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Cowboys, Giants seemingly headed in opposite directions

Something isn't quite right with this picture.

In Dallas, the head coach is answering questions about his job security. Yes, the same guy who in his first season at the helm of the Cowboys led them to a 13-3 record, a division championship, and first-round playoff bye.

In New York, the head coach is answering questions about how smart he was for playing all of his starters for most of a meaningless season-finale against New England because of the momentum it helped build for the postseason. Yes, the same guy who presumably entered the playoffs with a tenuous grasp on the position he has held with the Giants since 2004.

Such scenes offer a pretty clear indication of why Sunday's divisional-round playoff game at Texas Stadium is, at the very least, expected to be as close and competitive as any played this weekend. And, at the very least, could produce a major upset.

Wade Phillips' Cowboys did not finish the season strong.

Tom Coughlin's Giants lost their finale, but gave a surprisingly inspired effort that nearly resulted in a victory to spoil the Patriots' perfect season. A week later, they put on a mostly impressive showing on the way to a 24-14 wild-card victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I still think, after hearing this question (about using starters for much of the New England game) 100 times, that you prepare for the really difficult and the hard by putting yourself in the really difficult and the hard," Coughlin said. "That has happened to us."

The Giants have shown plenty of grit by winning eight consecutive road games, including the wild-card playoff in Tampa, since their season-opening loss at Dallas.

In Dallas, many critics wonder whether the opposite has taken place. The Cowboys lost two of their last three games and ended the season with an ugly, 27-6 loss to the Washington Redskins. And by ugly, we're not just talking about being sloppy. The Cowboys produced just 1 rushing yard, the lowest in franchise history.

Furthermore, they have not played particularly well since beating the Green Bay Packers, 37-27, on Nov. 29 to gain an edge they would never relinquish in the battle for home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. They needed a rally in the final minute for a one-point win at Detroit. Then they lost to another non-playoff team, Philadelphia. After that came a 20-13 triumph over Carolina, followed a day later by the Packers' loss at Chicago to give the Cowboys home-field advantage.

Dallas' once-vaunted offense, which scored at least 24 points through the first 13 games, has averaged a mere 10 points in the last three.

All of a sudden, the Cowboys' season sweep of the Giants doesn't seem to mean all that much. The focus is on the fact they haven't won a playoff game since 1996. The focus also is on whether Tony Romo, who has thrown only one touchdown pass and five interceptions in his last three games, actually has what it takes to win a playoff game.

After all, he is the same quarterback whose botched hold on a field-goal attempt that helped lead to the Cowboys being promptly bounced from the 2006 playoffs by Seattle. He has plenty to prove, especially in light of the mammoth contract he was awarded during the season. As if that weren't pressure enough, Romo's best weapon, receiver Terrell Owens, is battling back from a high ankle sprain.

The Giants' game plan for Sunday is all about pressure. Coughlin thought his team, which produced 53 sacks during the regular season, didn't deliver enough of it in either loss to the Cowboys. Romo has enjoyed mostly solid protection, but coaches and scouts throughout the NFL believe he can be easily flustered by the kind of extreme heat the Giants were able to place on the Bucs' Jeff Garcia, who threw two interceptions and was largely ineffective.

"(The Cowboys) are very good offensively, have a very good line with great size and have done a good job of protecting their quarterback," Coughlin said. "They have only given up 25 sacks this season, but if you are going to have some kind of an effect on stopping those big plays, you have to get some pressure on the quarterback."

Romo's franchise-record 36 touchdown passes in the regular season no longer matter. It's all about what he does beginning Sunday.

Phillips has plenty to prove as well. He is 0-3 in the postseason as a coach. There have been rumblings throughout the league that he will need to win Sunday to keep his job because Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has had Super Bowl expectations for the team since before the season -- expectations that were only enhanced by a 13-3 record.

Adding to the speculation surrounding Phillips' future is that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, widely believed to be Phillips' heir apparent, has been courted for head-coaching jobs in Atlanta and Baltimore. The only way the Cowboys could keep him would be to promote him to the top job on the staff.

Phillips has said that his record "stands for itself." Unfortunately, his 29-19 record wasn't good enough to prevent him from being fired by the Buffalo Bills. And his 16-16 mark wasn't good enough in Denver.

Nevertheless, he is not fretting or treating the Giants game as a win-or-else situation.

"I mean, we're 13-3, we're No. 1 in the NFC, we're playing a playoff game, which I think we'll win," Phillips said. "I don't have any control over anything except how I coach and how well I feel like I coached the team."

Like it or not, Phillips will probably have to do one of his better coaching jobs Sunday or face more of the type of questions that the leader of a 13-3 team shouldn't be hearing this time of year.

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