EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Forget the hype when the Dallas Cowboys visit the New York Giants in an NFC East showdown. This one is simple.
If the Cowboys (7-1) win, they will have a stranglehold on the division. A seventh straight victory by the Giants (6-2) would create a tie at the top and show that Tom Coughlin’s team is for real.
It’s a far cry from last week’s “Game of the Century” between the NFL’s two Super Bowl front-runners, the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts.
“This is only the NFC,” Giants guard Chris Snee laughed. “We’re not the AFC. We’re just the J.V.”
Still, this is the biggest game in the NFC so far this season.
Dallas, which beat the Giants, 45-35, in the season opener, will have a chance to open a two-game lead in the division. A sweep would give them the tiebreaker, too, and technically a three-game lead over New York.
Off to their best start since winning their last Super Bowl in 1995, the Cowboys are also looking to maintain at least a tie for the No. 1 seed in the conference with Green Bay (7-1). The Packers will be home Sunday against Minnesota.
“Everybody in the NFC knows this is a huge game, especially us,” Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears said.
The Giants know the implications, too. If they lose, probably the best they can hope for is a wild-card playoff berth. A setback also will start the next round of questions whether the team is headed for another second-half collapse.
The Giants were 6-2 at the halfway point last year and went 2-6 down the stretch, barely making the playoffs.
“Every Sunday defines you,” Giants center Shaun O’Hara said. “If you play bad, that’s who you are. One game, unless it’s the Super Bowl, does not define your whole season. At the same time, this is a great opportunity for us.”
The game has potential to be a shootout, although one never is sure when these two longtime rivals meet. They just know each other so well.
Dallas leads the NFC in total offense, averaging 406 yards. Tony Romo, who just signed a six-year, $67.5 million deal, has thrown for 2,308 yards and an NFC-best 19 touchdowns, with six going to Terrell Owens and five to tight end Jason Witten.
In the opener against New York, the Cowboys rolled up 478 yards on 55 plays, scoring six touchdowns against a defense playing its first game under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. New York gave up a total of 80 points in losing its first two games — the other was to Green Bay — before the defense found itself.
In winning its last six games, the Giants have yielded 79 points and gotten 28 of its league-high 30 sacks, including 12 in a contest against Philadelphia. No team has gained more than 284 yards or scored more than 24 points against them in that span.
“We are going to put our offense in; we are going out each week and see if it works,” Romo said. “If teams are good enough to stop it, OK. If they are not, then we are going to do what we do. But it will be fun trying. It will be fun trying to get out of those D-linemen’s way.”
Romo passed for 345 yards against New York in the opener and was barely touched, sacked only once. He found a wide-open Witten six times for 116 yards and a touchdown.
Since turning things around in Game 3, no quarterback has thrown for more than 219 yards against New York.
“I’m sure everybody in this locker room will tell you we’re a better defense than how we played in those first two games,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “But it means nothing if we don’t go out there and do it this Sunday. It’s a tremendous opportunity for this defense to see exactly where we’re at.”
While the Giants’ statistics are not as impressive, Eli Manning threw for a season-high 312 yards and four TDs against the Cowboys. Plaxico Burress had a career-high three TD catches.
New York also gained 124 yards rushing against Dallas, one of two teams to go over 100 yards this season. What made that performance so impressive was the Giants lost starting halfback Brandon Jacobs early and Derrick Ward carried the load.
After missing three weeks, Jacobs has returned and rushed for at least 100 years in three of the last four games, including a career-best 131 in the sloppy London conditions against Miami on Oct. 28, New York’s last game; it had a bye last week.
“I’m only worrying about our team and what we’re going to be able to do, ’cause no one stops us, we stop ourselves,” Jacobs said. “As long as we do that, we have a pretty good chance at winning the game.”
Dallas’ defensive line will have an added piece this week with tackle Tank Johnson ready to make his Cowboys debut after sitting out an eight-game league suspension.
Seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan has played in countless big games against Dallas in his 15-year career, but he is trying not to preach too much to his younger teammates.
“You don’t want to make it seem like this is an end-all, be-all game, but this is a very important game for us,” Strahan said. “This, right now, is for first place in the division and we don’t want to fall behind those guys any more than we already are, so they understand that. Trust me, everybody will play well and play up to their expectations.”