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Emerging Pierre-Paul could be key in Giants-Cowboys battle

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Jason Pierre-Paul quietly was having an outstanding season until he had a dominant, nationally-televised game against Dallas earlier this month. The Giants defensive end punctuated his showcase by blocking a potential game-tying field goal in the waning seconds. People know who he is now, especially since the second-year player was voted to the Pro Bowl.

The Cowboys were fully aware of him when the Giants eked out a 37-34 victory to set the table for Sunday night's winner-take-all affair at MetLife Stadium. Pierre-Paul said he was double-teamed and triple-teamed that night but still found his way to eight tackles and two sacks, one of which led to a safety. He said he was incessantly chipped by running backs and tight ends and expects to be treated similarly in Round Two, which happens to fall on his 23rd birthday.

So what can he do to trump that dazzling performance?

"More," he bluntly said. "I don't know about [another] blocked kick, though."

As a side note, think about the fact that Pierre-Paul, an elite pass rusher, is playing special teams. That doesn't happen much. Participating in the kicking game was a means to get Pierre-Paul on the field when he was still learning the Giants' scheme after being drafted in the first round in 2010. Now, though, you'd think the risk of injury would curtail New York's exposing him to harm -- especially since the defense that's seen its fair share of guys sidelined.

Nope. Pierre-Paul wouldn't have it any other way, either. His willingness and value to do whatever has been asked are huge assets to the Giants.

Cowboys left tackle Doug Free and whoever else assigned to help could be eager for some redemption against Pierre-Paul, but what they dealt with in Week 14 might be even more of a problem now. The late-to-football, still-learning-the-game athlete is blossoming. Since wrecking Dallas, he has 21 tackles and three sacks in the next two games.

The game finally is coming to him and that is frightening.

So is the return of veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who has missed the past four games with a high ankle sprain and knee damage. Umenyiora has practiced this week and all signs indicate he will play against the Cowboys. Pierre-Paul is playing too well to bring off the bench and Umenyiora likely will be used primarily in passing situations.

Besides depth and rotational flexibility -- Pierre-Paul said he looks forward to the occasional breather -- Umenyiora's return also will allow defensive coordinator Perry Fewell the chance to come at Dallas with some "amoeba-like" fronts that feature pass rushers Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka. Pierre-Paul said this week that he could be reduced inside into a tackle role at times to get him into potential one-on-one matchups or create favorable matchups for others should he get double-teamed.

"I'm going to handle mine," Pierre-Paul said.

Too good to be true

Kyle Orton's return to Denver with the chance to keep the Tim Tebow-led Broncos out of the playoffs is the type of drama I love. We all know Orton was bounced for Tebow and, seeing as how Tebow is winning with most of the same players Orton lost with, the decision seems like a wise one.

Still, after Orton was dangled as trade bait before the season then released with hopes of returning to Chicago only to be poached by the Chiefs, Sunday has to be a dream opportunity of revenge. Orton has reinvigorated Kansas City's passing game since stepping in as the starter two games ago, throwing for 599 yards as the Chiefs, under interim coach Romeo Crennel, have gone 1-1.

Denver has allowed 81 points the past two weeks as shoddy defense and too many turnovers have led to a two-game skid. Denver beat the Chiefs 17-10 earlier in the season with Tebow completing just two passes on eight attempts. Kansas City won't let that happen again.

The craziest scenario of all wouldn't just be Orton coming to Denver, where he was booed, and beating the Broncos. The craziest scenario would be him going off, beating the Broncos, then having the Raiders lose to San Diego, allowing Denver to win the AFC West anyway.

Bengals have to force Flacco to throw

The Bengals have allowed just two 100-yard rushers -- Denver's Willis McGahee and Baltimore's Ray Rice, who comes to town again Sunday. Cincy can't let Rice get going in the season finale that, with a victory, will get it into the playoffs. Cincinnati has to play to its pass defense (ranked 12th in the NFL) for its best shot.

Putting the onus on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to win a game of this importance on the road is vital. Flacco has a passer rating above 86 just once on the road and that came early in the season at woeful St. Louis. He's also without wideout Anquan Boldin, making him more reliant on his tight ends.

Rice went for 104 rushing yards and two touchdowns and had five receptions for 43 yards in Baltimore's 31-24 victory earlier this season. Rice's production also tends to be the barometer of how the Ravens' offense flows so if he's held in check, the Who Deys could have a shot at securing a wild-card berth.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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