By Paul Dottino
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One game. One playoff spot – and not just entrance into the postseason, but a first-round home game, too.

The Giants and Dallas Cowboys are bringing an identical 8-7 record into Sunday night’s season finale at MetLife Stadium knowing that the loser goes home. Could the game be any more meaningful?

The late Wellington Mara used to say that is was most important to him that the Giants’ final home game of the season was meaningful for the fans, who had spent the year being emotionally invested in his team. You know he’s wearing a wide grin as he looks down upon on the franchise this week.

In their first meeting of the season, the Cowboys used several big plays to grab a 34-22 lead with less than six minutes left, but Eli Manning responded with touchdown drives of 80 and 58 yards as the Giants escaped, 37-34. Of course, it wasn’t over until Jason Pierre-Paul blocked a field goal on the final snap, silencing the Cowboys Stadium crowd.

The Giants’ victory in Week 14 allows them to gain a playoff berth with either a win or a tie in the finale. As for this game, here are the Giants’ three key matchups to watch:

1. Giants defensive ends vs. Cowboys LT Doug Free and RT Tyron Smith. The Giants’ pass rush was inconsistent against Dallas in Week 14, although JPP was able to start the scoring with a safety and QB Tony Romo was sacked three times. The Giants appeared to finally fix the slumping pass rush last weekend – collecting five sacks against the Jets’ Mark Sanchez – and it looks like Osi Umenyiora will be back from his sprained ankle.

Umenyiora is the master of the strip-sack and given the injury to Romo’s throwing hand, it would not be surprising if the quarterback has trouble holding onto the ball even more than he does throwing it. Even if Umenyiora is given spot duty, his return would allow the Giants to go back to their Fantastic Four sub package with him and Justin Tuck on the ends and Mathias Kiwanuka and JPP at the tackles. They are likely to give fits to the Dallas line, especially the tackles, who are penalty-prone: Free has drawn nine flags this season and Smith eight.

2. Giants QB Eli Manning vs. Cowboys’ blitz package. Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, much like his brother, prefers to show a wide range of looks as part of his heavy blitz package.

At one point in a recent game, he showed 10 different formations on 10 straight plays. Over the past few weeks, he’s balanced the blitzes between the secondary and the linebackers, who often move around during the pre-snap count. No defender does more moving than LB DeMarcus Ware, the NFL’s most dominant linebacker and pass rusher.

The key for Manning is to identify the type of blitz the Cowboys are running on each play and to communicate that to his teammates so they can make the right adjustments at the line. Ware is the key to the package and he’s battling a stinger, which causes him to miss some snaps (he missed 11 last weekend). Manning needs to maximize the Giants’ big-play ability every time Ware leaves the field because the Cowboys do not have much of a pass rush when he’s on the bench – this was the case for several snaps during the Giants’ comeback in Dallas.

3. Giants’ defensive discipline vs. Cowboys RB Felix Jones. This one really is on the Giants, who were very sloppy with their run fits and seemed to have a missed tackle on almost every play in Dallas, especially in the first half. DeMarco Murray got hurt early and Jones came on to rip the Giants for 106 yards on 16 carries. He’s got quick feet and defenders slid off of him like butter.

The Giants, who had less than a handful of missed tackles against the Jets, need to play sound fundamental defense and not allow the Cowboys to gain any “free” yards, especially on third down – Dallas’ offense is dangerous enough without giving them bonus real estate. The requirement extends to the secondary, too, which cannot afford any miscommunications or busted coverages. If the Giants’ defense does its job, they should be in position to win the game.

PREDICTION: Giants 31, Cowboys 23.


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