EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — For the NFL schedule maker, this is perfection.
After a season of inconsistency and disappointments, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants play one game that will make the winner forget the frustrations of the regular season and send the other home for a long rest.
Archrivals facing off for a division title in prime time. Delicious.
The Cowboys (8-7) and Giants (8-7) close the regular season Sunday night at Metlife Stadium, the winner getting a first-round home game against either Atlanta or Detroit. Oh, in case of a tie, which hasn’t happened all season in the NFL, the Giants capture the division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 based on head-to-head play.
“I think everyone knows this is the most important game of the season,” Giants veteran left tackle David Diehl said. “We all know what’s at stake. We know what we are playing for. When we started this season our No. 1 goal was to win the division and here we are. It’s right in front of us.”
The division title has been in front of both teams all season, and neither has grabbed hold of it.
The Giants won six of their first eight games, then went on a four-game losing streak to fall a game behind the Cowboys in early December. New York, however, rallied from a 12-point deficit on Dec. 11 to beat Dallas 37-34 and regain first place on a tiebreaker.
The momentum lasted a week. New York put in a no-show in losing to Washington on Dec. 18, putting Dallas back in first. Of course, the inconsistency continued last week as the Giants played one of their best games of the season in knocking off and shutting up the local rival Jets 29-14. Meanwhile, Dallas lost to Philadelphia for the second time this season and quarterback Tony Romo bruised his right hand — his passing hand.
So who shows up this week with everything on the line? Who knows?
“I think these two teams are very comparable team-wise, not only in record but the types of seasons we have had,” said Romo, who plans on playing. “I suspect that talent-wise, we are pretty close so there will be a few plays here or there that will decide this game. We have to be ready to make those plays.”
Coincidentally, both teams have been in similar situations in recent years as far as making the playoffs and came up short.
The Giants have had late-season collapses the past two years. They lost to Carolina and Minnesota in the final two games of the ’09 season to miss the playoffs and they were beaten by Philadelphia and Green Bay in the 14th and 15th games last season — blowing a 21-point fourth-quarter lead against the Eagles — to also go home early.
The Cowboys, who last went to the playoffs in the 2009 season, had another win-and-in game on the road in 2008 against the Eagles and were blown out 44-6.
“I think it’s the same thing,” Cowboys Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware said of the parallel to 2008. “Going into this game, this is an opportunity where you can sort of get a birth, an opportunity where you can catapult yourself sort of where you need to be, showcase what we actually have. We haven’t been the most consistent team this year, but if you get this game and get to the playoffs, that’s like rebirth, a rebirth of the team. I think it’d be great to just keep going.”
Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said this is an easy game to get ready to play because the picture is so clear, the teams know each other so well after having played only three weeks ago — and having played each other twice a year for decades.
“There is only one game we have to focus on and only one game we have to win to get to what our next goal is,” Kiwanuka said. “We have one game and one opportunity to continue on our way to accomplishing our goal, which is winning a national title.”
The Giants could get a lift on defense with two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora expected to play for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain late last month.
The Cowboys might be a little fresher because they rested several players after the Giants beat the Jets, with the outcome of their game against the Eagles having no effect on the showdown nature of Sunday’s game.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin or Cowboys coach Jason Garrett will be under the microscope if their team fails to make the playoffs.
Coughlin, who hurt his left leg when run into on the sideline by Giants running back D.J. Ware in the fourth quarter last week, might be in a better position after the win over the Jets, a result that had co-owner John Mara signing his praises.
Garrett has seen his team blow fourth-quarter leads of at least 12 points three times this season, and might be in a little more trouble if Jerry Jones’ team misses the playoffs a second straight year.
“It’s do or die,” Dallas linebacker Bradie James said. “We can all sit here. The coaches talk about the Xs and Os, and my job is just to go out there and . really, it’s just sheer determination. Coach Garrett talks about will. It’s heart, determination. We can get in there and talk about execution and what we plan against this guy. They know us, we know them. It’s really going to be whoever outlasts the other. That’s how you break it down. I like to keep it as simple as possible.”
This will be the first time the NFC East winner has less than 10 wins since the division was created in 1970. The lone exception was the strike-shortened 1982 season, when teams played nine games.
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