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The Stage is Set

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The 100th meeting between the Giants and Dallas Cowboys is one of the most significant, promises to be one of the most exciting and almost certainly will be one of the most memorable games in this long and storied series.

The fierce NFC East rivals will meet – for the 99th time in the regular season – Sunday night in MetLife Stadium with matching 8-7 records. The winner will capture the division title and host an NFC Wild Card Game next week. The loser will take a .500 record into a long and cold offseason.

"It is a very exciting, very, very historical week for our players and franchise," said Coach Tom Coughlin, whose Giants are trying to win their first division title – and earn their first postseason berth – since 2008. "The setting is incredible. … Here we are on the eve of this game that will decide who the NFC East champions are and it is an exciting time."

The Giants took the upper hand in the race when they defeated the Cowboys in Dallas, 37-34, on Dec. 11. But they gave it right back the next week when they lost to Washington a day after the Cowboys won at Tampa Bay. Last week, the Giants defeated the Jets, thereby rendering meaningless Dallas' loss to Philadelphia. Now it's a one-game showdown for the title and the playoffs.

"I was hoping we would have already had things figured out in our favor," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said. "But regardless of the circumstances, to be able to play at home, last game of the regular season against a divisional opponent that is a rival and is hated, and have everything on the line – it's possible one team could knock off the other - that's one of the biggest stages for what the season could come down to."

"This game is going to be awesome," tackle David Diehl said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere. This is what the NFC East is all about, battling against a division foe for the title.

I know we're going to be ready to go for this one. This is a heavyweight fight to take over the division and be the champs of the division and most importantly for us, we want to keep playing. This is all about making the playoffs and this is our one way of doing it, and this is one of our number one goals, to win the division."

The Giants have played few regular season finales this significant in their 87-year history. Indeed, this is believed to be the first winner-in, loser-out game they've played, though they have been in several final games in which they needed to win to at least have a chance at postseason play.

In 1943, they defeated the Redskins for the second week in a row in the final game to set up their third meeting in as many weeks in an Eastern Division playoff – which the Giants lost. A victory over Cleveland in 1958 set up a tie with the Browns atop the Eastern Conference with identical 9-3 records. The Giants won the playoff game the following week before losing in the NFL Championship Game in overtime to Baltimore. In 1970, the Giants were eliminated from postseason consideration when they lost to the Los Angeles Rams on the season's final day. A victory would have clinched a playoff berth. They were knocked out by losing to the Jets in the final game of the 1988 season, but could have slipped into the playoffs had the Rams lost to San Francisco in their finale. The 49ers put forth a token effort to ensure that didn't happen. In 1993, the Giants and Cowboys met with the division title on the line in the finale in Giants Stadium. Dallas won in overtime, clinched a bye and the first seed in the NFC playoffs and went on to win Super Bowl XXVIII. The Giants were a wild card team and lost a divisional round game in San Francisco. Phil Simms still believes had the Giants earned the top seed and played at home, they would have been champions.

Now they get an all-or-nothing game with their hopes and those of millions of Giants fans riding on the outcome.

"These are situations that you want to be in – at the end of the season, a chance to make the playoffs, win one game and you're in the playoffs," quarterback Eli Manning said. "This is exciting playing against a division rival at home. It should be a great crowd, a great environment on Sunday night, and we're looking forward to it."

"Anytime you play the Cowboys it's a big deal, especially being a Giant," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "Anytime you play them for all the marbles for the division championship is definitely a huge game. So we understand that and we understand what it is going to take to win."

What it will likely take is an offensive output similar to what the Giants put out in Dallas and a defensive effort that is significantly better than what the unit put forth in the first Cowboys game.

The Giants had season highs in points (37), yards (510) and passing yards (400) in their third victory in as many visits to Cowboys Stadium. But the defense allowed 34 points and 444 yards, including 305 through the air. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo threw four touchdown passes.

"It was really embarrassing when you come back and watch film and watch the T.V. copy and see the mental busts on the back end," cornerback Aaron Ross said. "So we got together as a unit and told each other we can't have that happen again."

Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and his defensive counterpart, Perry Fewell, will try to build on what worked the last time and make changes on the schemes and calls that were not as successful.

Any rematch in any season with a division foe inevitably brings numerous changes from the first meeting. The Giants learned last year how quickly their fortunes can change in this rivalry. They went to Dallas and earned a 41-35 decision. After a bye week and a runaway victory in Seattle, they came home to play the Cowboys for the second time in three games – and lost, 33-20, in Jason Garrett's head coaching debut. The Giants must change the plot Sunday.

"We look for all of the changes that could possibly have happened," Coughlin said. "We use our imagination to try to figure out what's coming next. Both teams know each other very well. We try to face it exactly like we would any other game, the two games previous and our game and all of our information we had going into it. Whenever you're playing a team of this stature it's very difficult to prepare, but we do it the same way we always do."

The first job defensively is to corral running back Felix Jones (106 yards on 16 carries in the first game) and limit the production of Romo and his talented receivers.

"They will come out and attack you with some of the successes they had the first time," Fewell said, "but they'll add a wrinkle to that attack that will throw you off-balance."

Fewell and his assistants have spent the week trying to figure out what that will be and how to combat it.

"There's a great deal of thinking that goes on, especially on Monday and Tuesday of that preparation week," he said. "And then as you go through the different areas of the field and work the different situations in the ballgame, there's a lot of thinking that goes on to say, 'What if this happens?' or 'What if that happens?

"We try to build on the things we did well and we try to add a couple of wrinkles that we didn't take advantage of the last time. Sometimes, you don't always get to use the things that you brought into the first ballgame. If you still think those things can work, you bring them back up and try to exploit some things."

While Fewell would like to see his unit considerably improve its performance over what it showed in Dallas, Gilbride wants to build from a far higher foundation. The offense had one of its most productive games of the eight-year Coughlin era against the Cowboys. But Gilbride knows Dallas coordinator Rob Ryan and his defense will do everything they can to prevent a repeat.

"Usually, you figure the things that you did, they are going to do everything they can to stop," Gilbride said. "They are not going to let you do it to them twice. So what can you do to the framework of your system that still gives you a chance to take advantage of the things they are doing, but maybe it's not the exact plan.

"You hope you have something in your repertoire that your guys can do. You can't abandon who you are; at this point everybody knows what you are doing, primarily. So it's what you can do of a subtle nature that still gives you a chance to spring it on them at a time they are not expecting it or hitting within your formations. If you had success, usually they will try to do something differently.  I am sure they are talking to the Jets non-stop, watching film, what were you thinking here, what was your thought process? It's advantageous to both teams to get it done, so I am sure there will be some things that the Jets did, I am sure there will be some adjustments of what they did. But I think the basic philosophy - you can't change who you are either defensively."

No one knows exactly what will happen on Sunday night. They just know it will be different than it was three weeks ago.

"I really don't know what to expect," safety Antrel Rolle said. "I just expect us to go out there and put our best foot forward and go out there and play Giants football the way we know how."

If they do, the Giants believe they will walk off the field Sunday night as NFC East champions.

INJURY UPDATE:

*Wide receivers Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) and Mario Manningham (knee) and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) have all been listed as probable for the game. They practiced on a limited basis today.

"I did a few reps each period (in practice today)," said Nicks, who had eight receptions for 163 yards in the first Dallas game. "I did some cuts, in and out, bursted a little bit. It's a matter of me knowing it's there, but it wasn't limiting me at all. I pushed to where I would at least have an idea where I would be on certain routes and certain plays. There weren't any setbacks.

"I'm confident I'll get the job done."  

Coughlin said Nicks, "practiced well for a Friday, did well, moved around well. I'm confident he's going to give it all he's got. He wants to play in the worst way."

Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee) was also limited and is questionable.

Tight end Jake Ballard (knee) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle) are out. They will miss their second and fifth games in a row, respectively.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Ballard, the Giants' fourth-leading receiver with 38 catches. "Sitting out last weekend was really tough. I thought there could be a chance I would get back for this game, but it hasn't turned out that way. This is a playoff game for us. We have to win to get in. It's killing me right now (not playing). Sitting and watching practice all week was driving me crazy."

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