Dallas watched idly last week as the Philadelphia Eagles took first place away from them. They also watched their opponent this week, the New York Giants, reel off their fourth consecutive win and put themselves in position for a playoff spot.
The Cowboys (5-5) are 2-1 in their last three games, two losses coming against NFC contenders in Detroit and New Orleans. The Giants (4-6) are 4-0 in their last four, though their wins have come against quarterback-depleted teams, and now they get Tony Romo in the midst of a career season.
Sunday's game has major NFC East and playoff implications. Here's what we're keying in on:
The Cowboys' former No. 1 receiver has been hindered by a hamstring for most of the season, but is expecting be on the field for his team's crucial divisional showdown with the Giants Sunday afternoon. Austin last played Sept. 22 against the St. Louis Rams and has missed seven straight games due to the hammy.
So will Austin be 100 percent? That remains to be seen, but it appears the Cowboys took the cautionary approach with the veteran to assure he'd be as close to fully healthy for the stretch run. With Austin back on the outside opposite of Dez Bryant, outstanding rookie Terrance Williams shifts to the shot, and along with Jason Witten gives Dallas a dynamic four-receiver aerial attack for the Giants' 15th-ranked pass defense to contend with.
Cowboys secondary vs. Giants wideouts
These two defenses have been going in opposite directions as of late. While the Giants have held opponents to a 12-point average in their past four wins, the Cowboys have allowed about 34 points per game in their past three in which they went 2-1.
Largely, Dallas' secondary has been exploited. Matthew Stafford threw for 488 yards and Drew Brees almost reached 400, and who knows what the Minnesota Vikings would've done if they had a capable quarterback under center. Eli Manning hasn't posted outrageous passing numbers at all this season, but we know he has the skill-set and the wide receiving corps to exploit the Cowboys' defensive backs.
The turnover battle
Color me Mr. Obvious, but whichever team can win the turnover battle will wind up winning this game. In the first matchup, Manning's threw three interceptions and the Giants fumbled thrice, while Dallas turned the ball over just once. Of course, Dallas went on to beat New York.
The Giants have turned the ball over six times and taken the ball away 11 times in the past four games, while the Cowboys have turned it over just once in their last three. The Giants defense has made a habit of forcing turnovers of late, but Tony Romo has been just as steady. We'll see which side capitalizes.
Andre Brown vs. Cowboys front seven
The Giants totaled a mere 50 yards rushing in their opener against Dallas, as David Wilson proved ineffective behind the offensive line and ended up coughing the ball twice. This go-round, Brown is leading a running attack that has found its form.
Since Brown came off the IR, the Giants have averaged more than 105 yards rushing per game, including more than 130 yards vs. the Oakland Raiders' sixth-ranked rush defense. Conversely, Dallas has allowed 185 yards rushing per game over their past three. If the Giants' line can out-physical Dallas' front seven -- one that will all but certainly be without Sean Lee -- and create running lanes for Brown and Co., it should open the play-action game as well as help the offense find a rhythm.
The X-factor: Jason Pierre-Paul
When you call for a Sunday bloody Sunday, your name belongs on the forefront of the battlefield. Such is the case with Pierre-Paul, who last week made a spectacular interception and subsequent touchdown off of Scott Tolzien in the Giants' win against the Green Bay Packers.
In seven career games against Dallas, Pierre-Paul has 18 tackles, an interception, touchdown and safety, but can he add to that already impressive stat line on Sunday?
All year we've been waiting for JPP to round into mid-season form. Since the Giants' bye week, he's recorded a sack and a pick-six. His first sack came against Dallas in Week 1, and the Giants will need him to make another impact play in order to win Sunday.
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