First place in the NFC East will be on the line when the Giants face the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night in Cowboys Stadium. Dallas has won four of its last five games – losing last week in overtime in Arizona - and is 7-5, one game better than the 6-6 Giants, who have lost four games in a row. The Cowboys lead the regular season series, 56-39-2. The Giants won the teams' only postseason meeting in a 2007 NFC Divisional Playoff Game. Last year, the teams split their season series. The Giants won in Dallas, 41-35, but the Cowboys took the rematch in MetLife Stadium, 33-20, in Jason Garrett's first game as head coach.
The Cowboys are ranked seventh in the NFL with an average of 385.6 yards a game. They are tied for 14th in rushing with 114.8 yards a game and are seventh in passing with 270.8 yards per game. Dallas is 13th in scoring with an average of 23.6 points a game.
Quarterback Tony Romo is having an outstanding season. The three-time Pro Bowler is in the top 10 in most major passing categories, his 97.3 passer rating is fourth in the NFL and he has thrown 22 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. At one point this season, he threw 128 consecutive passes without an interception. Romo has a quick release, he uses a terrific spin move to elude pressure and he is dangerous outside the pocket. Few quarterbacks are as good at extending plays with their feet. Romo can be a gambler and a risk taker, but the Cowboys often benefit because it results in big plays. Jon Ktina has a back injury, so Stephen McGee is Romo's backup.
Rookie DeMarco Murray has revitalized the Dallas rushing attack since becoming the team's primary runner. A third-round draft choice this year, Murray set a club record with 253 yards in a victory over St. Louis. He has run for 872 yards and a 5.5-yard average this season. Murray is a big, powerful back who has the speed to run long distances (his first touchdown was a 91-yarder) and the skill to catch the ball (25 receptions). Former starter Felix Jones is now the third down back. He missed four games with a high ankle sprain. Jones runs hard inside and has breakaway speed. He also has a knack for turning a potential negative play into a positive play. Jones has good receiving skills. Undrafted rookie Phillip Tanner runs hard in traffic and had a season-high 11 carries vs. Buffalo. He was inactive last week with a hamstring injury.
Fullback Tony Fiammetta is expected to return to action after missing the last three games with an illness. Fiammetta, claimed off waivers early in the season, has been an outstanding blocker and a big reason behind the running game's improvement. Fiammeta won't blow up a defender, but he has a good feel for angles, he locates his target and adjusts well. Shaun Chapas was signed last week off the practice squad and made his NFL debut in Arizona. He is a tough blocker who caught a nine-yard pass in the loss to the Cardinals.
Romo throws to an outstanding group of wide receivers. Dez Bryant is as gifted a wideout as there is in the NFL. He has excellent acceleration, the burst to run past defenders and home run speed. Bryant, who leads the wide receivers with 46 catches, is difficult to tackle with the ball in his hands. The Cowboys like to throw the ball up to Bryant in the red zone and let him jump for it. The other starter is Miles Austin, a two-time Pro Bowler who missed the last four games with a right hamstring injury. He is expected back this week. Austin is usually the team's most targeted receiver. He is a big, smooth athlete who is a good route runner and has a large strike zone. The Cowboys will use Austin on gadget plays. Laurent Robinson has been a terrific pickup for the Cowboys. He is tied with Bryant for the team lead with seven touchdown receptions, including five in the red zone. Overall, he has 42 receptions, including a 70-yard touchdown. Robinson has deceptive speed and big-play ability and he will work across the middle. Kevin Ogletree has good vertical speed and quickness in and out of his cuts. Jesse Holley has played little, but he has good size and build-up speed and is a feisty blocker. He has averaged 24.1 yards on his seven catches.
Seven-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten is arguably the NFL's finest tight end and Romo's most targeted receiver. He leads Dallas with 61 receptions, 15 more than No. 2 Bryant. Witten is a consummate pro who seldom leaves the field. He is a good athlete, a crafty route runner with good speed and a quick upfield turn and a solid blocker. Witten is Romo's security blanket, the player he looks for when a play begins to break down. Backup Martellus Bennett could start for many teams. At 6-6 and 270 pounds, Bennett is a mismatch for many linebackers. He will do the dirty work inside, but has the speed to be a vertical threat. Bennett left the game last week with a rib injury and did not return. The Cowboys use a lot of three-tight end formations, which means John Phillips is often on the field. Phillips frequently lined up at fullback when Fiammetta was sidelined. Phillips has 14 catches – four more than Bennett – and is a good blocker in the running game and in pass protection.
Dallas' line has undergone a significant restructuring since last season; only two starters remain, one in the same position he played in 2010. That is left tackle Doug Free, who has significantly improved over last season. He has athleticism and good body range. Dallas started the season with rookie Bill Nagy at left guard, but he went on injured reserve with an ankle injury. So the Cowboys brought back Montrae Holland, who had been released in the final cutdown. Holland is a short-area mauler who can give defensive tackles fits. The center is Phil Costa, who made the team as a rookie free agent in 2010. He is quick, smart and alert when a defensive lineman eludes a teammate. Kyle Kosier, the veteran on the line, moved from left to right guard, where he is a steadying influence between Costa and rookie tackle Tyron Smith. He is a tough, savvy player who is difficult to fool. Smith was Dallas' first-round draft choice this year. He has missed only three snaps all season. Smith is athletic, quick in pass protection and finishes his blocks. He has consistently improved since the first game of the season. Veteran Derrick Dockery is a big, powerful, heavy-bodied reserve. Kevin Kowalski could also get some snaps.
Dallas' 3-4 defense is ranked 11th in the NFL, allowing 330.7 yards game. The Cowboys are ninth in rushing defense (100.5 yards a game) and 14th vs. the pass (230.2). They are tied for 10th in scoring defense, giving up 20.3 points a game. Dallas is tied with Houston for the NFL sack lead with 35.
The Cowboys have an active defense that uses multiple looks and a lot of late movement in an effort to confuse blockers and confound protection calls. By one count, they have 13 different defensive packages.
Right end Kenyon Coleman is in his second tour of duty with the Cowboys. A 3-4 defensive end his entire career, he spent the previous two years in Cleveland with Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Coleman is big, strong and instinctive. He had four tackles last week in Arizona. Three-time Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff is a former defensive end who has found a home at nose tackle. He is unusually quick and athletic for the position, but strong enough to be an effective anchor. Jason Hatcher leads the defensive linemen with 4.0 sacks. A college tight end until his senior season, Hatcher is a solid, steady, high-motor player. Sean Lissemore contributes consistent pressure as a reserve. Josh Brent is a squatty, powerful backup nose tackle. Marcus Spears is a former starter who splits time with Hatcher. He is a strong, heavy-bodied player. Clifton Geathers has been active for three games.
The linebacker corps, and indeed the entire defense, starts with DeMarcus Ware, who has been selected to the previous five Pro Bowls and is the current NFL sack leader with 15.0. He is widely regarded as the best outside linebacker in the NFL. Ware normally lines up on the weak side, but he will sometimes run to the other side of the formation – or even in the middle - before the snap as part of Dallas' ongoing effort to confuse the opposition. Ware has been bothered by a neck injury, but he is a rare and gifted player who can do it all. He is an explosive and instinctive pass rusher who has a plan and can counterpunch in an instant. The other outside backer is Anthony Spencer, who has 6.0 sacks. He is smart, finds the ball quickly, is a solid point of attack anchor and a power pass rusher. Inside linebacker Sean Lee is playing with what is essentially a club on his left hand because of a dislocated wrist, but leads the Cowboys with 102 tackles (71 solo). Lee makes all the huddle calls and keeps the defense together. He is a smart player with good ball skills. Bradie James is a two-down player who plays the fewest snaps of the starting linebackers, but he is a productive power player. Keith Brooking, a 14-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowler, has started three games and plays in the nickel package for James. He still runs around and makes plays and is third on the team with 57 tackles (39 solo). Victor Butler gets the majority of his snaps in the sub defenses and is fast off the edge as a pass rusher.
Strong safety Abram Elam is also back with the Cowboys after playing for Ryan in Cleveland. He knows the defense cold and keeps everything straight in the secondary. Elam can make a mess of the opposition's run game. Free safety Gerald Sensabaugh has good ball awareness. Backup Barry Church is a good box safety with excellent instincts. Left corner Terence Newman has been selected to two Pro Bowls. He leads Dallas with four interceptions and nine pass breakups. He is a smart, savvy veteran with very good route recognition. Newman has good closing quickness and likes to jump the underneath routes. On the right side, Mike Jenkins started the first seven games, missed the next four with a hamstring injury and returned to action last week against the Cardinals. He has all the skills to be an outstanding corner, most notably the ability to cover almost anyone. Orlando Scandrick is the nickel back and started when Jenkins was sidelined. He has good speed range and disguises his blitzes well. Former Giant Frank Walker plays in the dime package. Alan Ball started 16 games at safety last year and has returned to cornerback.
Left-footed punter Mat McBriar, an Australian, has five punts that traveled further than 60 yards and has placed 16 of 43 kicks inside the 20. Rookie kicker Dan Bailey is second in the NFL with 115 points and has made 29 of 32 field goal attempts (90.6 percent), including 26 in a row at one point. Bryant has taken over the punt return duties and is averaging 7.9 yards on eight runbacks. He returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown against the Giants last season. The Cowboys have had eight different players return a kickoff, including Jones, who is now the primary returner and has averaged 26.6 yards on seven runbacks. Long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur has played in 104 consecutive games. Backup safety Danny McCray leads Dallas with 17 special teams tackles.
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