If momentum counts for anything, you have to feel pretty good about the Giants' chances this weekend. They've played well in the past three weeks, and the confidence of quarterback Eli Manning is as high as it's ever been in his NFL career.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, limped through the end of the regular season, losing two of their last three games, and gave the impression that they had lost focus.
The two teams met twice this season, with Dallas posting a 10-point win each time. But can they beat the Giants three times in the same season? Since the AFL–NFL merger in 1970, division rivals have met in the playoffs 53 times, and in only 11 instances did one team win all three games.
The Giants and Cowboys have been division rivals for nearly 50 years — but this will be the first time they've met in the postseason.
GIANTS (11–6) at COWBOYS (13–3)
Sunday, 4:30 p.m., FOX
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL Manning is coming off two of the best games of his career, and he'll need to play at that same high level to beat the Cowboys. Last week, Manning faced a Buccaneers defense playing the cover 2: They were willing to give up the short passes over the middle to prevent big plays from getting past them. But Manning picked that defense apart, completing 20 of 27 passes for two touchdowns.
He'll see a much different kind of defense this week, though. The Cowboys will bring much more pressure with their 3–4 defense, forcing Manning to make quick decisions in the face of a pass rush. The Cowboys' defense finished with 46 sacks, the league's third-highest total. Most of that pressure comes from linebackers De-Marcus Ware (14 sacks) and Greg Ellis (12.5). To keep those two at bay, the Giants will need fullback Madison Hedgecock and tight ends Kevin Boss and Michael Matthews to help out in pass protection.
Their blocking might also be key to establishing the ground game. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combined for 100 yards last week, and they've developed into an effective tandem over the past few weeks. Jacobs is a powerful runner between the tackles, while Bradshaw has the speed to get outside and to make big plays if he can find some daylight. The Cowboys finished sixth in run defense for the regular season, but they really struggled down the stretch: They surrendered more than 125 rushing yards in four of their last five games.
The weakest aspect of the Dallas defense is its secondary. When teams have been able to keep the Cowboys' pass rush at bay, they've been able to make big plays down the field. The Giants were able to do that in their Week 1 loss to the Cowboys, with Manning hitting Plaxico Burress for several big gains. They'll need those big plays on Sunday.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL How much of a difference does Terrell Owens make? In the two wins over the Giants this year, Owens had four touchdown catches. All of them went for more than 20 yards, and all of them came in the second half, helping the Cowboys take or extend their lead.
But Owens sprained his ankle in Dallas' season-ending loss to Washington, and he hasn't practiced much in the past two weeks. This is a man, though, who came back early from a broken leg to play in the Super Bowl, so it would be shocking to see him sit out this weekend.
Generally, the best way to keep Owens from making plays down the field is to pressure the quarterback, Tony Romo. Given his gimpy ankle, the Giants have another option: They can keep him contained by being physical with him — after he catches the ball, before he catches the ball, and even when the ball's not being thrown.
The Cowboys have been forced to throw the ball because they can't run it very well. Julius Jones and Marion Barber started the season sharing the duties at running back. Jones can be an explosive runner when he gets into the open field, but that hasn't happened often enough this year. Barber finished with 975 rushing yards, but 603 of those came in the second half, when the Cowboys were milking the clock.
If the Giants can neutralize Owens and keep the Cowboys from grinding it out on the ground, Dallas is left with its underneath passing game. Tight end Jason Witten had 96 catches for 1,145 yards — both are the highest season totals for any NFC tight end. When Romo starts to feel the pressure, he looks for Witten.
The Giants' defense struggled during their first game against Dallas, but since then, they've played championship-caliber football. New York has won each of its eight subsequent road games, giving up an average of 13.9 points per game.
KEYS TO THE GAME Once again, the Giants' fate rests on Manning's shoulders. He needs to continue to make crisp throws underneath the coverage, and avoid making inaccurate throws when he faces pressure. It'll be more difficult to do that if this game turns into a shootout. Romo can also be pressured into making mistakes, and if the Giants can keep Owens covered, their pass rush can create turnovers.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 24–21