Manning might have, in the postseason and in bad weather, teams that can pound the ball usually advance.

The Giants have the edge in experience, but except for rare occasions this season have been pitiful rushing the ball, ranking dead last in the NFL. Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and Brandon Jacobs (hamstring) also remain out of practice with nagging injuries.

The Cowboys rank a much more respectable 14th in rushing, and feature rookie DeMarco Murray, who burst onto the scene with 601 yards in his first four games as a starter. Since then, however, defenses have stacked the line of scrimmage and Murray perhaps has hit the rookie wall.

In his last three games, he has rushed for just 198 yards for a 3.3-yard average. In last week's 19-13 loss to the Cardinals, Murray rushed 12 times for just 38-yards.

Garrett has vowed to stay committed to the run, but defenses are daring Tony Romo to win through the air, which gets much more difficult later in the year. As for the Giants, the charge is to answer a rare decent output on the ground last week with one that can help get a win. After combining for just 102 yards in their two previous games, the Giants broke out with Jacobs and Bradshaw leading a 100-yard, 5-yard per-carry effort against the Packers.

A knack for coming up with big plays and facing something less than a Mount Rushmore of opposing quarterback has helped the Cowboys overcome subpar play in the secondary. Injuries haven't helped. Still, against the likes of Rex Grossman, Matt Moore and Kevin Kolb in recent weeks, the Cowboys gave up 14 completions of at least 20-yards. Now comes Eli Manning twice, Michael Vick and the potentially dangerous Josh Freeman in the final month. Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick understands the stakes.

How has the week gone, in lieu of what happened with Jason Garrett at the end of the Arizona game and the attention it's brought?

"We move forward around here. Those things happen. We don't point fingers on this team."

You found yourself in the middle of a bit of controversy, too, with two blocks in the back (on punts) against Arizona. Then Jerry Jones said they were penalties and you should have known better. Has it been tough to deal with?

"Those blocks, I said what I thought. None of that really matters now. We have a 24-hour rule around here. We discussed it, we're correcting it and we move on. That's that."

Everyone talks about the "next man up" thing, but you guys have had some injuries in the secondary. What kind of effect has it had on your play as a group?

"Injuries always happen. Football is a violent game and this is a violent sport. We just have a job to do and it doesn't make a difference if someone's out. All of our players are here for a reason, so we just have to play better and do our job."

Obviously, this is a crucial stretch. Is it encouraging that despite some struggles you can still control things?

"It's definitely a plus that we know what we have to do and it's right in front of us. We have big challenges ahead, but it's in our hands. There's only one way to win it and that's taking it one game at a time. That's really all we have to do."

How has the adjustment to Rob Ryan's defense been now that you're well into the season?

"It's a learning experience. It's different for me because of the way he game plans. He definitely wants to do what's best for our team and he's the best guy for the personnel on this team. We're always learning. He's just a great guy to play for and I enjoy playing for him."

The New York Giants, still holding out hope they can get hot and make a run through the NFL postseason similar to 2007, will be fighting statistical evidence that says such a run is highly unlikely.

The age-old axiom is that championship teams run the ball and play great defense. The Giants do neither well. In fact, the Giants enter Sunday night's game giving up an average of 26.2 points per game. No Super Bowl-winning team in history has given up more.

A statistical comparison:

The Cowboys are reeling and are the shakiest division-leader in football. Their coach is being harshly criticized and coming off an embarrassing week. The Giants are on a four-game losing streak. There are severe flaws that make both teams vulnerable.

Ultimately, though, talent should prevail, especially in a weak division. That should make up for doubt about the coach, susceptibility in the secondary and less than impressive play-calling and game management.

The Cowboys also will get receiver Miles Austin back, as well as fullback Tony Fiammetta, which should bolster a struggling run game.

Cowboys 20, Giants 13.

Last week's pick: Saints 34, Lions 17.Last week's result: Saints 31, Lions season record: 10-3.