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Giants (8-4) vs. Cowboys (11-1): Story lines for Sunday’s matchup

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Can the Giants knock off Dallas again?

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The 11-1 Dallas Cowboys are coming to town Sunday night. A week ago, it looked like the New York Giants might have a chance to wrest first place in the NFC East from the Cowboys in that encounter. That is no longer the case with the Giants now 8-4, three games back with four to play and in a considerably dicier situation than they had hoped with four games to play.

Let’s break down the story lines for the Sunday Night Football encounter.

Can the Giants do it again?

The Giants are, of course, the only team to have defeated Dallas this season, coming away with a 20-19 victory in Arlington during Week 1. The Giants took advantage of the fact that quarterback Dak Prescott and running Ezekiel Elliott (a career-low 51 yards on 20 carries) were making their NFL debuts, injuries and suspensions on the Cowboys defense, and a mistake by Dallas wide receiver Terrance Williams on the game’s final play that robbed the Cowboys of a potential game-winning field goal opportunity .

Since that time, Prescott and Elliott have become stars, the Cowboys (fifth in points allowed) have figured things out defensively, and Dallas has not lost.

How much will JPP be missed?

The short answer is, A LOT.

Jason Pierre-Paul, out for at least the rest of the regular season following “core-muscle” surgery on Wednesday morning, is second on the Giants in sacks with seven, sixth in the league in quarterback hurries with 24 and second among defensive ends in passes defensed with eight. He is also a tremendous run defender, and had been dominant in recent weeks prior to being injured against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Kerry Wynn is try-hard rotational defensive end better served playing limited snaps. He has been exposed in the past when the Giants have had to rely too much on him. Romeo Okwara is an undrafted free agent rookie who has played in pass-rushing situatiosn, but has just one quarterback hit this season. Owamagbe Odighizuwa is a 2015 third-round pick who has yet to make any sort of real impact. He missed last Sunday’s game with a knee injury and his current status in unknown. Odighizuwa yet two quarterback hits this season.

Looking over their shoulder

The Giants are currently the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoff picture, but they likely need to win at least two of their remaining four games to close the deal and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The continued struggles on offense, the loss of Pierre-Paul and the difficulty of their remaining schedule make this a nervous time for the Giants and their fan base.

The Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins all still have the opportunity to catch the Giants. All own head-to-head victories over New York, with a season-ending game in Washington looking on New Year’s Day.

Can the offense get it together?

That is a question that has been asked all season. Dominating defense and a fairly weak schedule covered up the offensive deficiencies somewhat during the team’s six-game winning streak, but those deficiencies were once again front and center in the loss to Pittsburgh.

The numbers show the Giants’ offensive production, with seemingly better personnel at wide receiver, down across the board from a year ago. Sunday, against the Steelers the Giants had a starting wide receiver — this time an unhappy Victor Cruz — go without a target for the second straight game. The week before it was Sterling Shepard.

Red zone failures, including a turnover, untimely penalties, an over-reliance on Odell Beckham Jr., inability to take advantage of good field position, an inconsistent run game. The Giants had all of those against Pittsburgh in a game that was a microcosm for the way the offense has played all season.

The Giants are one of five teams that has yet to score 30 points in a game this season. There is pressure on the offense to pull itself together, especially with Pierre-Paul’s absence weakening the defense.

How important is this game to Dallas?

The Cowboys have clinched a playoff berth. They could clinch the division outright with a victory over the Giants, and owner Jerry Jones has said Dallas won’t rest starters. How much, though, does this game mean to the Cowboys? Sure, they would love to avenge the season-opening loss and not end up being swept by the Giants but they are almost certainly going to win the division either way.

You wonder if the Cowboys will coast just a little bit down the stretch.