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Strange season comes to a head for Giants, Cowboys

DARIUS-SLAYTON

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It has been well-documented and extensively supported that this has been the strangest of NFL seasons. COVID-19 has forced numerous teams to close facilities and players and coaches to miss games. Schedules were scrambled and games were played on a Tuesday and a Wednesday. Denver played a game without quarterbacks, Cleveland one without its top four wide receivers and Detroit another with most of its coaching staff barred from Ford Field.

Despite all that, the league is on track to complete its entire 256-game regular season Sunday night.

It is wholly appropriate that in this season like no other, one of the last games will match teams that have combined to win 11 of 30 games vying to stay alive in their division race.

The 5-10 Giants hope to end a three-game losing streak when they host the 6-9 Dallas Cowboys, winners of their last three games, Sunday at 1 p.m. in MetLife Stadium. The losing team will begin its offseason Monday morning, while the winner will remain in contention for the NFC East title. For several hours. First place will be officially decided Sunday night, when Washington -- also 6-9 -- will clinch the championship if it wins in Philadelphia or hand it to the Giants/Cowboys winner with a loss.

Victories by the Giants and Eagles would leave three teams tied atop the division at 6-10. The Giants would be champions by virtue of their 3-1 record vs. Dallas and Washington. They would become the first six-win playoff team in NFL history and would host an NFC Wild Card Game next weekend. The playoff berth would be their first since 2016 and the division title their first since 2011.

But the situation is so unsettled, the Giants can end Sunday anywhere from first to fourth place in the division:

If the Giants win and Washington loses, the Giants finish first

If the Giants win and Washington wins, the Giants finish second

If the Giants lose and Washington wins, the Giants finish third

If the Giants lose and Washington loses, the Giants finish fourth

This is an elimination game, with stakes not much different than a playoff game. But coach Joe Judge has tried to mute postseason talk among his players and instructed them to concentrate on the next opponent, as they have all season.

"We're not focused on anything that happens after Sunday," quarterback Daniel Jones said. "Our job is to prepare as well as we can and as hard as we can to play our best game Sunday. That's where our focus is, is to be as prepared as we possibly can and play well. That's certainly my individual focus as well. That's the goal and that's kind of our mindset going in."

"Our approach has been the same all year in terms of putting everything we have into every game," Judge said. "We have 16 opportunities a year to go out there and perform and execute. This is one of the 16. Look, they all add up collectively. It's not the 16th game that means something more than the first 15. You have to take advantage of all of your opportunities. There are times this year we had to play better and take advantage of it. There were times that we played good games and came out with the results we were looking for. But we need to make them all count along the way if you want to go ahead and talk about anything past those 16 games."

The Giants and Cowboys took similar journeys to this game. Each began the season getting accustomed to a new head coach, Judge with the Giants and Dallas' Mike McCarthy. They lost arguably their most valuable offensive players early in the season – Saquon Barkley to a knee injury in Week 2, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott with a fractured ankle he suffered against the Giants three weeks later. When they walked off the field after their respective games on Nov. 8 – the Giants winning in Washington, Dallas losing at home to Pittsburgh – each team was 2-7 (as was Washington). It was the Cowboys' fourth straight loss. The Giants began their season with five consecutive defeats.

The teams' paths diverged in the last three weeks, when Dallas won its games by a combined 51 points and the Giants lost theirs by 47.

"Had a lot of adversity, I think that's what this year has been," safety Logan Ryan said. "I think a lot of teams lost a lot of players, it hasn't been a healthy season, COVID, you don't know who's going to play and who's not. It's kind of that anxiety of 2020 football. It's something that I've never experienced, none of us have ever experienced, the differences of this season. I think our locker room has stuck together, I think our locker room had a willingness to adapt, I think Joe has done a great job adapting virtual meetings, everything that we've done, going into games with very little practice, stuff like that. I think every team has had to do that and it's affected every team positive and negative in some form or fashion this year.

"I just think our willingness to stick together, our belief in one another through good, bad or indifferent, no matter how it's gone, has given us a chance and given us a possibility to play a last game and a meaningful game, so you've got to be grateful for that. But I know the character of our locker room and how we've stuck together. We definitely earned the right, the ability to play in this game and it to mean something, and I think that's just coming back around with everything we've endured this year."

Perhaps their most painful loss this season was in Dallas on Oct. 11, when Greg Zuerlein kicked two field goals in the final 1:56, including a 34-yarder as time expired, to give the Cowboys a 37-34 victory. It was their seventh consecutive win against the Giants.

A Giants victory tomorrow will not only end that streak, it will give them their best NFC East record since 2016 at 4-2 and a home sweep of their division foes for the first time in 15 years.

"Playing in the National Football League, it really does all start with your division, it's really the most important thing," Judge said. "You play these guys twice a year, you have to know your division, you have to improve within your division. A lot of people build their teams based on who they play twice a year in the division. Those games don't trump every other game, but they're obviously very important games because they almost count as more than one game because of how you're measured against the other teams in your division."

No one has to tell the Cowboys; four times in the last 10 years, they have headed into the final two weeks of the season needing to beat an NFC East opponent to win a division title. All four times, Dallas lost - 31-14 at the Giants in 2011, 28-18 at Washington in 2012 and 24-22 to the Eagles in Dallas in 2013.

In a similar situation last year in Week 16, Dallas had a chance to win the NFC East for the fourth time in six seasons with a win at Philadelphia. The Cowboys lost, 17-9. They won their season finale against Washington to finish 8-8, but the Eagles won the won the division by defeating the Giants in MetLife in Week 17.

The Cowboys' coach in all four of those seasons was Jason Garrett. He is now the Giants' offensive coordinator and again faces a win or go home scenario in the NFC East, but now wearing different colors.

Yes, it has been a strange season.

*The "Bud Light Giants Gameday" radio pregame show will begin at 11:30 a.m. on WFAN 660 AM/101.9 FM and will stream live on Giants.com, the Giants mobile app, and "Giants TV" streaming app.

"Giants Postgame Live" presented by Mercedes-Benz can be heard immediately after the game - also on WFAN 660 AM/101.9 FM.

Giants Postgame Wrapup will air live after the game on MSG Networks and streaming on Giants.com, the Giants mobile app, and "Giants TV" streaming app.

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