It's hard to believe that only a month ago, both the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants were in the same boat. The Cowboys improved to 1-2 with what we thought was a turnaround performance against the Houston Texans while the Giants fell to 1-2 following an embarrassing 29-10 home loss to the Tennessee Titans.
From that point on, these teams have been polar opposites. The Giants have turned back the clock (to 2007) with a devastating pass rush that has fueled a three-game winning streak. And most important, of course, my pick to represent the NFC in the North Texas Super Bowl is back in play.
With a 1-4 record, the Cowboys' playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. Desperate times call for desperate owners walking into locker rooms and addressing their players. We've yet to obtain a transcript of Jerry Jones' inspirational message this week, but my gut tells me he went back to the (oil) well for one of his "I was once broke" stories that are best delivered at Jones family campfires -- in forests they own.
Through divine intervention (the NFL schedule maker), the Giants have two cracks at burying the Cowboys for good in the next four weeks. I've already set the ESPN.com record for consecutive obits on the Cowboys' season, but I think a loss to the Giants on Sunday would even make Jones, the Tony Robbins of the NFL, hang his head in resignation. I'm at a complete loss for why the Cowboys are three-point favorites to win this game. (Have four of their five games been blacked out in Vegas?)
On paper and on film, the Giants are the superior team. I would argue they have the best quarterback, running back and wide receiver (Hakeem Nicks) in the NFC East right now. And the arrival of Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant via free agency has turned a position of weakness (safety) into a strength. In the watered-down NFC, the Giants and Eagles have to be considered elite teams.
The Giants and Cowboys are both capable of shooting themselves in the foot (see Giants versus Titans), but Dallas has taken its self-inflicted mistakes to new levels. Coach Wade Phillips, a man who's always on the verge of quoting the favorable portions of his résumé, finally had to adopt the NCAA touchdown celebration rules following two infractions. It's sad when a grown man has to begin his team meetings by reminding players not to leap-frog or flash signs honoring their alma maters, or in Sam Hurd's case, rock 'n' roll.
The Cowboys have spent the week deluding themselves into seeing a 1-4 record as an ugly lie. How can a team that has outgained its opponents by 600 yards be in such a fix? The funny thing is, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was trotting out that "we were the better team" mess following the loss to the Titans.
The Giants had the good fortune to encounter Jay Cutler and his offensive line the following Sunday night and suddenly New York remembered what it was like to play dominant defense. Osi Umenyiora, who infamously threatened retirement this past offseason if he wasn't a starter in 2010, has seven sacks and six forced fumbles in the past three games. And those staggering totals have coincided with the loss of defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka to a neck injury. Kiwanuka is one of the most versatile defensive players in the game, but the Giants have somehow flourished in his absence. At least one Giants defensive lineman jokingly accused Umenyiora of padding his stats in recent weeks.
"One of the funniest things is we have been on Osi because we finally figured out why he always strips the ball ... so he never has to share a sack," defensive tackle Barry Cofield told ESPNNewYork.com. "We figured out Osi's plan and we have to figure out a way to combat that."
Perhaps players simply needed a little time to adjust to new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's scheme. Some of you might recall the 2007 Super Bowl team starting 0-2 while Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Umenyiora adjusted to a new defensive coordinator named Steve Spagnuolo. A goal-line stand against the Redskins in Week 3 served as the springboard for a remarkable season.
I've heard the Cowboys point to the Giants' slow start in 2007 as a source of inspiration, but this team has probably dug itself too deep a hole to stage a dramatic turnaround. The Cowboys have looked so inept that Coughlin's in the unfamiliar position of trying to convince his players not to take them lightly.
"I'm not worried about records," Coughlin told reporters Thursday. "I just look at the tape and make my assessment of the team we're playing. As I said, they're 0-1 in the division. We haven't played yet."
I don't think getting up for this game will be a problem for a team that took great pride (and glee) in opening Cowboys Stadium with a road win last September. Even the empty quote known as Eli Manning took time to sign a wall in the visiting locker room that evening, although he continues to maintain that he was talked into it by a sneaky locker room attendant.
His signature has been painted over, but I bet that dastardly Eli will come armed with a Sharpie on Monday.