Keep an eye on these five players in the Giants' 2018 season finale
Saquon Barkley will reach 2,000 scrimmage yards on Sunday.
JOHN SCHMEELK: Fact - The Cowboys don’t allow a lot of big plays down the field, with only four teams allowing fewer than their 39 completions of 20 yards or more. Teams use the short game against them. They trust their linebackers to cover opposing running backs, which should afford Barkley plenty of opportunities as a receiver, even against talented players like Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Dallas is similarly stingy in allowing big runs, but I suspect this game will be close and the Giants will give Barkley enough carries to eclipse the 114 scrimmage yards necessary to be the first Giants player to get 2,000 since Tiki Barber.
DAN SALOMONE: Fact - Even if the Cowboys’ starters were guaranteed to play the entire game, I wouldn’t put it past Barkley to get the 114 yards to become the third rookie in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards from scrimmage. The Cowboys shut down the Giants’ run game in Week 2, Barkley’s second NFL game, but the second overall pick still managed to set the franchise record with 14 catches in the game. And hey, don’t sleep on that rushing title. Ezekiel Elliott has a 183-yard lead on Todd Gurley and 236 on Barkley. “You never know (laughter),” Barkley said this week. “I’m just kidding, but honestly, you never know.”
LANCE MEDOW: Fact - In Week 2 against the Cowboys, Saquon Barkley was limited to a season-low 28 rushing yards but still managed 108 scrimmage yards thanks to 80 receiving yards. He needs 114 total yards to get to 2,000 on the season. While I don’t think it’s going to be easy, the fact that the Cowboys could rest some of their starters in the second half should help Barkley’s cause. In each of the last two games, Barkley has failed to reach 100 scrimmage yards with just 56 against the Titans and 77 in Indianapolis, but both of those opponents had plenty to play for. That’s not the case for the Cowboys as they’ve already won the NFC East and are locked into the fourth spot in the playoff picture. In 2016, when Dallas won the division and was already locked into a playoff spot entering Week 17, it played some of its starters for the first few series and then turned to the depth chart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jason Garrett follows a similar script.
The Cowboys are the toughest matchup of the season for the Giants’ offense.
JOHN SCHMEELK: Fiction - The Cowboys defense is certainly formidable, but it isn’t as good as the Bears defense. The Cowboys rank sixth in yards per game allowed and fourth in scoring. They are only 18th in takeaways, however, while the Bears lead the league in that department. For a defense to be truly dominant, it has to be able to take the ball away consistently and the Dallas defense doesn’t do that. Nevertheless, it will be very tough sledding for the Giants offense on Sunday. The Cowboys have good man coverage cornerbacks, a good pass rush and two of the best young linebackers in the league in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
DAN SALOMONE: Fact - They might not be the best defense, but the NFL is all about matchups. We have hard evidence that the Cowboys are a tougher matchup than the Bears, whom the Giants scored 30 points against in an overtime victory. Dallas, meanwhile, held Big Blue to three points until the final 90 seconds when the game was all but out of reach. Don’t forget, too, the role that the Cowboys’ offense plays in their defensive success. They dominate the time of possession, and if you fall behind early, it plays into their hands.
LANCE MEDOW: Fact - If you go by the results in Week 2 and take into consideration that the nucleus of that Cowboys’ defense is still intact, who else are you putting ahead of Dallas? The Giants didn’t manage a touchdown in the first matchup until there was 1:27 left in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys ahead, 20-6, and in protect-the-lead mode. What makes Dallas’ defense more challenging than other 2018 opponents is its linebacker corps. Jalen Smith, this year’s first round pick Leighton Vander Esch, and even Sean Lee, when healthy, have provided a versatile group of playmakers for the middle of the Cowboys’ defense. That’s why they’re effective in defending the run and matching up with tight ends in the middle of the field. On top of that, Rod Marinelli is an aggressive coordinator who runs plenty of stunts with his front to test opposing offensive lines. That’s a big reason why the Cowboys recorded six sacks in Week 2. You also can’t overlook the fact that Dallas’ unit ranks sixth overall in the NFL and is top ten in the league against the run and the pass.
Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is the best defensive rookie in the NFL.
JOHN SCHMEELK: Fact - Darius Leonard might have more tackles, and Bradley Chubb has more sacks, but neither has had the impact of Vander Esch. He has played so well that the Cowboys chose to make Sean Lee, one of the best linebackers in football, inactive to keep playing the rookie. He is fast enough to cover and run sideline to sideline, and strong enough to get downhill, take on offensive linemen, and tackle. He is a smart weakside linebacker who flows to the football and is all over the field. He has been a huge reason the Cowboys defense, which in the past has fallen apart when Sean Lee doesn’t play, is one of the best units in the league.
DAN SALOMONE: Fact - A few years ago, the running back position was declared dead. Then it was the linebackers. I’m here to tell you both are alive and well. Just look at the Cowboys. The duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch has been something to watch this season for the No. 4 scoring defense in the league. Vander Esch, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for November, has essentially replaced Sean Lee, who was an All-Pro just two seasons ago.
LANCE MEDOW: Fiction - If Leighton Vander Esch isn’t the best defensive rookie in the NFL, he certainly belongs in the conversation. The former Boise State standout leads the Cowboys in tackles and also has very strong coverage skills with seven passes defensed and two interceptions. Given fellow Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee’s injury history and the job Vander Esch has done this season filling in for Lee, I think the former will go down as one of the steals of the 2018 NFL Draft. With that being said, there are a number of other strong candidates, such as Chargers safety Derwin James (another steal), who leads his team in tackles to go along with three and a half sacks, 13 passes defensed and three interceptions, as well as Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb, who has certainly lived up to the hype with 12 sacks and two forced fumbles. There’s also Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, who leads the NFL in tackles and the Giants had to deal with in Week 16. Leonard is such a disruptive player and does so many things for the Indianapolis defense because of his athleticism and ability to cover sideline to sideline. He tops my list, but Vander Esch is right behind him.
Twenty-four points will be enough for the Giants to win the game.
JOHN SCHMEELK: Fact - Despite the presence of Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper, the Cowboys offense has been underwhelming this season. They rank 23rd in yards and 24th in scoring. Injuries to Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith have made the offensive line a shadow of its former self. Dak Prescott has been sacked 52 times this year, and hit 95 times. If the Giants can get to 24, they have a very good chance of winning.
DAN SALOMONE: Fact - Twenty-four points would have been enough for either team to win the past six meetings, which are split 3-3. Only twice has one side scored 24 points in that span – Giants in 2015 and Cowboys in 2017 – but never in the same game. These teams play each other tight, and with the Giants missing some offensive playmakers and the Cowboys possibly not playing their starters all the way through, that could also mean another low-scoring affair.
LANCE MEDOW: Fact - The Cowboys have won six of their last seven games and scoring 24 points would have been good enough to win just three of them and one just barely. What makes this statement difficult to assess is we don’t know how much the Cowboys main starters will play, especially quarterback Dak Prescott. On the season, at full strength, Dallas is averaging just over 20 points per game, which is slightly less than the Giants. When you take into consideration the unknown of Week 17 with respect to playing time, and the fact that the Giants are 5-2 this season when scoring at least 24 points, I’ll say that number should be enough.