If the New York Giants are going to be legitimate contenders in the mediocre muddle that is the NFC East they pretty much have to win on Sunday. A loss doesn't make it impossible to win the division, but being swept by the Cowboys and suffering a third loss within the division would put the Giants in a serious bind.
Here are five things to watch Sunday as the Giants try to avoid seeing yet another season begin to slip away.
Will the gritty Giants show up?
We have reached that point in the season where the question is simply this -- is the season going to go north or south? A year ago at this point in time, it went south. Way south, as the Giants went from 3-2 to 3-9, losing seven straight. They started this year 3-2,then lost Monday to the Philadelphia Eagles. Exactly what happened a year ago. So, what happens now?
Tom Coughlin said this week he wants to "forget about last year." It is, however, difficult to do so until his team makes us do so. Will they?
"Quite frankly, what happened down in Philadelphia is not the M.O. of this team. That's not the way they define themselves, it's not the way they've been playing," Coughlin told Michael Eisen of Giants.com. "I expect us to fight our butts off, scratch with grit and scrappiness every inch of the 60-minute battle. That's what I expect. I expect us to play hard. I would like us to play smarter sometimes. There's no excuse for foolishness of some of the penalties, none."
Perhaps, if they play with the grit and resolve that helped them win games against the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers. If they follow the pattern of the last couple of seasons, though, failing to rise to the occasion after difficult losses, this season will get away from them quickly.
The story of Sunday's game, and maybe the 2015 season, will be told largely by what sort of effort we see from the Giants on Sunday.
About that "hit Eli in the mouth" stuff
You know, Greg Hardy of the Cowboys is an utterly despicable human being. He also happens to be right that when defenses hit Giants quarterback Eli Manning he isn't the same player. We see the intentional groundings, including ridiculous bowling ball tosses. We have seen the left-handed throws, the balls banging off of linemen, etc.
Manning can be an absolute assassin, especially in the quick-throw, rhythm offense he is now in, when he can set his feet comfortably and throw the ball. When he has guys in his face? When he is looking for a soft landing spot? Not so much.
That is why so much focus has been put on the offensive line the past couple of years. The Giants simply have to do a better job protecting Manning than they did the past two weeks, when the quarterback was under duress way too often. Protect him, he can win games for you. Don't protect him? Well, we've seen that act too many times.
The impact of Devon Kennard
After Week 4 the Giants were the No. 1 rushing defense in the league and had not allowed more than 88 yards rushing in any game. Two weeks later, they are No. 7 after giving up 124 yards to the San Francisco 49ers and 158 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The biggest difference? Outside linebacker Devon Kennard missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. No offense to Mark Herzlich, Jonathan Casillas and J.T. Thomas, the team's other outside linebackers, but no linebacker on the Giants sets the edge as effectively as Kennard. When Kennard is on the field, long runs that get outside of him simply do not happen. In the four games Kennard played the Giants only game over one run of more than 20 yards, a final play of the game 26-yard run in Week 3 by the Washington Redskins. In the last two weeks they have given up four runs of 19 yards or longer.
Kennard also impacts the pass rush.He doesn't have a sack, but his four quarterback hits are still more than any other Giant. He is the closest thing they have to a game-changing player on the defensive side. If he is close to 100 percent on Sunday his presence should make a huge difference.
The Matt Cassel effect
After losing three straight games with Brandon Weeden subbing at quarterback for the injured Tony Romo, the Cowboys have made the move to Cassel, whom they acquired a few weeks ago from the Buffalo Bills. Weeden, statistically, had performed well. He has a completion percentage of 72.4 and a passer rating of 92.2. He has only two touchdown passes, however, and Dallas hasn't won a game with him starting. So, Cassel is in.
What do the Cowboys hope to get from Cassel, a journeyman in his 11th season who has 72 career starts? Dave Halprin of Blogging The Boys explained in our "Five Questions" segment:
The hope with Cassel is two-fold. One, that he'll take a few more chances downfield. Weeden was checking down and rarely stretching the defense, Cassel should throw more of the mid-range stuff that will hopefully open up the running game a bit by pushing the Giants defense back. Secondly, Cassel has won in this league before, most observers think he'll have better command in the huddle and handle the leadership role better. They are banking on some of his intangibles.
The Giants say they have gone all the way back to 2008, when Cassel led the New England Patriots to an 11-5 record, to study the Cowboys' new quarterback.
Cassel instead of Weeen who was playing instead of Romo makes the Cowboys different. Thing is, though, it isn't the only change we will see in the Cowboys from Week 1.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant hasn't practiced this week as he recovers from a foot injury. Bryant hasn't played since that Week 1 game, and would seem unlikely to do this week. Christine Michael will start at running back for Dallas. Defensively, Hardy is back in the lineup after serving his league-imposed suspension.
This is a different Dallas team than the one the Giants saw in their season-opening loss. What difference will that make in how things play out on the field? We will all just have to find that out together.
Get the ball to Beckham
Enough of this go through your progressions, throw the ball where the defense tells you to throw it and find completions stuff.. That's nice, but it is also tantamount to the Giants saying "we're letting the defense dictate the game to us." How about at least trying to get the ball to your best player no matter what the defense is doing and dictate to them how the game is going to be played?
We talked on Thursday about how only 19 of Beckham's 60 targets this season have come in the second halves of games. We talked about how he has just one second-half catch the past two weeks. Kim Jones of NFL Network has penned a fantastic piece going even further, throwing out a couple of amazingly revealing stats.
One is this:
In his pro career, which spans 18 games, Beckham averages more than 130 receiving yards and more than one touchdown when he gets at least 10 targets in a game. The Giants are 5-5 in those games and average 25.6 points. When Beckham is targeted fewer than 10 times, they are 2-6 and average 19.6 points.
The other is that Beckham has drawn 16 penalties from opposing defenses since coming into the league. In that time, only Torrey Smith (18) has drawn more.
Another thing I wrote about earlier this week was the Giants' penchant for beating themselves. Not maximizing their best player is just another way of doing that.