This era's Cowboys team is so familiar to us by now that a full treatment of Dallas's strengths and weaknesses seems unnecessary. We pretty much know who they are and what they do, so a thumbnail analysis will suffice before we move on to some miscellaneous odds and ends:
Cowboys Offense vs. Giants Defense:
The Cowboys run the ball as well as any team in the league, ranking 1st in DVOA, the advanced Football Outsiders stat that accounts for situation and opponent. Their success on the ground owes itself to the 2009 version of the 2008 Giants' Earth, Wind, and Fire (Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Tashard Choice) and a massive offensive line. It would not be surprising if they ran the ball effectively on Sunday. The Giants got gashed on the ground last week against Denver, but not nearly so much as they did in Week 2 against Dallas.
The running game has helped enable Dallas's big-play passing game, which is back to its 2007 level after an down year in 2008. Tony Romo is averaging a league-high 13.9 yards per completion. And despite his reputation as a mistake-prone quarterback, Romo's interception percentage is 6th lowest in the league. In Week 2 against the Giants, Romo threw 3 interceptions, but in the nine games since then he has thrown just 4. The biggest key to the reborn passing game is the emergence of Miles Austin, who is now one of the league's elite receivers and the most dangerous player in Sunday's game.
Giants Offense vs. Cowboys Defense:
The Giants best hope of winning resides with Eli Manning and the passing game, the only phase of the team that hasn't dramatically fallen off since the Giants started 5-0 and decided to call it a season. That's fortunate, because the Cowboys's biggest vulnerability is their pass defense (23rd in DVOA). If Eli can get into a rhythm with his receivers, it's not hard to envision the Giants putting up enough points to overcome their shaky defense. The Cowboys don't stop the run that well either (15th in DVOA), so maybe Brandon Jacobs can finally have that 100-yard game he kept talking about up until a couple of weeks ago. He'll likely be carrying the load. DJ Ware is out. Bradshaw will probably play despite three separate leg injuries, but will probably not be effective. Ever since he lit up the Raiders for 110 yards in Week 5, Bradshaw has gained a mere 126 yards on 47 carries, averaging a paltry 2.7 yards per.
Prediction: There are stats, and then there are gut feelings. I gave you stats, so here's a gut-feeling: The Giants defense plays with desperation, which brings it from bad to adequate. Eli Manning carves up the Dallas pass defense, and the Giants resuscitate their season with an emotional win in the Meadowlands dusk. Giants 34 - Cowboys 27.
Now, a few miscellaneous items:
The Giants defense is really, really bad: In six games since the 5-0 start, the Giants defense has averaged a DVOA of 12.1%. I don't have access to the league rankings since that point, but note that a 12.1% would place them between the 25th (Atlanta) and 26th (Kansas City) ranked defense in the league. So the Giants defense hasn't become "mediocre." It has become awful.
This explains the defensive shakeup: In case you haven't heard, there are some changes to the Giants front seven. Jonathan Goff will start in place of Chase Blackburn at middle linebacker. Chris Canty will start in place of Fred Robbins at "three-technique" tackle. And last but not least, Matthias Kiwanuka might start in place of Osi Umenyiora at right defensive end. Either way, it seems likely that Osi's playing time will be diminished.
The Osi change is obviously the most significant and we'll address that in a second. But first the other changes: Goff for Blackburn makes sense, as Blackburn's a low-ceiling guy who has pretty much proven to be nothing more than serviceable at linebacker. Combined with his special teams talent and versatility, that makes him a useful, nice player but nothing more than that. Goff, a fourth round draft pick last year, clearly has a much higher upside in the Giants estimation. Because Pierce only has one year left on his contract that is itself in jeopardy because of his disc problem, the Giants are right to give Goff this opportunity. Canty for Robbins also makes sense. Robbins had microfracture surgery after a career year last year and has really fallen off. From 2006 through last year, Robbins notched 5.5 sacks each year and averaged 41 tackles. This year he has only 1 sack and 21 tackles. He's 32 years old and has been a very good Giant, but we're paying Canty a lot of money for a reason. Let's get him in there.
Now for Osi. The NFL network reported that Osi will only play on passing downs, and then Mathias Kiwanuka was seen practicing with the first team. Coughlin said Osi will play on running downs too, but he didn't exactly deny the reports that Osi had basically been demoted. Asked if Osi would start, Coughlin said, "We'll have to see about that."
In recent weeks, Osi has garnered a lot of attention as it has become painfully clear that he is not his old self. Chris Canty defended him recently, saying, "I don't know if you guys are watching the same film I'm watching, but Osi is a fantastic player." But the numbers tell a different story. Osi has only 5 sacks this year compared to 13 in 2007 (though nearly half of those sacks came in one game against Philadelphia), and only 14 solo tackles and 6 assists, compared to 40 and 12.
Perhaps most damning is the following stat: According to Football Outsiders, the Giants rank 31st in Adjusted Line Yards - a stat intended to quantify the battle at the line of scrimmage - on runs to the offense's left end. This means the defenses right end, which means Osi's side. Lest we cast all the blame at Osi, also consider this: The Giants rank 27th at runs aimed at the right end, which is Justin Tuck's side most of the time. These stats tell you what you've seen with your own eyes: The Giants ends and linebackers have done a remarkably poor job forcing contain on outside runs. Consistently, teams have been able to get the edge on us.
Tiki back in the Meadowlands: Tiki is an honorary captain this week as part of a ceremony honoring the 2000 Giants. Please don't boo him, Giants fans. You've booed him when his game highlights are shown on the JumboTron. Don't embarrass him and disgrace yourselves by booing him in person.
Sure, the guy's a self-promoter and was a little clumsy in his initial attempts to transition from football player to a television personality. But that's not the worst thing in the world. The landscape of ex-NFL players is littered with the broken bodies and minds of ex-NFL players. Tiki really, really didn't want to become one of those guys and wound up going a little too far and saying a few stupid things in an attempt to avoid that fate. But nothing he said was 1) That bad; or 2) Something he hasn't basically backtracked from. (I'm basically talking about the Eli "laughable" comment and the comment in his book that Coughlin "robbed" him of "the joy of playing football.")
I suspect the resentment of Tiki stems from the perception of him as a guy who is "out for himself." This quality is anathema to football culture, but maybe if a few more of these guys were out for themselves, there wouldn't be so many sad stories about ex-NFL players. Despite all the recent moralizing about concussions, perhaps the average football fan really wants to see players blindly give themselves over to the game and not think about themselves. This makes sense if you think about it in terms of a sports team being a corporation and the players being the employees. As fans, our interests are pretty much aligned with those of the corporation. When an employee asserts his individuality, we gravitate to the corporate perspective. We don't like when an employee steps of out line.
But please look at it from a human perspective. Realize that Tiki was only trying to strike the right balance between his own needs and loyalty to his longtime employer. He went a little too far in the direction of his own needs, but not nearly so much as to merit being ostracized.
The other thing that hurts Tiki is that the team won the Super Bowl the year after he retired. This reinforces the illogical perception that Tiki was a me-first player, and that losing him was addition by subtraction. This ignores the fact that the Giants struggled to an uninspiring 10-6 season had their worst statistical year offensively since 2004. If one wants to make a case that the Giants' "character" improved because of Tiki's absence, I would encourage them to look at the final regular season game of 2006, when Tiki carried the Giants to the playoffs on his back in arguably the greatest single-game individual performance in Giants history. If one wants to make the case that the removal of Tiki and his big mouth allowed Eli to come into his own, I would point out that Eli Manning had his lowest-rated regular season ever.
So, Giants fans, please forgive Tiki for a couple of stupid things he said over a one-month period in 2007. And please remember that for a ten-year period, he was a joy to watch and probably the best offensive player in Giants history.