EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants' season began with searing disappointment when they wasted a late 10-point lead, gave up a touchdown with just seven seconds remaining, and fell to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-26.
It was the kind of loss that delivers players to new levels of anger and frustration, prompts them to check the date of the rematch, and has them plotting payback.
On Sunday, six weeks after the first meeting, the Cowboys will visit MetLife Stadium for a critical NFC East showdown. But if revenge is a motivation for the Giants, they're doing a good job of masking it.
"Revenge is a word I wouldn't use," guard Justin Pugh said. "I just think we're a little extra amped up, because the way it ended left a bad taste in our mouth. They came down and they made plays at the end, you have to give them credit."
The Giants have a more recent defeat they want to rebound from, their 27-7 loss in Philadelphia on Monday night. Every player and coach was disappointed in the team's performance. That game has pushed the letdown in Dallas further down in the Giants' collective consciousness.
"This game is important to us for a lot of reasons, but I don't think revenge is one of them," linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "I think guys are a little bit eager to try and get this taste out of our mouth."
"If you ask me, this is the biggest game thus far this season," wide receiver Rueben Randle said. "I see it as a must win for us if we want to keep our hopes alive. We have to win this game and I'm not really worried about what happened in Week 1. It's over with now. It's all about this week. That's in the past, and we've got to focus on getting this win this time."
It's impossible to form a rational dissent to that last comment. The Giants are 3-3 and tied for first place in the NFC East with the Eagles. A victory would leave them no worse than tied at the top for another week. But a loss could come with dire consequences. It would give the Cowboys a sweep of the season series – for the third consecutive year – and give them a critical tiebreaker advantage. The Giants would be 1-3 in NFC East games, with a .500 division record their best possible outcome.
Believe me, they know how important this game is," coach Tom Coughlin said. "And they know it's within the division and who it's against and the fact we played them the first game and so on and so forth. So they're very much aware of that."
"We lost to Philly, we lost to Dallas and you play Dallas again, and this is one of those must wins along with, I feel, every other game this season," wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "We know what the case was, and they won the last game. This is definitely a must win for us."
"All the division games are crucial," quarterback Eli Manning said. "All of them are important, all of them are big, so every game counts in this league, every one is important. But the fact it is Dallas and we've played them already, it's a chance for us to get back to a winning record. It's a big one and we've got to go out there and play well."
Because of subtractions on offense and additions on defense, the Cowboys will look significantly different than they did when the Giants saw them last month. Quarterback Tony Romo (fractured clavicle) will not play and star wide receiver Dez Bryant (broken foot), who hasn't played since Week 1, is listed as doubtful. Brandon Weeden started the last three games for Romo, but on Sunday, Matt Cassel will make his Dallas debut. Cassel, acquired in a trade with Buffalo on Sept. 22, last faced the Giants six years ago, when he played for Kansas City.
Keep an eye on these five players as the Giants face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday
Defensively, the Cowboys have welcomed back their best pass rusher (end Greg Hardy) and run-stopper (middle linebacker Rolando McClain), both of whom returned for the game prior to Dallas' bye after serving four-game NFL suspensions. The Cowboys lost to New England, 30-6, their third consecutive loss after a 2-0 start. But don't try convincing the Giants head coach that Dallas is descending.
"I think they're going up," Coughlin said. "I think they played better. Even though they lost to New England by that score, there's no question their defensive team played well. It was a very tight game for a long time. New England's defense did an outstanding job. The Cowboys played New England very well, to be honest with you. I thought they lined up and played them man-to-man, nose-to-nose, I got you, you got me, let's go."
In their debuts, Hardy had two sacks among his five tackles, and McClain contributed eight tackles, including a sack. They are part of a formidable front seven that also includes pass-rushing rookie Randy Gregory and playmaking linebacker Sean Lee.
"They added two good players; obviously, they change the game," running back Rashad Jennings said. "They played well throughout their career, and they're going to play with an energy, so we have to be ready for that. We have a game plan for it, but it's going to come down to us being physical and the matchups every play."
"They're a totally different team than the team we played the first week of the season," Pugh said. "They got some key guys back on defense, they've lost some guys on offense, so it's going to be a totally different game. We have to go out there to prove what kind of offense we are. I think we have a lot of doubt coming from last week from outside of here. But I'm very confident in what we're going to do this week and the guys we have in the room and how hard they're going to work and play.
"Revenge is a word that you can throw around, but I would just say we're going to go out there and try and play our game."
In a tight division race, the Giants need that game to be played very well.