EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The 2018 Giants are determined to make a favorable final impression on Sunday.
Pat Shurmur's first Giants team will play its last game when it hosts the Dallas Cowboys in MetLife Stadium, where the teams will arrive with significantly different fortunes. The Giants are 5-10 and cannot escape the NFC East cellar. Dallas is 9-6 and has clinched the division title and the fourth seed in the conference playoffs.
"For us, it's another opportunity," said safety and special teams captain Michael Thomas. "Season didn't go the way we wanted it to go, but we got one last game, we want to end the season with a win. Regardless of who we're playing, we're going to go out there and try to put something good on tape."
"It's going to be fun," said running back Saquon Barkley, who can add more records to his splendid rookie resume. "We got one more game to do it together as a team, and one more game we get to compete. We got to find a way to get a win."
If they do, it would provide a positive springboard into the offseason, particularly after losses the previous two weeks to Tennessee and Indianapolis.
"You want to finish strong," quarterback Eli Manning said. "We've been doing some good things this last half of the season. You want to go out there and just kind of finish on a good note. Playing against a good team, and just want to go out there and execute, and just feel good about this last game."
Because the Cowboys cannot change their playoff seed, coach Jason Garrett is expected to rest some of his starters, either keeping them off the field entirely or sharply reducing their snaps. When they were in the same situation two years ago, Ezekiel Elliott was inactive. Elliott leads the NFL in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. Barkley is third in each category.
In addition to their other goals, the Giants hope to end their three-game losing streak against the Cowboys. That includes a 20-13 Week 2 defeat in Dallas, a game in which they totaled 255 yards, including just 35 on the ground. Barkley rushed for a season-low 28 yards, but caught a Giants-record 14 passes.
"I think we're a better team than we were back then," Shurmur said. "We've sustained some injuries the last couple of weeks, but I do think that all teams kind of morph a little bit as the season goes on. You start to do the things you do well more. Some of the things you didn't do well early, you don't do anymore. And again, for guys in their first year, getting the feel for the players, so you change certainly. There's something to be gained by watching the film because schemes pretty much are the same, but I think we're both different teams now."
Keep an eye on these five players in the Giants' 2018 season finale
Although Dallas features offensive stars like quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper and Elliott, the foundation of the Cowboys' success this season is a defense that is one of the NFL's best – as the Giants experienced three months ago. Dallas is ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed (19.3 a game), sixth in opposing yards per game (321.8), fifth in average rushing yards (91.3) and second in yards-per-carry (3.7).
Unlike the first meeting, the Giants will face this formidable unit without Odell Beckham, Jr. who will miss his fourth consecutive game with a quad injury.
But this is an opportunity for the offense, and particularly the line, which has replaced three starters since the first game, to demonstrate how much it has improved.
"I think it's important against this (defense)," line coach Hal Hunter said. "This defense is number two in the NFL against the run and they're a top-five or six team overall, so it's a really talented group. Everybody talks about the quarterback and the running back, this team's about the defense. We've watched that tape (from the first meeting) all week. Sometimes it's painful, and other times there's some good things. Again, we want to see where we've come from Week 2 to Week 17 and it's important, it's a good measuring stick.
"Everybody's got something to prove in terms of how they show up and finish against – and we're playing against the division champs, right? They're where we want to be, so how do we end the season? How do we measure up? If they're the best in our division, they're the team to beat, so how do we measure up with them this last week? It's an important game for us. In my career, I've prepared for a lot of playoff games, and we prepared this week as a group with that same type of mentality. You've got to measure yourself against the big (teams). Championships go through your division, you've got to win your division first. So it'll be a good measuring (stick)."
And a victory would give this team a memorable sendoff.
"I think it's important to win this game because it's the next game on our schedule," Barkley said. "That's the way you got to look at it. You got one more game. You don't know how this team is going to look next year, the way the offseason and the NFL works. This is the last chance that we have together as a team in 2018. So why not go out there together and compete together, and try to end this season off right with a win?"
Why not, indeed.