By Paul Dottino
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You can thank NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for making the Giants wait seven weeks before playing a divisional rival, even though there’s no stopping the intensity level of tonight’s NFC East match-up in Dallas.
Goodell wanted to enhance the chances that games during the stretch run would be meaningful, so he’s pushed back as many intradivisional games as possible. What he failed to take into account is the emotional and physical toll that a gauntlet of rivalry games takes on a team, especially when you consider the fiery, smash-mouth characteristics of the NFC East.
It’s much more likely that that the NFC East winner will be the team that survives the war of attrition (injuries often are determined by bad luck) rather than the one that seizes the title based on talent and execution.
On the flip side, it’s Goodell’s philosophy that will allow the Cowboys to remain on life support no matter what happens tonight. A Giants’ win would leave Dallas at 1-5, but only 0-2 in the NFC East – which means the Cowboys could conceivably finish 9-7 overall and 4-2 in the division, perhaps allowing them to get involved in a postseason tie-breaker scenario. Still, there is no doubt the Cowboys are the more desperate team going into this kickoff.
Here are three key matchups to watch in tonight’s game:
1. Giants C Shaun O’Hara vs. Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff. O’Hara played well against Detroit after a three-game absence because of foot/ankle injuries, but Ratliff’s usually been his toughest challenge. It’s Pro Bowl lineman vs. Pro Bowl lineman. Ratliff has great strength AND enough quickness that he can fight off double-teams to clog a rushing lane or get a push against the front of the pocket. It’s the latter skill that concerns the Giants because Ratliff’s ability to prevent a quarterback from stepping up allows speed rushers DeMarcus Ware (seven sacks) and Anthony Spencer (two) to converge off the edges – and we already know LT David Diehl and RT Kareem McKenzie are going to have their hands full all night against a Dallas defense that’s blitzing 50 percent of the time.
2. Giants RE Osi Umenyiora vs. Cowboys LT Doug Free. Umenyiora’s been at his best during the Giants’ three-game winning streak, collecting seven of his eight sacks this season – and forcing a fumble on six of them. He’s also improved his play against the run. Romo prefers to get the ball out quickly – it’s the primary reason he’s been sacked only seven times (Tennessee got him six times) this year. Free, a fourth-round pick in 2007, is a first-year starter, having inherited the job from the oversized Flozell Adams. Free’s an athletic tackle who’s most susceptible to the bull rush and can be inconsistent in maintaining his blocks so carefully watch for Umenyiora’s second move off the snap – that should create his best avenue to pocket.
3. Cowboys QB Tony Romo vs. Giants’ Ghidorah (three-safety) package of Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant. The Colts’ Peyton Manning has been the only quarterback to successfully decipher the Ghidorah package to date – and he leaned on his running game to help beat it. Otherwise, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s ability to disguise coverages with his safeties has bewildered opponents. Are they in man-to-man, bracket coverage, double coverage, a zone or how about a match-up zone? Or maybe one of them is coming on a blitz? Romo, who has thrown five INTs over the past two games, is at his best when he gets rid of the ball quickly – especially because he realizes his offensive line is suspect. The more incorrect reads he makes, the better it is for the Giants, who at the very least would love to add to their interception total of seven.
PREDICTION: Cowboys 27, Giants 23
PREDICTION RECORD: 4-2 (2-4 vs. the spread)