Dallas Cowboys: Mathias Kiwanuka

Five Wonders: Durant a starter or gone?

June, 10, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- With the Dallas Cowboys holding their final open-to-the-media organized team activity today at Valley Ranch, what better time than now to bring back Five Wonders?

[+] EnlargeJustin Durant
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Cowboys could use Justin Durant to fill in for Sean Lee or look to go younger at the position.
I believe Justin Durant will be the opening day starter at middle linebacker with Sean Lee out for the year. He has the most experience. He was OK in his spot work there last year before getting hurt himself. But let's say things don't go well for him in training camp and the preseason and he outplayed by DeVonte Holloman or Anthony Hitchens. I wonder if it would be worth it to keep him around. If he is cut (or traded) then the move would save $1.25 million against the cap. Every little bit of room helps. I know what you're saying. The Cowboys can't entrust the position to two players with little to no experience. Well, why not? They did it last year when they cut safety Will Allen and named J.J. Wilcox the starter. Wilcox almost immediately got hurt and that put undrafted rookie Jeff Heath in the starting lineup. Was cutting Allen a mistake last year? Perhaps it was, but he did not play that well and he was not a big special teams help. It would be a risky move, but Durant will not be around in 2015. Is it better to get Holloman or Hitchens the work with the future in mind? The coaches who are fighting for their jobs might think otherwise, but it's something to ponder.

• One of the biggest benefits of practicing against a team in training camp is to break up the monotony. You hear players all the time say they just enjoy seeing another color jersey on the practice field. So that's what the Cowboys will get when they work against the Oakland Raiders, as expected, in Oxnard, Caliornia. But I wonder if there is more of a benefit in the player evaluation side of things. In addition to the monotony of camp, players can figure out offensive and defensive tendencies. Players have been known to see the practice scripts over the years, which give them a heads up as to what to expect. When that happens, they'll obviously look better than perhaps they are. With the Raiders bringing in fresh schemes on offense and defense, a corner won't be as familiar with the routes, splits and speed and a receiver and offensive tackle won't know every move he'll see from a defensive end. It will only be two practices, but those sessions figure to be the most hotly contested of the summer and the personnel department will have some fresh tape to see.

• I'll admit I don't know much about Terrell McClain. He did not play very much for the Houston Texans last year. The Cowboys signed him to a modest deal that included a $300,000 signing bonus. But I wonder if McClain will be this year's version of George Selvie. Last summer Selvie had the look of a training camp body with the injuries the Cowboys suffered along the defensive line. He ended up not only making the team but he started every game and had a career-high seven sacks. McClain has been one of the more impressive players in team drills during the OTAs. The line has had a hard time blocking him. He has had to play the three-technique mostly because of Henry Melton's recovery from knee surgery, and has shown the ability to pressure the quarterback and make a tackle or two for a loss. I think he ends up as the starting nose tackle on this defense when Melton is back on the field.

• The Cowboys finally found a home for Kyle Wilber late last season when they were forced to move him to outside linebacker. He started the final six games on the strong side and had 31 of his 42 tackles. He also had two tackles for loss and two quarterback pressures. He has been working with the first team in defense so far this offseason and looks the part. But last week's OTA offered up another opportunity for Wilber that I had not previously expected. Perhaps it was due to a shortage of defensive ends because a number of them were sitting out the team drills, but Wilber moved to defensive end in two-minute drills. I wonder if he can play a split role the way the New York Giants use Mathias Kiwanuka. He played linebacker in his career and would put his hand on the ground in pass-rushing situations. I'm not saying Wilber will be Kiwanuka, whom I believe has been a little underrated, but Wilber can add to his versatility by showing the ability to play both spots.

• What would a Wonders be without checking in on a contract situation? I wonder if the Cowboys should look at extending the offers to receivers Dwayne Harris and/or Cole Beasley this summer. What? Hear me out. Both players are expected to be restricted free agents after this season. The bottom tender offer for a restricted free agent this year was about $1.4 million. The Cowboys thought that was too high of a price for Phillip Tanner and chose not to tender an offer to the running back this year. That number will go about in 2015 when the team will have to make decisions on Harris and Beasley. I do believe it will be easier to justify putting the tender on Harris because he is a valuable special teamer in the return and coverage games. Beasley is a punt returner, but not nearly as effective as Harris. But Beasley will have a role in this offense because of his work in the slot. It should be noted that he is only running routes in the slot during the offseason, so with that comes some limitation on what he would be paid in the future. Can the Cowboys figure out a way to give Beasley a little bump in pay this year, a good base salary in 2015, but less than the projected RFA tender and buy out his unrestricted free agency year? It sure would seem possible and it would guarantee Beasley a job in the future with a quarterback that really believes in him in Tony Romo.

Eight in the Box: Offseason regret

July, 12, 2013
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one move each team in the NFC East needed to make but didn't.

Dallas Cowboys: Upgrade at right tackle. The Cowboys believe they improved their offensive line with the first-round draft selection of center Travis Frederick, and they may be right. But the problem is the line needed more help than that. Instead of getting the disappointing Doug Free to take a pay cut and stay, the Cowboys could have explored other options, such as using another early-round pick on a tackle or signing one of the veterans (Tyson Clabo, Eric Winston) who were cut during free agency. Cap issues were one factor, but basically the Cowboys seemed content with the idea of a right tackle platoon or training camp competition between Free and Jermey Parnell. They claim the platoon of that pair worked well late last season, but it's likely the right tackle's play looked good only in comparison to Free's terrible first-half performance.

New York Giants: Anything of consequence at linebacker. Sure, they brought back Keith Rivers. Yawn. And they signed Dan Connor. Double yawn. And they took a chance on Aaron Curry, who was once one of the top prospects in the league but has already washed out with two teams. Interesting, but certainly not a confidence-boosting sign. Mathias Kiwanuka, who was one of their starting linebackers the past two years, will move back up to defensive end to help replace Osi Umenyiora, who left as a free agent. And there are some young guys the Giants brought in as rookies two years ago who may be good enough to play or start. The Giants feel they got stronger up front at defensive tackle and never mind spending on defensive backs, but the middle of the field remains a weakness for them against offenses that are willing to exploit it. Some guys are going to have to outperform expectations at linebacker in 2013.

Philadelphia Eagles: Spend some money on the secondary. The Eagles were the only NFC East team that had cap room to burn. Even though they needed to improve all four starting positions in the secondary, they chose to go the economic route, bringing in uninspiring cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams and safety Patrick Chung. Former Giant Kenny Phillips is a premium talent at safety, but they got him inexpensively as well, and the reason is a chronic knee problem that could keep him from ever playing for them. New coach Chip Kelly was looking for physical cornerbacks with the ability to tackle, which is fine, and I can understand that the Eagles felt burned by the way the Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie moves of two years ago worked out. But the moves at defensive back feel like half-measures, and you get the feeling they'll be looking to upgrade the same spots next year. This was a team that should have at least looked into trading for Darrelle Revis, though it would have been hard to justify giving up the No. 4 overall pick in the draft for him.

Washington Redskins: Get Pierre Garcon's foot fixed. This one is on Garcon, of course. The team can't force a player to have surgery if he doesn't want to have surgery. Garcon did have a procedure to repair a shoulder problem, which is good, but it was the torn ligament in his foot that bothered him last season, cost him six games and is at risk of flaring up again if rest didn't cure it completely. Garcon was a hugely valuable part of the Redskins' offense as Robert Griffin III's No. 1 wide receiver. Everyone has heard that the Redskins were 9-1 in regular-season games in which Garcon played. The Redskins' cap problems prevented them from improving the secondary or the offensive line and from keeping special-teams captain Lorenzo Alexander. But when they look back on this offseason, their biggest regret may be that Garcon didn't get the foot surgery he needed.

Eight in the Box: Playing for a contract

June, 1, 2013
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC East team who must deliver in 2013.

Dallas Cowboys: Playing on a one-year franchise player deal for the second season in a row, defensive end Anthony Spencer is key to the Cowboys' transition to a 4-3 defensive front. He and fellow pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware will switch from the 3-4 outside linebacker position they've always played to a 4-3 defensive end position that will put them closer to the offensive line and likely require them to be more physical in their efforts to get to the quarterback. Spencer took a huge step forward in 2012 as a pass-rusher and was, for much of the season, the best player on the Cowboys' defense. He had 11 sacks, and his previous career high had been six. If he can make the transition to his new position and follow his best season with another excellent one, he'll likely be able to get the long-term deal he seeks. If he can't, the Cowboys will be looking for a new pass-rush anchor next offseason.

New York Giants: Sticking with the pass-rush theme, defensive end Justin Tuck is the Giants player under the most pressure this season to perform the way he used to perform. After racking up 11.5 sacks in 2010, Tuck has collected just nine, total, in the past two regular seasons. The Giants' pass rush took a step backward last season and lost Osi Umenyiora to free agency. They'll replace Umenyiora by moving Mathias Kiwanuka back up to the line from the linebacker spot he played the past two seasons, but their pass rush would function best with Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul as dominant bookend starters. Another lackluster season could mean the end of Tuck's decorated career with the Giants. A return to early-career form could transform the Giants back into a championship contender.

Philadelphia Eagles: Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles' 2009 first-round pick, has averaged 65 receptions, 863 yards and 6.5 touchdowns in his first four seasons in the NFL. His numbers are actually pretty consistent, year to year. But what the Eagles had in mind when they drafted Maclin was a No. 1 wide receiver. And while he's flashed that ability at times, he hasn't been able to maintain that level or develop his game. The Eagles have fellow wideout DeSean Jackson signed long term, but they will have the money and the cap space to sign Maclin next offseason if they choose to do so. Whether they will want to depends on how Maclin plays in the new Chip Kelly offense and, likely, whether he looks as though he can be counted on to carry the load as a true No. 1.

Washington Redskins: I still think it's possible linebacker Brian Orakpo gets his contract extended before the season starts, but if he doesn't, he'll enter the season carrying the pressure of a contract year along with the pressure of having to kick-start the Redskins' pass rush. A pectoral muscle injury in Week 2 ended Orakpo's season, and fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan struggled without Orakpo on the other side to draw the attention of opposing blockers. The Redskins' 3-4 defense is designed around the idea of former first-rounders Orakpo and Kerrigan getting to the quarterback. They need Orakpo to stay healthy and to produce like one of the best pass-rushers in the league.
IRVING, Texas – First-round picks have to be the cornerstones of NFL rosters. The majority have to be more than one-contract players. If not, it generally means they didn't live up to expectations.

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With 2008 first-rounder Mike Jenkins gone off to Oakland and Felix Jones all but gone to anywhere else but here, the Cowboys have not extended the contract of one of their first-round picks before it expired since DeMarcus Ware, one of their two first-round picks in 2005.

Through a quirk in the system, Marcus Spears (2005) was a restricted free agent in 2010 and was kept for a year, but only because the price was right and cheaper than the guys who backed him up. He ultimately re-signed after the 2011 lockout ended and was cut this offseason after the second year of the current deal. Bobby Carpenter (2006) was traded to St. Louis in the final year of his deal.

The 2007 pick, Anthony Spencer, is on the team, but his deal expired after 2011 and the Cowboys have kept him with the franchise tag the last two years. In 2012 they did it because they weren’t sure how much they loved him. They did it this offseason because they didn’t feel like they could lose him. It is possible Spencer could sign a new deal this offseason, but there doesn’t seem to be any rush on that done.

The Cowboys had six first-round picks from 2005-08 and have extended one before that player’s deal expired. How does that compare with the rest of the NFC East?

The New York Giants had three and extended one (Mathias Kiwanuka, 2006) and let two walk (Aaron Ross, Kenny Phillips). Philadelphia had two and extended one (Mike Patterson, 2005), but that was in the second year of his deal and he didn’t become a dominant player. Brodrick Bunkley (2006) was traded by the Eagles before his deal was up. Washington had two and kept Carlos Rogers (2005) for a year the same way the Cowboys kept Spears, but then he signed with San Francisco in 2012. LaRon Landry (2007) walked after his rookie deal was up with the Redskins.

For the Cowboys, the next first-rounder to come due will be Dez Bryant, their top pick in 2010, whose contract is up after the 2014 season. Will Bryant cash in on a big deal before his contract expires?
At a training camp rally, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told fans gathered they should come watch his team "beat the New York Giants' asses" this season.

The Giants didn't respond until Thursday.

"He should," Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said of Jones on New York's WFAN-AM. "I mean, the Giants have been whupping his ass for a long time."

The Giants are 3-0 in Cowboys Stadium and have won six of the last 10 meetings.

"It's gotta be tough on the outside looking in on all of these championships lately," Kiwanuka said, alluding to the Giants' two Super Bowl titles in the last five seasons. "That's the feeling I feel like everybody in the league has and everybody should have because we're here on top and everybody should be wanting to knock you off."

The Cowboys seem to have developed some hatred for the Giants over the summer. It started with Jones' comments and continued with outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware saying he couldn't even talk during the team kickoff luncheon because he was so excited to play the Giants.

Even Dez Bryant said he couldn't wait to play the Giants as he walked into the locker room after Wednesday's preseason finale against Miami.

Ware and Bryant aren't really talking smack. However, the Giants' recent success against the Cowboys has stuck in their craw.

The only way to change something of this nature is to beat the Giants, and the Cowboys could be shorthanded come the season opener on Sept. 5.

Tight end Jason Witten (spleen), nose tackle Jay Ratliff (ankle), wide receiver Miles Austin (hamstring) and Bryant are battling injuries. Witten and Ratliff are the more serious and their status for the opener is in question.

NFC East: State of the pass rushes

May, 18, 2012
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Jason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason BabinGetty Images, US PresswireJason Pierre-Paul, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Babin had 54 of the NFC East's 181 sacks in 2011.

The 2011 season was not the most, well, beastly season in NFC East history. It was the first time in a full, 16-game season that no team in the division won at least 10 games, and for much of the year the talk around the division was that it wasn't what it used to be.

Buncha baloney if you ask me. Even forgetting for a second that an NFC East team won the Super Bowl, this division still does one very important thing better than any other: rush the passer. The NFC East's 181 sacks led all NFL divisions in 2011, and by quite a bit. (The AFC North, which had three playoff teams, was second with 160). The Eagles tied for the league lead with 50. The Giants tied for third with 48. The Cowboys tied for seventh with 42, and the Redskins tied for 10th with 41.

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Which team in the NFC East has the best pass rush?

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    47%
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    16%
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    24%
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    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 29,232)

Look deeper, into the film-based, number-crunching stats from Pro Football Focus -- stats that take into account more than just sacks when evaluating the extent to which teams rushed, hassled and affected opposing quarterbacks, and the division still rules. The Eagles rank No. 1 in PFF's 2011 team rankings, the Cowboys No. 3, the Giants No. 6 and the Redskins No. 9. No division prizes this critical aspect of the game more than the NFC East does, and it shows up in the numbers.

So, as we slug our way through a slow news month in the NFC East, I thought it'd be a good idea to check in on the pass rushes of our four teams and see how they're doing -- what they've done to get better or worse, what their 2012 prospects look like from this far out and yes, how they rank against each other. You guys asked for more polls, and I promised I'd listen, so there's one right here for you to vote on. After you finish reading, of course. I'm addressing them in order of how many sacks they got in 2011, in case you're wondering how I decided. Seemed fair.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key contributors: DE Trent Cole, DE Jason Babin, DT Cullen Jenkins. PFF ranked Cole the No. 1 overall 4-3 defensive end in the league last year. Babin ranked 10th overall and third in pass rush, finishing third in the league with 18 sacks. Jenkins ranked as the No. 4 pass-rushing defensive tackle, and Derek Landri was No. 10. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, each of whom is entering his second season in his current position with the Eagles, believe the front four is responsible for the pass rush. And while they got a lot of publicity for how wide they like to line up their defensive ends, they like to get pressure from the defensive tackles as well.

Newcomer: DT Fletcher Cox. The Eagles traded up in the first round to pick Cox because they believed he could be an impact pass-rusher from one of those interior spots right away. They need to toughen up against the run, and that will have to be part of Cox's game. But what appealed to them was his ability to get to the passer. Rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks could conceivably factor in here too, but the Eagles don't ask their linebackers to rush very much in the new scheme.

Stock watch: UP. The addition of Cox, as well as the possible return to full health of Mike Patterson and 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham, give the Eagles incredible depth at a position at which they were already very strong in 2011. It's possible they'll rush the passer even better in 2012.

New York Giants

Key contributors: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Justin Tuck, DE Osi Umenyiora, DE/LB Mathias Kiwanuka. No one's roster goes as deep as the Giants' does in terms of star-caliber defensive ends. Pierre-Paul was fourth in the league with 16.5 sacks in just his second NFL season. Umenyiora had nine in just nine games. Tuck turned it on at the end and in the playoffs, and Kiwanuka is a defensive end playing linebacker. The Giants believe a strong pass rush is their heritage and their key to being an annual contender.

Newcomer: DT Marvin Austin. The Giants didn't really bring in anyone this offseason who looks like a 2012 pass-rush contributor, but their 2011 second-round pick missed all of last season due to injury, so we'll call him a newcomer. The Giants would like to get more help from inside. Linval Joseph was their best pass-rushing defensive tackle in 2011, according to PFF's rankings. A healthy Austin could be a difference-maker.

Stock watch: DOWN. Not by much, but a little, because of the loss of reliable, underrated reserve DE Dave Tollefson. If Tuck and Umenyiora have injury problems again, or if Umenyiora holds out, they could get kind of thin at defensive end pretty quickly without Tollefson there to fill in this time. Now, this is the Giants, and they'll probably figure it out. The addition of linebacker Keith Rivers could allow them to move Kiwanuka back to end in case of injury. But it's worth pointing out that they did lose a somewhat important piece of the pass rush and didn't replace him.

Dallas Cowboys

Key contributors: LB DeMarcus Ware, LB Anthony Spencer, DE Jason Hatcher, NT Jay Ratliff. There's no one like Ware, who rang up another 19.5 sacks in 2011. That's nearly half the team total, and the conventional wisdom says he needs more help. But PFF ranked Spencer its 11th-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the pass rush and Hatcher as its eighth-best 3-4 pass-rushing defensive end. Add in Ratliff, who can generate pressure up the middle, and the Cowboys look better in this area than we tend to think.

Newcomer: DE Tyrone Crawford. Dallas' third-round pick is looked at by many as a project, but as one that can eventually help with the pass rush whether he ends up as a 3-4 end or standing up as an outside linebacker. Whether he can help in 2012 remains a question, but the Cowboys didn't see a first-round or second-round pass-rusher they liked better than Spencer, so they focused on the secondary instead and picked up some down-the-road guys for the pass rush.

Stock watch: EVEN. They're bringing back basically the same group, and while there's a theory that the improvements at defensive back will help the pass rush by giving it extra time to get sacks, we have yet to see that in action. Spencer must play with more aggressiveness if this unit is to take a step forward into the upper tier with the Eagles and Giants.

Washington Redskins

Key contributors: LB Brian Orakpo, LB Ryan Kerrigan, DE Stephen Bowen. The Redskins' pass rush is all about those young outside linebackers, and they are fearsome. But with only 16.5 sacks between them in 2011, their numbers have a ways to go to get into the big-time stratosphere we're talking about in the NFC East. PFF did rank Orakpo fifth and Kerrigan ninth among pass-rushing 3-4 OLBs in 2011, so they do a lot of things well in that area. Bowen had six sacks and DE Adam Carriker came up with 5.5.

Newcomer: DE Jarvis Jenkins. Just as we did with the Giants, we'll go with a 2011 second-round pick who missed his rookie season due to injury. Jenkins may not be a pass-rusher, but adding him to the defensive line rotation could help free up more room for the linebackers and maybe help the other linemen get to the passer more often as well.

Stock watch: EVEN. This is really all about how much and how quickly Orakpo and especially Kerrigan continue to develop as elite pass-rushers. They've both shown flashes of incredible raw ability, and they have to continue to hone their craft so they can play at the level of the other pass-rushers in their division. Ware, Cole, Pierre-Paul and the rest of these guys are setting a high bar, and the Redskins know they have to have their own pass-rush monsters if they want to hang with them year in and year out.

Does Dwight Freeney fit in the NFC East?

March, 10, 2012
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Peyton Manning may not be the only superstar mainstay the Indianapolis Colts can no longer afford. Adam Schefter is reporting that the Colts are entertaining trade offers for defensive end Dwight Freeney, one of the dominant NFL pass-rushers of the past half-decade. It's not a slam-dunk that they can deal Freeney, as he's 32 years old and scheduled to make about $14 million this year. But he's a big enough name that it's worth imagining whether he'd fit with the teams about which we care.

Freeney
Freeney is a 4-3 defensive end, and the only two teams in the NFC East that play 4-3 defenses are set at defensive end. Sure, if the New York Giants traded Osi Umenyiora, they might look to replace him, but they have their own salary-cap issues and it's unlikely they'd look for an expensive 32-year-old replacement when they could just slide Mathias Kiwanuka back up front to supplement Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. The Philadelphia Eagles start Trent Cole and Jason Babin at end and have some depth, including the ability to play defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins there. The Eagles' needs on defense are at linebacker and safety, and maybe in the middle of the line.

The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys are 3-4 defense teams, and the Redskins like their young outside linebacker pass-rush duo of Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. That leaves Dallas, which needs pass-rush help but may not be a fit. I doubt it's reasonable to acquire Freeney in the hopes of making him either a 3-4 defensive end or a standup outside linebacker. Guys have done it, but at this point in Freeney's career it's hard to know whether he could make the transition. Plus, the Cowboys just franchised outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, which likely limits their ability to pursue expensive pass-rushers on the free agent or trade market.

So maybe Dallas kicks the tires on Freeney if they have some creative idea about how to use him, but the likelihood is that the Colts don't have an NFC East suitor for him.

Who saw this coming: Giants to Super Bowl?

January, 23, 2012
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Devin ThomasAP Photo/Paul SakumaNew York's Devin Thomas recovered two key fumbles on punt returns by Kyle Williams.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Stuck in traffic on a bus headed for rainy Candlestick Park on Sunday afternoon, Devin Thomas had a vision. Thomas is the No. 4 wide receiver for the New York Giants, and as such he doesn't get too many chances to make plays. He's a special teams guy, mainly, and not even a return man anymore after flopping in that role earlier this season. So when Thomas has a vision of himself making a huge play to help win a game, it's a special teams play -- a frantic, full-speed crazy play that no one could have seen coming.

"I knew I was going to do it," Thomas said. "I was just thinking today was one of those crazy days where something crazy's going to turn the game. And I had a vision in my mind that I would be the guy who did it."

Thomas made two such plays Sunday. He recovered two fumbles on punt returns by Kyle Williams, the 49ers' backup return man. The first set the Giants up for a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown at a time when they appeared totally incapable of moving the ball against the San Francisco defense. The second came in overtime, and a few minutes later, after Lawrence Tynes kicked the second NFC Championship Game-winning field goal of his career, the Giants had a 20-17 victory and a date with the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

"Our guys never quit, never have any doubts," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who spent his night being knocked around by fearsome 49ers defenders but never flinched, completing 32 of 58 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns. "We just keep believing and keep fighting until the very end, no matter what the circumstances are."

These Giants are as improbable a Super Bowl participant as the NFL has seen in some time. Widely predicted (especially here) to miss the playoffs during the preseason, losers of four games in a row in a tough stretch in late November and earlier December, their record stood at 7-7 after a Week 15 loss to the division-rival Redskins. They have not lost a game since. If they had -- if they'd lost even one of the five games they've played since that loss to Washington -- they would not still be playing. The defining aspect of these Giants is their toughness, but out of that over the past five weeks has grown a patience and a discipline that's rooted in intense self-belief and has propelled them to unexpected heights.

"They have grit, now," a beaming head coach Tom Coughlin said of his second Giants Super Bowl team. "We've had five straight single-elimination games. We've played an awful lot of superior football teams this year, and that has certainly helped."

But no one could have seen this coming. Not from 6-6 or 7-7 and certainly not from the preseason, when they were dealing with a major injury per week and everybody was in love with the offseason the Eagles had. Back then, there was no way to know that Jason Pierre-Paul would become one of the best pass rushers in the league or that Victor Cruz would become one of its best wide receivers. The odds against both of those things happening were astronomical.

"I think we knew, here in this locker room," said rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams, who stripped the ball from Kyle Williams so that Thomas could pounce on it in overtime. "You see the talent those guys have on the practice field and you know it's just a matter of when they're going to get their opportunity."

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesVictor Cruz had 142 yards on 10 catches in the Giants' win.
From October, you couldn't have seen Williams coming. But he's become a critical asset in the Giants' coverage units over the past couple of months, and as he showed Sunday, he's capable of making game-changing plays on special teams. He laughed when I asked him how this was matching up to the expectations he'd had for his rookie season.

"Rookies don't usually have an opportunity to play," he said. "Especially when you got picked in the sixth round."

But this has been an all-hands-on-deck kind of season for the Giants, and opportunities have piled up. Brandon Jacobs got an opportunity to be a big part of the running game again when Ahmad Bradshaw got hurt. Bradshaw had the bigger game Sunday, but Jacobs has been a key part of the current streak. Osi Umenyiora came back from a late-season ankle injury and has elevated the pass rush to teetering heights, terrorizing quarterbacks and forcing fumbles during this run and helping Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck get free to wreak their own havoc.

"I love these guys. They've had my back the whole time," said Umenyiora, who's transformed from cranky contract complainer to peaceful, happy team player in a span of a few months. "So I wasn't going to come back and be selfish. I just wanted to come back and do what they need me to do, whatever that is. That's what I've done and it's had an impact."

This Giants team may have led the league in surprise clutch performances. You may be able to say you thought Cruz would be good, or that Pierre-Paul would come on quickly, or that Umenyiora would put his personal stuff aside for the good of the team. You may be able to say you knew Manning was going to play turnover-free football in the conference title game against a team that forced 43 turnovers in its first 17 games. You may be able to say you knew Mathias Kiwanuka was going to change positions and be a critical part of the defense, or even that you believed Williams and Thomas would be making key plays in the biggest game of the season.

But to say you saw all of that coming? You'd have to be crazy to expect anyone to buy that. These Giants represent the reason we watch sports -- to be surprised and amazed, to see human beings push their own limits and achieve things few expected of them. These Giants are overachievers, a team that has found ways to win all year when it didn't appear they should. And you can't be that without getting big-time contributions from every corner of the roster.

"I think we always believed -- in ourselves, in our coaches, in our plan, in each other," wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said. "And that's the reason why we're here."

There are so many reasons, and they range from the obvious to the obscure. Nobody picked Thomas to make the plays that won the NFC Championship Game, because Thomas is the kind of guy you have to work hard to remember is still on the team. But as the Giants left their locker room late Sunday night, Thomas carried the ball he'd recovered in overtime and got right back on the bus where he'd envisioned himself doing just that. It may have been a surprise to the rest of us, but it wasn't to Thomas, and it wasn't to the Giants. There are many, many people who are surprised to find the Giants still standing. But the Giants are not among them. They may not have known how they were going to do this, but they always believed they would. And it's quite a varied and remarkable collection of players that has found a way.

For some reason, Giants keep talking

December, 30, 2011
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Hey, sorry it's been a little while. Traveling today. And besides, it looks as though you guys were having some fun in the Romo post. (No, that was not me, by the way.)

Anyway, saw that Brandon Jacobs mouthed off again, this time ripping the Dallas Cowboys' fans. And I can't help but think all of this talking the New York Giants are doing this week is a little hypocritical, given how upset they all were at all of the talking the Jets did about them last week. I mean, so far this week we've had Justin Tuck say he hates the Cowboys, Mathias Kiwanuka say the Giants should be able to shut out the Cowboys, Victor Cruz telling me he feels the Giants' receivers have the advantage against the Cowboys' defensive backs, and now this thing with Jacobs.

None of these things is especially egregious on its own. The dumbest is probably Jacobs taking on the fans, but when you consider the source and grade on a curve against past Jacobs behavior, even that's pretty tame. What surprises me is the accumulation of all of it. It's not very Giants-like to be this outwardly, borderline obnoxiously confident. It's a little more Jet-like, in all honesty.

The only reason I can think of for this uncharacteristic behavior is that the Giants must be feeling very, very good about their chances of winning this game this weekend. On Monday, Tuck said guys didn't even want to watch the tape of the Jets game -- they just wanted to look ahead to the Cowboys. On Wednesday, Osi Umenyiora shocked everyone in the organization by practicing, and then he did it again Thursday. The Giants appear to be as healthy and as confident and as upbeat as they've been at any time this season, and all of the chatter is likely just an outgrowth of that.

As for what effect it might have, I never believe it has much. If the Cowboys win the game, I'm sure someone on their side will say the Giants' chirping motivated them. But the fact is, this is basically a playoff game Sunday night, and no one needs any more motivation than that. To me, it just seems odd, is all, that the Giants would be acting this way. And I got to wondering why. All I could come up with is that they must be feeling pretty doggone good about themselves.
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Final Word: NFC East

October, 14, 2011
10/14/11
12:30
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

Third-down monsters: The first-place Redskins do a variety of things well on defense. For example, they are holding opponents to a 33.3 percent conversion rate on third downs. That's the best mark in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Not only do they hold the line in most big passing situations, they've been able to actually move opponents backward. The Redskins have recorded a sack on 9.6 percent of opponents' passing plays this season, second in the league only to the Eagles, who are at 9.8 percent. In a lot of ways, the Redskins are the anti-Eagles -- a team that doesn't have as many big names on the roster but wins by minimizing mistakes and adhering to the basics and fundamentals. You know? Like tackling.

[+] EnlargeTim Hightower
James Lang/US PresswireDon't be surprised if the Redskins use Tim Hightower and their other backs to run up the middle often against the Eagles.
Men in the middle: How do teams run on the Eagles? Right up the gut. Our Stats & Info group says only the Titans have had to defend more runs up the middle than have the Eagles this season, and Philly is not doing it well. The Eagles have allowed 449 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 21 first downs and four touchdowns on runs up the middle. Each of those figures ranks them dead last in the NFL. It's still unclear whether the Redskins will use Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain or Roy Helu as their primary running back in this game, but whoever it is, expect him to run right at the middle of the Eagles' defense.

Screened in: Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson has been one of the breakout stars of this NFL season, and one place he has really sparkled is as a pass receiver in the screen game. Jackson has caught 11 balls for 152 yards on screen passes, according to ESPN Stats & Info, which leads all NFL running backs in both categories. However, he's going to face a tougher test than usual this week, as the Giants have allowed just 22 yards to running backs on screen passes this season. Giants linebackers Michael Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka are likely a big part of this, as each has the speed and instincts to make plays against running backs in space.

Full-strength boys: This should be the first time since the early portion of the Week 1 game that the Cowboys have had top receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant on the field and healthy at the same time. This should, obviously, be a benefit to Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, as six of his seven touchdown passes this season have gone to either Austin or Bryant. Romo has a completion percentage of 57.9 when targeting Austin or Bryant, versus 67.5 when targeting other receivers. But his yards per attempt are 10.7 when throwing to those two, as opposed to 7.7 when throwing to others. Also, three of his five interceptions have come on passes intended for receivers other than Austin or Bryant.

Ryan will be tryin': The Patriots have scored at least 30 points in 13 straight regular-season games, which is one short of the record held by the 1999-00 St. Louis Rams. The last team to hold New England under 30 was the Cleveland Browns in Week 9 of last season. The Browns' defensive coordinator at that time was Rob Ryan, who is now the Cowboys' defensive coordinator.

NFC East free-agency breakdown

July, 26, 2011
7/26/11
8:02
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» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC East team:

New York Giants

1. Figure out which of their own guys to keep. With Ahmad Bradshaw, Barry Cofield, Mathias Kiwanuka, Steve Smith and Kevin Boss all set to potentially go free, the Giants have to prioritize and figure out which guys they're keeping. The top priority is probably going to be Bradshaw, an emerging star at running back, and it appears they'll let Cofield walk while trying to bring back Boss. They think the injury situations with Kiwanuka and Smith will help keep those guys' prices reasonable. But before the Giants hit the market, they'll need to get their own free-agent house in order.

2. Get at least one linebacker. The Giants have ignored this position over the past couple of years, and they seem to believe Jonathan Goff can handle the middle linebacker spot. They'd probably be better off moving him back outside and exploring the middle linebacker market, which includes Stephen Tulloch, Barrett Ruud and Paul Posluszny. But if they're set on keeping Goff in the middle, perhaps someone such as Manny Lawson or Nick Barnett could be a fit. It's one thing not to prioritize a position, but it's another to ignore it completely, and the Giants have been doing that with linebacker, to their detriment.

3. Some offensive line insurance. There were lots of injuries along the line in New York last season, and although it didn't kill them, it was a potential sign of things to come. The Giants hope Will Beatty will soon be ready to take over at left tackle for a declining David Diehl, but they must watch out for the health of Shaun O'Hara at center. And if they have to cut Shawn Andrews to sign some other guys, they'll need to replace him with a tackle who can provide depth.

Top five free agents: RB Bradshaw, DE/LB Kiwanuka, TE Boss, DT Cofield, WR Smith

Philadelphia Eagles

1. Settle the Kevin Kolb situation. If they can get the great deal for him that most believe they can (i.e., a first-round pick plus), the Eagles will deal Kolb and look for a reliable backup quarterback who can play if and when Michael Vick gets hurt. If they can't get good value for Kolb, they'll probably keep him to serve as said reliable backup. A trade is most likely, but whatever happens, the Eagles will probably settle this soon after the league year begins.

2. Sign a cornerback. The starting spot opposite Asante Samuel is open, and no one on the current roster appears able to fill it. That's why you've heard, and will continue to hear, the Eagles connected with Asomugha. Philadelphia must rank among his most likely destinations at this point. If they don't get him, they'll look down the list at guys such as Johnathan Joseph, Ike Taylor and Antonio Cromartie. And there's a chance they could get a cornerback for Kolb. But they'll get one somewhere.

3. Re-sign Stewart Bradley. Sure, they could let Bradley go and play Jamar Chaney at middle linebacker. Chaney looked, at least, capable in that spot last season and may be the Eagles' future at the position. But if Bradley leaves, the Eagles' problems will be about more than just the alignment of the linebackers. They'll actually be short on bodies and will need to play the free-agent field to find a replacement. Bradley's had injury problems, but when healthy, he's the Eagles' best linebacker and could be a key cog in whatever new defensive alignment Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn are cooking up.

Top five free agents: LB Bradley, S Mikell, G Nick Cole, RB Jerome Harrison, CB Ellis Hobbs

Washington Redskins

1. Fill out the defensive line. Whether they add a free-agent nose tackle such as Aubrayo Franklin or look at defensive end options like Jenkins, the Redskins must figure who their starting defensive linemen are. They like their linebacking corps, and although they also need a cornerback, they love their safeties with Oshiomogho Atogwe in the fold next to LaRon Landry. But their good, young outside linebackers will need big, space-eating ends in front of them to open up lanes to the passer. And they'll also need to get some sort of pass rush from the line, whether it's from the nose or the ends.

2. Re-sign Santana Moss. The Redskins are making noise about pursuing a big-time wideout such as Santonio Holmes or Sidney Rice. But the reality is that it's going to be tough to convince receivers to sign in Washington while they're not viewed as a contender and the quarterback situation remains so cloudy. Moss likes it in Washington. The Redskins like him. And he's a nice guy to have around to help out young receivers Anthony Armstrong and Leonard Hankerson -- not to mention inexperienced quarterback John Beck.

3. Resolve the Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth situations. They don't want either player on the team anymore, but the question is how to get rid of them. They might be able to dump McNabb for a late-round draft pick, but if they can't, they'll probably just cut him and let him find his next job on his own. Haynesworth has trade value in a league where many 4-3 teams are looking for interior defensive line help. Don't expect the Redskins to cut Haynesworth, because they don't want to do him any favors and they don't want him free to sign with former Tennessee D-line coach Washburn in Philadelphia. If they can't get value for him, don't be surprised if Haynesworth remains on the team all season and has a hard time getting into games.

Top five free agents: WR Moss, OT Jammal Brown, CB Carlos Rogers, LB Rocky McIntosh, QB Rex Grossman

The latest on Steve Smith's injury

November, 11, 2010
11/11/10
6:46
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As most of you know, New York Giants wide receiver Steve Smith strained his pectoral muscle during practice Thursday and his status for Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys is up in the air. Mario Manningham will obviously replace him in the starting lineup, but it will be tough to make up for his production. Smith has killed the Cowboys over the past two seasons.

It looks like Ramses Barden will be the third receiver if Smith's not ready to go. As coach Tom Coughlin pointed out earlier today, it will be a huge opportunity for Barden, a player who's long on potential but has been short on production. With the way Mike Jenkins has played cornerback for the Cowboys, this might be a good week for Barden to get a look. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride didn't sound hopeful that Smith would be on the field Sunday.

"He's the most polished receiver we have," Gilbride said. "He's a guy who has really earned the respect of the defense to such a point that so many of the things they do are designed to stop him. I think people basically have said it's hard to cover him one-on-one inside so people have committed other people and additional resources ... so that either opens up running opportunities for us or passing opportunities for other people. It's a huge loss, but we'll make do."

If Smith's only out for a game or two, I think the Giants will be fine. But if this is an extended absence, it could eventually hurt this offense. Hakeem Nicks has become the Giants' home-run threat, but Smith's still one of the big-time clutch receivers in the league. On third down, Eli Manning's almost always looking for Smith.

I guess at this point we shouldn't doubt the Giants' ability to compensate for injured players, though. We've seen what they've done in Mathias Kiwanuka's absence. Now, it's time to see if the offense can flourish without a Pro Bowl wide receiver.

Mike Jenkins misses for personal reasons

October, 23, 2010
10/23/10
1:59
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IRVING, Texas -- Cornerback Mike Jenkins missed Saturday's practice to attend to a personal issue.

The matter is not expected to affect Jenkins' status for Monday night's game against the Giants.

The addition of Jenkins was the only surprise on the official practice report. Receiver Dez Bryant (ankle), center Andre Gurode (knee) and linebacker Bradie James all fully participated in the practice and are listed as probable.

Left guard Kyle Kosier is out.

The Giants won't have fullback Madison Hedgecock (hamstring) and defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (neck). Receiver Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) had limited participation Saturday and is listed as questionable. Defensive ends Justin Tuck (ankle) and Osi Umenyiora (knee) both fully participated in practice for the first time this week and are listed as probable.

Dez Bryant, two starters miss practice

October, 21, 2010
10/21/10
5:07
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IRVING, Texas – Receiver Dez Bryant did not practice Thursday, but the Cowboys are optimistic that he can be fully recovered from an ankle injury by Monday night’s game.

“He really couldn’t practice today,” Wade Phillips said. “He couldn’t go full go. We could’ve practiced some, but we’re trying to get him well. … We’re getting him to the game, but we’d like to get him well before the game. I think we have a better chance of that happening this week.”

Bryant has been dealing with a sore right ankle since he suffered a high ankle sprain during the first week of training camp, causing him to miss the entire preseason. He’s re-injured the ankle a couple of times during the regular season but has not missed any games.

Right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier also did not practice. Colombo, who has a history of knee problems, was given the day off to rest. Kosier is expected to miss two or three games with an injured Achilles, although Phillips won’t rule him out for Monday’s game against the Giants.

Linebacker Bradie James (sprained PCL) and center Andre Gurode (degenerative joint disease in knee) were limited in practice. They both started despite their conditions against the Vikings, and Gurode took all the first-team reps at center Thursday.

New York defensive ends Osi Umenyiora (knee) and Mathias Kiwanuka (neck) did not practice. Umenyiora has been dealing with a sore knee for weeks but ranks second in the league with eight sacks. Kiwanuka, who has four sacks, is out indefinitely with a herniated disk.

Giants have fate of Boys in their hands

October, 21, 2010
10/21/10
3:31
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Cowboys-GiantsAP Photo/Evan PinkusThe Giants have two opportunities in the next four weeks to bury Dallas in an even deeper hole.
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.
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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.

[+] EnlargeOsi Umenyiora
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireOsi Umenyiora is second in the league in sacks with eight.
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.

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