EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – On Tuesday night, Dec. 8, the Dallas Cowboys lost a road game to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-17. It was their sixth loss in seven games, a streak that began on Oct. 19, a week after they defeated the Giants but lost quarterback Dak Prescott for the season with an ankle injury. The Cowboys failed to score more than 19 points in every one of those six losses. Their record was 3-9 and fan and media speculation in Dallas centered more on the team's potential first-round draft choice than its playoff hopes.
But the Cowboys put the brakes on their journey to 2020 oblivion. Five days after losing to the Ravens, they returned to the road and crushed the Bengals in Cincinnati, 30-7. In the last two weeks, they won home games against San Francisco (41-33) and Philadelphia (37-17).
In an NFC East in which no team has a winning record, that three-game streak was good enough to vault them into a first-place tie entering their game Sunday against the Giants in MetLife Stadium. The winner will be division champion if Washington loses in Philadelphia Sunday night.
After a two-month period in which it struggled to score points, Dallas' offense now resembles the attack that scored more than 30 points in four consecutive early-season games, the last the 37-34 triumph against the Giants on Oct. 11.
Last week, quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Michael Gallup, who had six catches for 121 yards. Amari Cooper also had 121 receiving yards on just four catches. Rookie CeeDee Lamb added 65 yards and scored twice, on a 52-yard reception and a 19-yard run.
"When you look at these three receivers, you see they're a problem," Giants defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said this week. "This will definitely be a massive challenge for us as a secondary."
And that's before factoring in star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for a season-high 105 yards vs. Philly. Dallas is seventh in the NFL with 264 passing yards a game, but the Giants believe Elliott remains the key to the offense. He has rushed for 937 yards and five scores in 14 games. Elliott has exceeded 100 yards in seven career games vs. the Giants, including 139 in his last visit to MetLife on Nov. 4, 2019.
"This is not the same team we played early in the year," coach Joe Judge said. "I think notably, the pace they're playing at is different, the way they're playing a balanced attack on offense. They've gotten away from playing a fast-paced tempo. They're not so much a pass-heavy team at this point. Really, the offense always goes through Zeke and the run game. That's what they use to set up those explosive receivers on the outside."
"You know how it is with Dallas," defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. "It starts with the run game and the backs they have back there, (Tony) Pollard, Elliott. Also, you tie into Dalton when he gets the checks in there. They're pretty good."
They have been lately. And the Giants will have to find a way to stifle one of the NFL's hottest offenses if they are to defeat Dallas and keep their division title hopes alive.
Although it hasn't been an uninterrupted progression, the Cowboys' improvement began when Dalton returned to the lineup after missing two games with a concussion and COVID-19. In his absence, Dallas started Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert, and neither was ready for prime time.
Since returning, Dalton has completed 67.2% of his passes and thrown 13 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. He is not the running threat the Giants faced the last four weeks at quarterback (Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson). But Judge said Dalton is a "smart runner" who is "very capable of extending plays with his legs."
"We've faced all forms and fashions of quarterbacks this year and this is definitely a more traditional quarterback in Andy Dalton," safety Logan Ryan said. "(Their) offense is similar to what we see daily with (offensive coordinator) Jason Garrett and our offense, so I think there's some familiarity there. A division opponent, we've played them before. We're not going to discredit Ezekiel Elliott, I think the offense goes through him. But they have weapons at receiver, they have a quarterback who gets the ball out quick, a quarterback who's extremely smart, he's taking care of the ball.
"We have to prepare to make it difficult on Andy Dalton to figure our defense out and just make it tough on him because when you don't, he's really efficient and he was really efficient last week. That comes back down to what I do best and what I love to do, disguise, communication, checks, playing a game with the quarterback. It's really going to be a huge load on the secondary. That's what I love, great receiving corps and how to combat them."
This might be the most prolific trio of wideouts the Giants have faced this season. Cooper has 86 catches for 1,073 yards, Lamb 69 for 892 and Gallup 55 for 795. Each has five receiving touchdowns. And the Giants can't ignore tight end Dalton Schultz, who has 56 receptions for 545 yards and four scores.
"We know they're talented," said rookie defensive back Xavier McKinney, who faced Lamb in a national semifinal in the 2018 Orange Bowl when he was at Alabama and the receiver played for Oklahoma. "We know they can do a lot of things. This is a special group. There's a lot of talented receivers in this league that we've gone against that I have gotten to face in these couple of games that I've played. We're definitely going into the game prepared and ready for a dog fight."
"The quarterback has settled in and feels comfortable," Henderson said. "You can see they're starting to gain confidence and kind of grew toward the end of the season. They have a chance, as do we, to potentially have a chance after this game to continue playing."
The matchup between the Giants' defense and Dallas' passing attack will be a big factor in determining which team that will be.
View rare photos from the historic rivalry between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.