By Paul Dottino
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Wide receiver Steve Smith is not expected to play Sunday against Dallas and it appears he may not be returning to the Giants’ lineup for a while, thanks to the strained pectoral muscle he suffered in Thursday’s practice.

A source with knowledge of the situation told WFAN it will take a “few days” to get a better handle on Smith’s injury, although he very likely will miss “at least weeks,” without being specific. A generic timetable of “weeks” – in the plural – translates to him not being available for Dallas, Philadelphia and maybe beyond. The Giants (6-2) did not comment on the report. Following practice, coach Tom Coughlin explained, “I don’t have anything to tell you about him until they do all of the tests.”

The source did not indicate if the injury is drastic enough to threaten Smith’s season; however, a strained pectoral typically sidelines a player from three to six weeks – with rest being the best prescription. Pectoral injuries have not been kind to the Giants in the past. (As an aside, Smith is in the final year of his contract and has yet to reach a deal for an extension despite his plans to remain with the team.)

Kevin Boothe needed surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle in May that was expected to sideline him for four months. He was placed on the PUP list before the season and activated this week. A torn pectoral muscle cost retired defensive end Michael Strahan the final eight games of the 2004 season and retired linebacker Carlos Emmons missed the final four games of 2005 with a strained pectoral.

Eli Manning surely will miss Smith, one of the NFL’s premier route runners and his go-to receiver, but the Giants (winners of five straight) still should have enough weapons to execute their game plan against the Cowboys (1-7). Here are the three key matchups to this week’s game:

1. Giants LT Shawn Andrews vs. Cowboys ROLB DeMarcus Ware. Ware’s had his share of battles against Giants LT David Diehl, who’s going to lose his streak of 127 straight starts because of hip and hamstring injuries. Now, this fierce speed rusher off the edge goes against Andrews, a former Pro Bowl guard who did a terrific job while getting his first taste of starting at a new position last weekend in Seattle.

At this point, Andrews admits that he’s much more comfortable with his run blocking than he is protecting the quarterback. However, Andrews is athletic for a big man and has quick enough feet to give him a chance to compete against Ware. The problem is “competing” against Ware often is not enough to prevent him from making game-changing plays. As we’ve said before, one of the best ways to slow down Ware is to run at him – directly behind an Andrews’ drive block. Pound on Ware early and often and they’re sure to slow him down.

2. Giants C Rich Seubert and LG Kevin Boothe vs. NT Jay Ratliff and RDE Igor Olshansky. Seubert is scheduled to make his second start of the season at center and Boothe, who had nearly three weeks of practice, probably will get the call to make his season debut even though Coughlin also is considering fifth-round pick Mitch Petrus. Any coach will tell you that a balanced attack provides his team with the best chance to win. This remains true for the Giants, who do not want to become pass-oriented; thereby putting more pressure on what will be their ninth offensive line combination of the season. Besides, it’s easier to pass block than it is to run block, anyway.

In order to accomplish this goal, Seubert and Boothe must be able to control Ratliff (a Pro Bowler who often commands double teams) and the oversized Olshansky (6-5, 315) at right end. The offensive line’s ability to run the ball will reduce the number of times Ware will be able to speed rush Andrews, cutting back on the possible number of negative plays in the pocket and snuffing out one of the few avenues Dallas has to attempt to steal the game.

3. Giants DEs Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck vs. Cowboys LT Doug Free and RT Marco Columbo. The Giants would be fine if the Cowboys put the game in the hands of backup quarterback Jon Kitna, even though he fired two fourth-quarter TD passes in the Giants’ 41-35 win during last month’s meeting in Dallas. The Cowboys, who own the NFL’s 31st-rated rushing attack (76 ypg) cannot be expecting to run against the Giants (No. 2, 81 ypg) – that means it’s up to Kitna, who won’t have much time to set up behind a subpar offensive line.

So you can expect Kitna to use plenty of three-step drops and rely heavily on the short-passing game, hoping his targets can break free for yardage after the catch. The Giants’ ends want to make sure he pays for every dropback and DTs Chris Canty and Barry Cofield must interfere with the passing lanes in the front of the pocket.

The immobile Kitna (nine sacks) still has the ability to throw the ball downfield and with some accuracy (62 pct.) but he’s also tossed just four TDs against six INTs in 112 attempts this season. And don’t forget Umenyiora (eight sacks) has caused seven fumbles and Kitna’s fumbled three times.

PREDICTION: Giants 31, Cowboys 13
PREDICTION RECORD: 5-3 (3-5 vs. the spread)


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