Tom Coughlin today delivered a sobering reminder to his players about the Giants' rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys.
"I did remind our team that a year ago we won down there and lost at home," Coughlin said.
If it happens again this year, the Giants won't make the playoffs – and Dallas will.
The longtime rivals will take identical 8-7 records into the NFC East showdown Sunday night in MetLife Stadium. The winner will capture the division championship and host a wild card playoff game the following weekend. The loser will not play a meaningful game until September, 2012.
The Giants enter the division title game with some momentum after defeating the Jets, 29-14, on Saturday. They also have plenty of confidence, stemming from their faith in quarterback Eli Manning and the performance of a defense that turned it in arguably its best performance of the season. If that unit can duplicate that performance against Dallas, the Giants will be in a good position to earn its first division title since 2008.
"As a defensive unit, we said we're going to take it upon ourselves to place more emphasis in practice," linebacker Michael Boley said. "You play how you practice. All week it was an all-out mentality, and it carried over into the game.
"There was a different mentality, guys took a very different approach. It was more businesslike. It was everybody. It's not just one person saying, 'This is what we're going to do.' It was a collective agreement. I think it was a mindset vs. the week before. Things were a little lackadaisical at times in practice. That was something we didn't want to keep happening."
The Jets' 14 points was the lowest total allowed by the Giants this season. The defense surrendered 331 yards, the fourth-lowest total by an opponent this season, but the figure is vastly more impressive considering the Jets ran 89 plays and owned the ball for 36:06. They averaged only 3.7 yards per play. The Jets had 16 offensive possessions and scored on only two of them. From midway through the first quarter though midway through the fourth, they had the ball 11 times and didn't score (nine punts, a missed field goal and an interception).
"We knew we could make plays," defensive lineman Dave Tollefson said. "It's just a matter of putting the mental physically – doing what we think we can do and doing it. Man, it was exciting. I had a lot of fun. Everyone talks about how many plays we played on defense. But I felt like we could have played 90 more."
The turnaround started in practice last week with everyone flying around and mental errors were kept to a minimum. The defensive players considered their recent performances unacceptable and vowed to improve against the Jets.
Now they're certain they can carry that kind of strong performance forward against the Cowboys and beyond.
"We're extremely confident in our group," said safety Antrel Rolle, who tied with Corey Webster for the team lead with seven tackles against the Jets. "We played tremendous in all phases of the game. We definitely didn't have things go in our favor. But we didn't let that stop us. We kept pushing and kept driving and stayed relentless throughout the game.
"We proved last week what kind of defense we can be if we put our minds together and if we practice hard throughout the week and if we go out there and put our practice to play come Sunday – we're just looking forward to a game. We understand what's on the line and we understand we need 200 percent focus."
"I thought there was some good energy and we were executing good, too," Tollefson said. "Sometimes at practice you get caught up in, 'Oh, it was practice, we messed it up, we'll get it right.' More often than not that's not necessarily the case. You mess it up in practice, eight out of 10 times, you're probably going to mess it up in the game. We were really focused that we crossed all our Ts and dotted all our Is last week.
"You go out, you practice well and you play well. That's something you learn. It's not like you figure it out by seeing it on T.V. or film. You practice well, you play well – oh, ain't that a weird thing? These young guys are figuring it out and the old guys are putting the pressure on each other, too. We expect to have another great week of practice."
They'll have to, because here's another sobering fact: few teams enjoyed as much success against the Giants defense as Dallas did on Dec. 11. The Giants won, 37-34, in Cowboys Stadium, but Dallas gained 444 yards, including 305 through the air. Tony Romo threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers.
The Giants won because the offense gained 510 yards, including 400 passing yards by Eli Manning, who was not sacked despite dropping back 47 times. This week, the defense expects to make more of a positive contribution toward a Giants victory. But the players also know they're going to have their hands full against a Dallas offense that features Romo, running back Felix Jones, wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten.
Although the Cowboys scored 34 points and gained 444 yards, the Giants expect them to alter their game plan.
"Teams will always do something a little bit different," Coughlin said. "It won't always be the same. You think you have a good handle on the personnel. You may be able to know the younger players better at this point of time because you've seen them all year and then you see them in a very short amount of time. I don't know who would have the advantage. Both teams know each other very well and have the two games in between to study to see if there is anything different going on. Certainly it's relatively fresh in our minds because we would pull out all of our information and go right to it and add the two games since to that cumulative information. I feel like we have a very good library of facts."
All the Giants can agree on one point – the Cowboys proved in their first meeting that they are a very difficult team to beat.
"We learned they're a great team and they're a fighting team," Rolle said. "We're both fighting for the same thing at this point. It's backs against the wall – best man continues, the loser goes home. That's the way both teams are definitely going to approach this game."
*Romo (who hurt his hand Sunday against Philadelphia) and Jones (hamstring) are rehabbing injuries, but the Giants aren't even considering the possibility that they will miss the game.
"They're playing," Coughlin said. "There isn't any question in my mind."
"As far as we're concerned, (Romo) is going to play and he's going to be completely healthy," Boley said.
*Wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee), tight end Jake Ballard (knee) and defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle) all missed the Jets game.
"(They are) probably questionable to start the week," Coughlin said. "I would hope Manningham could make it. He started to feel better at the end of the week."
Ballard said he hasn't yet run outside, but is hopeful he will be able to play.
"I keep trying to build my strength up," Ballard said. "I'm going to keep working and try to play. It depends on how my knee feels. If I can't run in the game, that would hurt our chances of winning. If it was today, I couldn't play. It's getting better every day. It's day-to-day. I'll keep rehabbing, try to build the strength up and hopefully I'll be ready to go."
*Coughlin didn't reveal too many details about his condition after suffering a leg injury when D.J. Ware ran into him on the sideline late in the game.
"Never better," Coughlin said. "I may not be able to run for a while."
Asked what his injury is, Coughlin said, "I am not going to disclose injuries to you."
*Coughlin said Rolle, Webster and Jason Pierre-Paul all played more than 100 snaps in the game.
"Three guys played over 100 snaps because it was all hands on deck and we started a starter if we need help on special teams," Coughlin said. "We had to have it and those guys volunteered, came forward, wanted to be a part of it. They certainly, again, set a great example for the rest of our team."
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