8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Cowboys -4, Over/Under: 46
Bitter rivals face off tonight in the Meadowlands, as the surging Dallas Cowboys travel to MetLife Stadium to face the only team to defeat them this season, the New York Giants in a matchup with heavy Postseason Implications. This magical run for the Cowboys (11-1, 1st in NFC East) has taken them to the top of not just the competitive NFC East, but the entire league as well, made all the more remarkable that they’ve been able to reach this point given the circumstances. After an injury-riddled 2015 campaign, and Franchise Quarterback Tony Romo suffering yet another major injury during the Preseason, America’s Team found themselves in a very difficult spot, led a by Fourth Round Rookie Quarterback named Dak Prescott, who (though it was impossible to surmise at the time) would go on to effectively retire Romo. Simply put, this kid has played well beyond his years, exhibiting a steady hand coupled with sound decision-making that betrays his youth. The youngster out of Mississippi State has started every game this season, completing an efficient 67.9% of his attempts for 2,974 yards (7.64 NY/A), nineteen touchdowns and just two interceptions, while also proving to be a threat with his legs, particularly in the Red Zone, logging another 217 yards on the ground with five more scores. Furthermore, this kid has proven unbelievably cool in the clutch, leading Dallas to FOUR Fourth Quarter Comebacks thus far. There’s no doubt that he’ll be in search for some payback tonight against the Giants, who dealt him the only blemish on his professional resume; in his first start of what appears to be a promising career, Prescott was solid if unspectacular, connecting on 25-of-45 passes for 227 yards with no touchdowns but also no turnovers in the narrow 20-19 defeat. However, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Since that fateful day, Dallas has averaged 28.5 points on a whopping 402.7 Total Yards of Offense, with the rushing attack revving into high gear, led by another Rookie, Fourth Overall Pick Ezekiel Elliott. On some level, we all expected success from this kid, but few could’ve imagined he’d be this good this soon; Elliott leads the league with 1,285 rushing yards (4.9 Y/A) and a dozen touchdowns while reeling in twenty-eight passes for 322 yards and another score. He’s been HISTORICALLY good, for the only other players in NFL History to rush for more yards through the first twelve games of their career are Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson, the former residing in Canton with the latter sure to join him someday. To give you an idea as to what New York will be facing tonight, that 101 rushing yards in Week One was a SEASON-LOW for Elliott and Co., who have since averaged a staggering 160.8 yards on the ground, only being relegated below 120 yards on two occasions. Of course, the spectacular exploits of these two Rookies would be unlikely if not for the presence of Jason Garrett’s highly-touted Offensive Line, which has been widely regarded as the finest in the league for a few years now. Tyron Smith, Zach Martin, Travis Frederick and Co. have succeeded in opening up gaping holes for Elliott to race through, while keeping Prescott remarkably clean throughout the campaign, with the Quarterback suffering just eighteen sacks, again a remarkable figure given his status as a Rookie. Credit goes to Garrett and his Staff for recognizing his team’s strength, and utilizing it in a manner that would be most conducive to the development of these prized young assets, particularly Prescott. No team has ran the ball more than Dallas (and why wouldn’t they?), averaging 32.6 rushing attempts per game, but comparatively have thrown the ball the second-fewest times, airing it out just 30.0 times per contest. And even with that said, Garrett has been able to further simplify the passing game by incorporating a slew of Play-Action and Bootlegs to make things easier for his Quarterback. But hey, do you know who benefits the most from this approach? The Defense, who quite frankly are rarely on the field; with their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball leading the league in Time of Possession, the Cowboys’ Defense has had to defend 119 Drives this season, seventh-fewest overall, and it’s a good thing that’s all they’ve faced, because this unit has had a hard time getting off the field, defending a total of 811 plays thus far, fifth-most in the NFL. In fact, no team has allowed more Plays per Drive (6.8) than Dallas, mostly due to an alarming lack of big plays; in addition to ranking dead-last in Three & Outs, Garrett’s Defense has accumulated just twenty-three sacks (23rd Overall) and forced eleven turnovers (26th Overall).
Meanwhile, though capturing the Division is highly unlikely at this point, the Giants (8-4, 2nd in NFC East) have their eyes set on returning to the Playoffs for the first time since 2011, and in order to do so, they’re going to need to pick up their play over the final month of the season. Before last weekend’s disappointing 24-14 loss at Pittsburgh, Bob McAdoo’s charges were riding high on a six-game winning streak, built on the broken bodies of less-than-stellar competition. During that run, New York’s opposition held a combined record of 23-48 (.324), with the Baltimore Ravens being the only opponent that currently holds a winning record. Needless to say, their schedule moving forward is considerably more difficult, with the Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, and Philadelphia Eagles owning a combined record of 30-17-1 (.625). The bottom line is that if the Giants do indeed wish to break this Postseason Drought, then they are going to need to tighten things up on BOTH sides of the ball. Offensively, this has been a very sloppy football team, committing twenty-one turnovers (28th Overall), giving the ball away multiple times on seven occasions thus far, or in other words over half of their games to this point. The problem has been that they have become dreadfully one-dimensional, relying on veteran Quarterback Eli Manning (631% 3,097 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT) and his triumvirate of Receivers to sustain drives (which they haven’t). Only two teams have ran the ball less than the Giants (22.3), while only one has been less-productive when carrying the ball (77.5). In fact, the ground game has produced only five rushing touchdowns, which is seven LESS than Ezekiel Elliott’s total this season. Veteran Tailback Rashad Jennings (414 yards, 2 TD) has been banged up all year, while fellow rushers Paul Perkins (185 yards), Orleans Darkwa (111 yards, 2 TD), and Bobby Rainey (58 yards) have struggled to do much of anything when given the opportunity, though the Offensive Line was struggling well before Tackle Justin Pugh went down with an MCL Sprain back in Week Nine. But hey, Shane Vereen (222 All-Purpose Yards, 1 TD) is due back after rehabbing a torn Triceps that cost him the last nine games, so they’ve got that going for them. Vereen has always been more of a threat catching passes out of the Backfield, which taking an optimist’s perspective should make the passing game more diverse, potentially making Defenses pay for focusing too much on the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. (75 catches, 1,015 yards, 8 TD). Defensively, Management should be happy to know that the lavish investment they made on this side of the ball during Free Agency has paid off, as the Giants have improved greatly in this regard. Entering the final quarter of the term, New York has allowed 19.8 points (9th Overall) on 356.7 Total Yards (17th Overall), including 265.3 yards through the air (25th Overall) on 6.1 Net Yards per Attempt (8th Overall), along with another 91.4 yards on the ground (5th Overall) on 3.6 yards per carry (3rd Overall). While they’ve been particularly difficult to run against, they’ve been remarkably stingy defending the pass, despite their opponents throwing the ball against them more than any other team in the league (41.1). The Giants have relinquished just twelve passing touchdowns thus far, fourth-fewest overall, while intercepting eleven passes, good for ninth-most in the NFL. Defensive Tackle Damon Harrison (72 TKL, 1.5 SK, 1 FF), Edge Rusher Olivier Vernon (50 TKL, 8.0 SK, 1 FF), and Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (45 TKL, 2 INT, 15 PD) have all earned their hefty price tags since being purchased in the Offseason, while Sophomore Safety Landon Collins has emerged as a bonafide playmaker, leading the Defense in Tackles (94) and Interceptions (5). They will need to continue their stellar play, for they will be without the services of Jason Pierre-Paul (53 TKL, 7.0 SK, 8 PD, 3 FF, 1 TD) for the rest of the season, after the Pass-Rusher underwent surgery for a Sports Hernia earlier this week, ending a solid comeback campaign after missing most of 2015 with a badly damaged hand.