New York is hoping to achieve something that has already happened six times in NFL history -- beat an opponent in the playoffs after being swept by that team in the regular season. For many teams, the extra burden of doing that on the road might be too much to ask, but the Giants have won eight consecutive road games and will be ready to play.
The Cowboys are the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but two of their three losses came at home this season. They have not looked sharp down the stretch, with Tony Romo only throwing one touchdown and the team averaging just 12 points in the last three games. The health and availability of receiver Terrell Owens is still up in the air. Without him, it becomes a level playing field for the Giants.
Kirwan breaks it down
</center>*The Giants lost twice to Dallas in the regular season but both games were tightly contested. There's a lot to learn from those games as we get ready for Round 3. Below is a breakdown of where these teams stand heading into Sunday's divisional playoff:*
» Tony Romo has only thrown one touchdown in the last three games with five sacks and five interceptions.
» Terrell Owens scored what proved to be the margin of victory in both Dallas wins over New York this season, but he might not play.
» The Giants had five drives against Dallas this season of more than 10 plays.
» The Giants rushed 49 times for 230 yards and three touchdowns in the two games against the Cowboys.
» Brandon Jacobs has 88 touches (22 a game) for 472 yards and five touchdowns in the last four weeks.
» They sacked Eli Manning six times and intercepted him twice.
» Jeremy Shockey caught 17 passes for 166 yards in the two games, but is now on IR.
» The Cowboys average 29.5 points a game at home.
» Dallas has the sixth-ranked run defense, giving up fewer than 100 yards a game.
1. Giants DE Michael Strahan vs. Cowboys RT Marc Colombo: Strahan has been a major force against the run and pass in recent weeks. Strahan also could be playing in his last game, providing extra motivation. Colombo struggles against athletes like Strahan who can rush the passer in many ways. Romo has been sacked five times in the last three games, and Strahan will get home against Colombo more than once.
2. Giants SS James Butler vs. Cowboys TE Jason Witten: Witten will be Romo's go-to guy, especially if Owens is down. Butler needs help, and the Giants will bracket him off with a linebacker and safety. Look for Romo to try to force a few balls in anyway. There will be opportunities for an interception if the Giants disguise the coverage well. Down in the red zone, Witten will win and add to his seven touchdowns during the season. I expect some fire-zone blitzes from the Giants over Witten's alignments, especially when he's on the left side. Butler or any Giants safety will struggle when Witten is lined up "flexed" from the tackle.
3. Giants WR Plaxico Burress vs. Cowboys CB Terence Newman: Burress is still playing in a lot of pain, but last week appeared to have better movement than he had in recent weeks. He caught a combined 12 passes for 168 yards and three scores in the first two meetings. I expect Eli Manning to go deep, unlike last week when the Giants played dink-and-dunk against the Bucs. Newman benefited from an injured Burress in the second game this year, but this sets up more like the first contest.
4. Giants LT David Diehl vs. Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware: Ware is the Cowboys' pass-pressure player. He had one sack and three quarterback hits in the two games this season against Manning, who threw a combined 75 passes. Ware will be very aggressive in this game, and I expect Wade Phillips to send him often. Diehl competes and can stay engaged with Ware, so it might be wise for Dallas to stunt the front and bring Ware from different places.
5. Giants RB Brandon Jacobs vs. Cowboys S Roy Williams: Williams made the Pro Bowl and Jacobs didn't. Williams loves to play up in the box, which I expect on first downs. The 265-pound Jacobs has become a force in the last four weeks and will be a lot to handle. I think the Giants will take advantage of all the good plays Jacobs has on film to call play-action pass early in the game and get Williams to bite while trying to get behind him with a tight end. As for the running game, look for the Giants to send Jacobs right at Roy and meet force with force.
When the Giants have the ball
New York has a balanced attack right now and Manning is playing his smartest football of the season. Tampa had the No. 2 defense in the NFL and was well-rested going into the wild-card game against New York. The Giants had 100 yards rushing, but even more impressive was the 20-for-27 passing by Manning.
Giants fullback Madison Hedgecock is 260 pounds and he leads Jacobs, who is even bigger. The Giants have demonstrated an ability to sustain long drives and they will do the same this weekend. When it comes to passing, the Cowboys secondary can be thrown on. Amani Toomer will work the intermediate zones between the linebackers and secondary. Burress will work the deep sidelines and an occasional quick slant route against soft coverages. Look for rookie receiver Steve Smith to get the quick short "over" routes, and I believe young tight end Kevin Boss will split the middle seam more than once.
Dallas will go after Manning and try to hurry his throws, creating bad decisions. The Cowboys will run-blitz the first-down situations and attempt to get Jacobs to stop and start. If Jacobs gets rolling downhill and is not disrupted behind the line of scrimmage, opponents are usually in for a long day.
When the Cowboys have the ball
Dallas has Pro Bowl players at running back, receiver, quarterback and along the line. There are stars in more places than just the middle of their Texas Stadium field.
Romo can make all the throws and he plays with great confidence. Over and over again, he has shown great poise bringing his team from behind.
If Owens can't go, the Giants can focus on three things: Blitz the quarterback, put an extra defender in the run support and double Witten. If they play to the down-and-distance tendencies and don't show their calls too early, they can slow this offense down.
If Owens can go but is not the threat he normally is, then the Giants might consider much less rolled coverage and just play off him with one defender. Keep in mind that Owens' touchdowns provided the margin of victory in both regular-season wins over the Giants. Terry Glenn will not replace the Owens production in this game. The Giants are capable of putting 25 points on the board and the Cowboys know it.
The No. 1 seed in the NFC has gone to 11 of the last 17 Super Bowls, and that makes Dallas a heavy favorite at home. The NFC's No. 5 seed, which the Giants are, has never reached the Super Bowl and has only appeared in one conference championship game, so history says the Giants are done after this game.
I will go against all logic, even though the home teams on divisional playoff weekend are 14-6 in the last five years. New York has the pass rush, the running game and a hot quarterback who can turn the first two losses against Dallas into the experience needed to win a close game. Giants 24, Dallas 21. The deciding factor for me was Dallas' last home game against the Eagles that it lost, 10-6, against a Philadelphia defense built like New York's.