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Giants vs. Cowboys: Five things to watch Sunday

Major change came to Giants this week — how will it impact game vs. Dallas?

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It is hard to know what to think of the final four games of this regrettable 2017 New York Giants season, a stretch that begins Sunday at MetLife Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys.

The game will mark the beginning of the Steve Spagnuolo era as head coach. Will that be a four-game footnote in franchise history or can Spagnuolo turn it into something more? This feels like the beginning of saying goodbye to Eli Manning. Is it time to celebrate or be sad? And, will goodbye last just the remainder of this season or take a bit longer?

The firings of Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese will finally bring about the “wholesale changes” (John Mara’s words) the franchise has seemed to need for a while. The Giants appear to be a crossroads, between past and future as well as between returning to fielding an on-field product worthy of being proud of or spiraling into the second coming of the Wilderness Years.

All of that is, however, for another day. The Giants have said all week that despite the upheaval they are focused on trying to win a game against a division rival. Let’s touch on some of the things to look for Sunday.

An Eli love fest?

After the public outcry from fans, former Giants players and others around the NFL when McAdoo benched him Manning will be back in the lineup Sunday.

What looked like it might be an ugly scene at MetLife Stadium prior to McAdoo’s dismissal and Manning’s reinstatement could now turn into a celebration of Manning’s career.

The crowd is certainly going to be a big part of the story on Sunday. Will the stadium be filled and rocking, at least early on in tribute to Manning? Will there, instead, be a ton of empty seats as apathetic fans tune out the remainder of a 2-10 season? Will MetLife Stadium be filled with people wearing Cowboys jerseys? It is going to be interesting to find out.

Tweaks on offense?

Before McAdoo installed a quick-throw, West Coast-style offense when he came to New York 2014, Eli Manning spent his career in a play-action, vertical passing offense. Most of that time was spent with Kevin Gilbride as offensive coordinator.

That is the attack that offensive coordinator Mike Sulllivan knows best, having been an offensive assistant for the Giants from 2004-2011 before returning to the team in 2015. In-between, he took that vertical attack to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was offensive coordinator for two seasons.

It’s ridiculous to think that the Giants could reinvent their offense at this point in the season, especially with the injured reserve list filled with so much of the talent the team was counting on.

Working within the confines of the McAdoo play book, we have seen some changes in the offense since Sullivan became the play-caller in Week 6, including an increased reliance on a power rushing attack and what seems like more play from Manning under center.

The play book will remain the same on Sunday. Without McAdoo to insist on concepts he wants or veto ones Sullivan and Manning want to run, though, let’s see if there are some other noticeable tweaks to the offensive scheme.

Controlling Demarcus Lawrence

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
Demarcus Lawrence
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is enjoying a breakout season, leading the NFL in sacks with a career-high 13.5. Chad Wheeler is still in the concussion protocol and Justin Pugh did not practice Thursday, instead undergoing another MRI on his troublesome back. That means Bobby Hart will likely line up at right tackle, across from Lawrence.

Hart began the season as the Giants’ right tackle, suffered an ankle injury, struggled when he returned and has mostly watched Pugh and Wheeler play in recent weeks.

The Giants largely failed to give Wheeler any help the past two weeks against Ryan Kerrigan of the Washington Redskins and Khalil Mack of the Oakland Raiders, and paid dearly for those transgressions. Let’s see if offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, with a free hand to install a game plan this week, dials up a blocking scheme that offers Hart some help.

Who calls the defense?

Spagnuolo said this week that he will remain “heavily involved with the defense and game planning” after serving as defensive coordinator since 2015. That doesn’t mean he will be able to do everything, and he knows it after having been head coach of the St. Louis Rams for three seasons.

Spagnuolo said that Dave Merritt, the longest-tenured coach on the Giants’ staff, will handle whatever duties he can’t. Including possibly calling the defense during Sunday’s game. Merritt has been with the Giants since 2004 and has been in charge of the safeties for 12 seasons.

No tanking around here

Many in the fan base are concerned less about the Giants winning football games at this point than about protecting the team’s spot in the 2018 NFL Draft. In other words, they want to see the Giants tank for a better draft pick.

Co-owner John Mara isn’t having any of that.

“I told them (the coaching staff) I would not put up with any talk in this building about tanking or anything else and I expected us to go out and try to win these games,” Mara said when he spoke about the firings of McAdoo and Reese. “I expected their best efforts to try to get us to do that.”

Win or lose, Mara should get that. It’s a four-game tryout for Spagnuolo in a bid to get the full-time head coaching job, and he will do everything he can to put a good product on the field. Manning is certainly going to be motivated to show people he can still play at a high level. Many players will be playing for jobs with the Giants, or to extend their careers by getting opportunities elsewhere next season.

For players and coaches, this is their livelihood, something they have poured energy into for years. The Giants might lose, but not because they will be trying to. They want to succeed. Be happy for them if they do.