The calendar says December, but to the Giants it might as well be January.
"Our playoffs start now," guard Chris Snee said this week. "That's how you have to look at it. We know what's at stake. Everyone is aware of what's going on and the circumstance we put ourselves in by not being able to win some of these games. But heads are up. We're not down by any means. We know that we're still in it. If we take care of our own business, hopefully we'll be playing in January."
The 6-6 Giants have an opportunity to take a huge step toward the postseason on Sunday, when they will face the 7-5 Dallas Cowboys in Cowboys Stadium. Last month, the Giants owned a two-game lead in the NFC East race. Now, after four consecutive losses, they trail Dallas by a game. But the winner Sunday will walk off the field in first place and with a clear path to the playoffs.
"It doesn't get any more exciting than that," Coach Tom Coughlin said.
"This is exciting," quarterback Eli Manning said. "When you're getting into December and you're playing for playoffs and division leads and different things, this is what it's all about. This is a fun time. I think it's important that the guys look at it like that. It's not something to get nervous about or get anxious. It's something to look forward to, be excited, have great energy, great enthusiasm amongst the team."
The Giants haven't won since their thrilling victory at New England on Nov. 6. Four of the losses were to teams – San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay – with a combined record of 31-5. The fourth was to division rival Philadelphia.
"The losses add up and it's tough on you mentally," Snee said. "It hasn't been an easy four weeks, but you have to keep pushing through it."
Despite their victory drought, which includes a last-second 38-35 loss last week to the undefeated Packers, the Giants remain a confident, upbeat team. Antrel Rolle predicted on his weekly radio appearance that the Giants will be a playoff team, a sentiment wholly supported in the locker room. "I'm not saying it for motivation, I'm not saying it for any other reasons beside that's what my true belief is," Rolle said.
Though mired in a losing streak, weakened by injuries and facing a challenging four-game finishing schedule (that includes two games with the Cowboys), the Giants are confident they will reverse their fortunes.
"The whole losing streak thing, that's something for the papers," said linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. "For us in the locker room, we're more focused on the fact that all of our goals are still attainable. We still have the opportunity to win games, win games in our division and win our division, go into the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. That's all we're focused on."
"I agree with (Rolle)," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "I think the way we played this past Sunday, although we lost, was definitely one of the most exciting ways we've played, most aggressive, we put it all together, on special teams, on defense. I definitely see us winning these last four and getting into the playoffs."
While their attitude is admirable after so much recent adversity, the Giants must make plays against a Cowboys team that presents many steep challenges. Foremost among them is an outstanding front seven and a fierce pass rush. Dallas is tied for the NFL lead with 35 sacks. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is the individual leader with 15.0. He gets plenty of help from Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes to send multiple blitzers, which could force Manning to release the ball quicker than he'd prefer.
"They have some great players and they like to mix up their schemes and throw a lot of different fronts, do a lot of different coverages," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "They try to do everything they can to confuse you and cause you to be uncertain and hesitant. If they can do that, then they buy enough time for those outstanding players to get to the quarterback."
"They're good," Snee said. "They have been for years, and at times they've given us problems. So it's tough when you have five guys that can rush the passer as well as they can. It just locks you up one on one at times and you just have to win those matchups."
Ware always commands special attention. He was selected to each of the previous five Pro Bowls and belongs in any discussion of the NFL's most dominant defensive players. Ware has had at least one sack in nine of Dallas' 12 games, including a career-high four against Philadelphia on Oct. 30.
David Diehl has often drawn the challenging assignment of blocking Ware and now that Diehl is back at left tackle, he'll again have that assignment.
"He's having an awesome year, 15 sacks, leading the league, the pressure that he applies," Diehl said. "And the plays that he makes in the run game, not only when he is able to contain and do things front side, but you have to constantly be aware of him, because he'll run things down from the back side, he plays hard. But you get excited, because you're competing against one of the best players at that position. So I love it, I love to compete, I love playing against the best guys out there."
Diehl and Ware have been going at each other for seven years, and have developed a mutual respect.
"I know him, I know him off the field, I've talked to him," Diehl said. "He's a great player, a great person, great guy in the NFL, great role model. But when we're out there on the field, we compete, we fight, we punch each other, we do a bunch of stuff. That's part of it. After the game you say, 'Hey, great game.' But when we're out there there's no love."
The Giants must stop Ware – who is listed as questionable with a neck injury, but is expected to play - and his teammates with a shorthanded offensive line. Center David Baas will miss his second straight game because of a neck injury and intense headaches. Kevin Boothe will play center and Mitch Petrus will make his second career start at left guard. Boothe and Petrus learned after arriving at MetLife Stadium last Sunday that they would start at those positions against the Packers.
"I was very proud of the way the new guys played," Gilbride said. "To see Kevin Boothe slide over to the center position and play as well as he did almost seamlessly was outstanding and Mitch came from not even knowing if he was going to dress to go out and play. He's just a feisty, combative, competitive guy. He was very physical and I'm very proud that he stepped in there and did as well as he did."
"(Petrus) has been pretty solid and he was solid in the game," Coughlin said. "He got better and you do get better. He is playing against some really good competition and that can make you better right there."
The Giants' defense has its own set of issues. Safety Kenny Phillips is listed as doubtful because of the knee injury he suffered last week, leaving the Giants with one less player to monitor Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Rookie DeMarco Murray has energized Dallas' rushing attack and quarterback Tony Romo has posted typically impressive numbers, including 22 touchdown passes.
"He's precise with everything," safety Deon Grant said of Romo. "He makes sure he goes through his reads as far as the receivers, makes sure he reads the defense very well, that they play a complete game as far as running the ball, balancing out averaging as far as running the ball and also passing the ball. If they can't get the big plays, he knows when to hit Witten, and the running backs out of the backfield."
It should make for great theater Sunday night. Giants-Cowboys on national television with the division lead on the line in December.
"These are the games as a competitor people love to play in," Diehl said. "You love playing up against the best, it challenges you, it makes you raise your level of play. It's a rivalry, it's something that you learn quick, especially from my first time here playing against the Cowboys, you know it's going to be a tough game, it's going to be a fight.
"When I first got here, Giants fans told me right away, 'Make sure you take care of the Cowboys.' That's something that you hear all the time. So going into this game you're preparing for a battle, especially with what's on the line for us."
*Three players other than Baas have been declared out: Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (knee/ankle) and linebackers Mark Herzlich (ankle) and Spencer Paysinger (hamstring).
Six players are probable: Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and Brandon Jacobs (hamstring), wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee), linebacker Michael Boley (hamstring), cornerback Prince Amukamara (back) and defensive lineman Dave Tollefson (knee).
*Offensive lineman Stacy Andrews, who was placed on injured reserve this week after being diagnosed with blood clots in both lungs, visited the locker room. He was accompanied by his brother, Shawn, who played for the Giants last year.
"At first it was just a little pain in [my chest] and then my backside, the rib area," Stacy Andrews said. "I thought I had just popped a rib or something like that so I just brushed it off. I was like, 'I'll get a massage, pop it back in Friday.' So I practiced through the pain Friday, which was a lot of pain when I was running around on the field. I went out and got in the shower, I coughed up blood twice. I still put it off (and said), 'It's just a rib.' Saturday came, I was feeling pretty good, feeling alright. I got into the meeting on Saturday. I was just sitting there listening to the coaches talk and give their presentations and (the pain) started intensifying. I was like, 'Something can't be right.' I have a high tolerance for pain. That was a pain I couldn't brush off so I guess it was the man above saying, 'Listen, this is something serious.' So I went and told Leigh (Weiss, the assistant athletic trainer) and he called Ronnie (the vice president of medical services) and they said, 'We're going to get you (to the hospital) and see what's going on.'
"I'm thankful that we have the training staff that we have and Ronnie and the rest of the guys and Leigh. As soon as I came out of meetings, they were like, 'We're about to go to the hospital and get it checked out and see what the problem is.'"
Andrews said he is still receiving injections and will then take medication orally. He said it could take up to six months for the clots to be completely eliminated.
*This will be the sixth consecutive season the Giants' game in Dallas will be played in prime time. They won Monday night games in 2006 and 2010 and a Sunday night game in 2009 and lost on Sunday nights in 2007 and 2008. The Giants are 5-10 against the Cowboys in prime time.
*The Giants are 15-21-1 on Sunday nights, including 8-10-1 on the road.
*Dallas leads the regular season series, 56-39-2. The Giants won the teams' only postseason meeting, in a 2007 divisional round game. The Giants are 17-31-1 in Dallas.
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