NFC East: DeMarco Murray

As we do after every Dallas Cowboys game, we provide you with our weekly Upon Further Review.

Williams
Williams
1. With defenses taking wide receiver Dez Bryant out of games it was supposed to open things up for fellow wideout Terrance Williams. Williams finished with just two catches for 38 yards in the Cowboys' loss to the Eagles on Thursday. Williams has just five catches the past four weeks. Sophomore slump? Maybe. Quarterback Tony Romo was off on a few of his throws on Thanksgiving Day and Williams didn't help him out on a sideline pass that was intercepted but negated by a penalty. At times the Cowboys will make sure they get the ball into Bryant's hands because he's the No. 1 receiver on the team. Likewise for tight end Jason Witten, who's the No. 1A target for Romo. Should the Cowboys get Williams involved more? Sometimes the No. 2 receiver gets the leftovers in an offense especially with dynamic threats such as Witten and Bryant on the field. But Williams, who did play with a fractured finger, should be more productive.

2. Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan said earlier this week he wasn't that impressed with the Cowboys' offensive line. The line is one of the strengths of the team given it's got three first-round picks and a veteran presence in right tackle Doug Free. The line struggled on Thursday. Romo was sacked four times, though one time he just went down to avoid a hit, and was hurried five times. The run game produced 93 yards, the second-lowest output of the season. Romo did have time to complete some throws yet DeMarco Murray's longest run was nine yards. He's produced at least one 10-yard carry in every game this season. Playing two games in five days could have had an effect or maybe Logan is right. We doubt it because the NFL is a game of matchups and the Eagles are probably just a matchup problem for the Cowboys.

3. Speaking of disappearing acts, where has defensive tackle Henry Melton been? He's been credited with zero tackles the past two weeks. He had a four-week stretch in which he had 2.5 sacks and four quarterback pressures with just one tackle. Now, Tyrone Crawford plays that three-technique position that was slated for Melton and is just a better player right now. Considering the contract Melton signed -- $2.25 million in total compensation for 2014 in a deal that could jump to $29 million over the next four seasons -- you expect better. The Cowboys can get out of the deal by releasing Melton before the first day of the 2015 league year which would force them to have $750,000 in dead money for 2015. Melton's play leaves many questions. Over the next four weeks, he's playing for his future with the Cowboys.

DeMarco Murray says he feels great

November, 26, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray was a smash in the first eight games of the 2014 season.

Murray
He led the NFL in yards (1,054) and carries (206) and tied for the league lead in touchdowns (seven) the first eight games. Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy (161 carries) and Houston's Arian Foster (766 yards) were the closest to Murray in these categories.

The Cowboys cooled down Murray's carries in the second half of the season. While he still leads the NFL in overall rushing yards, he's fifth in the league with 300 rushing yards the last three weeks and his 62 carries are second to only Chicago's Matt Forte (66) in the same time span.

Does this mean Murray is getting tired?

Does it mean Murray is getting limited carries because the team doesn't want to wear him down?

Murray believes he's getting stronger as the season progresses.

"I feel great," Murray said. "As the year goes on you feel better and I definitely feel like I've gotten stronger throughout the year and I got to continue to work hard during the week and continue to show up on Sundays."

In the last four weeks, Murray has three games where had 19 carries, but he produced four games of 25 or more carries in the seven weeks before that. As the weather gets colder and games become closer, especially with three division games remaining, the Cowboys might rely on Murray more.

The question is can he handle it?

Giants vs. Cowboys preview

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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When: 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford TV: NBC

The 7-3 Dallas Cowboys have a chance to mathematically eliminate the 3-7 New York Giants from the NFC East race on Sunday night. ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano hereby present your game preview:

Graziano: Hey, Todd, the Giants haven't won a game since the last time we did this, so I'm eager to see what questions you've come up with. But during their current five-game losing streak, the Giants' best offensive game was the loss in Dallas. It was the only game in the streak in which they've rushed for 100 yards and the only one in which the opponent didn't generate consistent, disruptive pressure on quarterback Eli Manning. How is that Dallas front seven looking these days?

Archer: The easy answer is not bad, but for those used to seeing DeMarcus Ware for close to a decade, he's not walking through that door again. The good news for the Cowboys is that they are getting healthier whereas last year they were signing guys on a Tuesday and playing them on Sunday. Tyrone Crawford did not play against Jacksonville, but he should be back. Rolando McClain didn't play against the Jaguars, but he will be back. Henry Melton has been much more active. Rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence didn't play in the first meeting because of a foot injury but he is coming on. Josh Brent is eligible to play but I don't think he will be on the 46-man roster Sunday. They have been decent against the run but have had some breakdowns. The pass rush has been better but it's still not good enough. Like the defense as a whole, the front seven is getting by.

I'll keep it simple off the top: Is this the end for Tom Coughlin?

Graziano: Well, this game surely isn't. Coughlin will certainly coach out this season, and I honestly think his future as the Giants' coach will depend a lot on how the Giants do in their final six games. If they rally against a December schedule that includes games against Jacksonville, Tennessee, Washington and St. Louis and get back to 7-9 as they did last year, it'll be easier for Giants ownership to justify giving Coughlin another year of this rebuilding project. If they fall completely apart and finish, say, 4-12 or 3-13, I imagine all bets are off and no one is safe. A lot of people want a definitive answer on Coughlin's status, but I don't believe ownership has made one yet. They love him and love having him as their coach, and if he does decide to leave or if they decide to move on from him, they know they'll need a good plan in place for how to replace perhaps the best coach in franchise history (apologies to Bill Parcells). So it's no sure thing, but the way this team is playing and the inevitable fact that they'll miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons does not work in his or any other coach's favor.

What's Jason Garrett's status these days? Has the Cowboys' surprisingly good season done anything to quiet those who perpetually call for his head?

Archer: A little bit it has, but if they don't make the playoffs then the calls for his job will be heard again. I've written that he deserves to be extended. I think the plan he has put in place has started to come together. But it will all be determined by what they do from now on. As you know, they have lost three straight winner-take-all season finales to the Giants, Redskins and Eagles. At least Garrett had them in position to win the division, but this year they have to get over the top. Jerry Jones has been patient with Garrett and often talks about wanting him to be the coach long term, but he hasn't backed those words up with a new deal. Along with the contractual statuses of Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray, this one could get juicy here down the stretch.

How much of this Giants mess is on GM Jerry Reese? They have let guys go and not had replacements ready, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.

Graziano: I think it's almost all on Reese, Todd, and you've hit it right on the head. His drafts have been flat-out terrible from the standpoint of finding players who have turned out to be foundation pieces. Do you know that, since Reese became Giants GM in 2007, only three of his draft picks have signed second contracts with the team? And none of those three was a first-rounder? (They're Will Beatty, Ahmad Bradshaw and Zak DeOssie.) You're right that the Giants haven't done a good enough job of finding and developing players to replace those who have left, and the result was that last year's roster got so hollowed out that they had to sign more free agents than any other team in the league just to fill out a 53-man roster. That's why I say this is a rebuilding project that has to take more than one year, and why I blame Reese much more than I blame Coughlin or the coaching staff for the mess this team is in. The Giants don't fire GMs as a matter of policy. They've had only three of them in the past 38 years. But as I said when we were talking about Coughlin, if things get really ugly over these final six weeks, all bets are off.

Let's move the discussion to the field. When the Giants and Cowboys played in that Week 7 game, Murray have to leave for a while with an injury. He came back and seems to have been fine since, but are there any signs of his extreme workload wearing on him? And are they doing anything to keep him from wearing down?

Archer: There really hasn't been any drastic change in his production. He has had 100 yards in every game but one this season and even in that Arizona game he averaged 4.2 yards per carry. He had at least 22 carries in the first seven games of the season but has maxed out at 19 in each of the past three. I don't know if that is by design. Some of it has been dictated by the circumstances of the games. They are using Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar earlier in games to spell Murray some. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said he is not worried so much about the carries as he is the snaps Murray plays. He's a three-down back and has 36 catches. It's a tricky balancing act the Cowboys have to follow because Murray is so valuable to what they do. He said he felt refreshed after the bye week and largely stayed off his feet. Whatever the Cowboys do in their final six games will be with the same formula they used in their first 10 games: a lot of Murray.

When these teams met in October, it looked like Manning was feeling his way through the change in offense pretty well. Is this scheme a fit for what Manning does best or is he held back by what's around him?

Graziano: The group around Manning sure has taken a pounding. The Giants lost top wide receiver Victor Cruz to a season-ending knee injury in Week 6, and they were without starting running back Rashad Jennings for four games due to a knee sprain. Jennings was back last week, and I thought the offense would look better as a result, but then Manning went and threw five interceptions, nearly doubling his season total. (He'd thrown six in his first nine games.) You're right that Manning was looking comfortable in the new offense until last week, and I think all eyes are on him Sunday night and the rest of the way to see whether this last game was a fluke or whether it's a sign that "Bad Eli" is always potentially around the corner no matter what system they put him in. One thing he has dealt with is a lot of pass-rush pressure, and that crescendoed a bit last week against the 49ers. They may make some changes on the offensive line this week, and if those changes help protect him better, I think he gets back into that rhythm he was in earlier in the year.

The future of Dallas Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray will have six- and seven-man fronts.

It comes with the territory when you're the NFL's leading rusher. Murray finished with 79 yards on 19 carries in Sunday's 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Murray
Murray had to grind for his 4.2 yards per carry and failed to get one yard on a key fourth-down play in the fourth quarter.

Yet, if the Cowboys are going to rely on him in the big picture of things, they must find a way to get running lanes open for him. Sunday against the Cardinals, Murray didn't have quarterback Tony Romo (back) and two starters, left guard Ronald Leary (groin) and tackle Doug Free (foot).

If defenses try to stop Murray, they have to contend with Romo. But Arizona didn't care for his replacement, Brandon Weeden.

"It's probably the first time we [have] seen it and it probably won't be the last," Murray said of seeing seven- and eight-man defensive fronts.

Murray had just nine carries in the first half but the Cowboys went back toward him in the third quarter with eight touches, and with the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter the Cowboys had to throw the ball.

"Receivers get more catches they get into a rhythm and a quarterback throws more he gets into a rhythm and it goes on," Murray said. "As for myself and the offense line, it was hard to run the ball against those guys with 10 guys in the box. We need to make more plays."

It will get harder as the season progresses.

"We play great defense against the run and because we do have corners who can play man-to-man, we can put eight guys up there or seven up there," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "And our defensive line is penetrating, not sitting back and catching."

DeMarco Murray can't slow down

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
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DeMarco Murray can’t have a disappearing act right now as the NFC race begins to heat up.

The NFL's leading rusher at 913 yards has been outstanding this season, and current and former teammates thought a stretch such as this was always in Murray's DNA.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/LM OteroDeMarco Murray is on a historic run, and it's one the Cowboys need to see continue.
With Arizona knocking off Philadelphia in the desert on Sunday and all of a sudden the New Orleans Saints looking pretty good again after that waxing of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, things are getting a little interesting in the NFC.

Murray and the Cowboys host Washington on Monday Night Football at AT&T Stadium and this is no time for a bad game, especially when the nation is checking to see if you’re really for real.

The Cowboys are for real.

Probably the best team in the NFC, whatever that’s worth at this stage of the season, but Cowboys have morphed into a run-first unit in the first two months of the season and Murray has benefited. He’s an MVP candidate, with a Pro Bowl berth a certainty. A new contract, whether he gets franchised or not, also will happen in 2015.

A bad game can’t happen now.

Murray is human, yet he has produced a superhuman effort. He has carried the ball at least 25 times four times this season and is doing a wonderful job reading his blocks and keeping his footwork when the holes aren't there so he can fall forward and get those junk 2- and 3-yard gains.

The big question for Murray is durability. He sprained an ankle in last week’s victory over the New York Giants and downplayed it. But he has yet to play 16 games and regardless if you like Joseph Randle, the Cowboys can’t afford to lose Murray.

For as strong as Murray has been, he has proven to be more valuable to this offense next to Tony Romo. Murray has even surpassed his buddy Dez Bryant on the depth chart of importance. Bryant is a close No. 3 with Jason Witten not too far behind.

You can add up all the numbers each week and compare Murray to Jim Brown and Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson and Larry Johnson and wonder how long will this streak last?

It’s not about 100 yards for Murray it’s making sure the offense continues to set the tone with the run game. If Murray gets 85 yards on Monday night and the Cowboys win, that’s fine.

If Murray gets 26 yards and they lose, well, that better not be the start of a trend.
IRVING, Texas - Although Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray have played together since 2011, the Cowboys’ win over the New York Giants marked only the third time each surpassed the 100-yard mark in the same game.

Two of the three have occurred this season -- and it’s going to occur considerably more often as long as Scott Linehan calls the plays.

That’s because Linehan believes in getting the ball to his best players.

[+] EnlargeBryant/Murray
AP Photo/Brandon WadeDez Bryant and DeMarco Murray are the most prolific offensive duo in the NFL this season.
Murray carried 28 times for 128 yards, and Bryant had nine catches for 151 yards against the Giants. Against Tennessee, Murray had 29 carries fro 167 yards and Bryant caught 10 for 103 yards.

Bryant (79 targets) and Murray (187 carries and 26 targets) have been the designed recipient of the ball on a ridiculous 63.3 percent of the Cowboys' 461 plays this season. Pittsburgh is the only other team whose top running back and receiver have accounted for even 50 percent of a team’s plays.

Le'Veon Bell (117 carries and 43 targets) and Antonio Brown (74 targets) have had the ball directed their way on 50 percent of the Steelers' 468 plays.

Murray seems to have really found a rhythm with the zone-blocking scheme the Cowboys often employ. He has at least three runs of 10 yards or more in each of the Cowboys’ seven games.

As Murray will tell you, it’s not just about him and the offensive line. The tight ends have done a consistently good job of sealing the edge so he can get to the perimeter, and the receivers have done a good job holding their blocks.

“DeMarco is doing a fantastic job for us,” Garrett said. “He’s seeing softness in the defense, he’s feeling things, he’s getting north and south and he’s finishing runs.

“Sometimes when it’s 2 and 1 and 2 and 1 and 3[-yard-runs], a back can get frustrated. But he’s still believing in the runs and making sure he’s giving every one of them a chance, and as the games go on, you see him have more and more success.”

Bryant had only two catches for 15 yards in the first half, but he didn’t frustrated. Instead, he remained patient and waited until the Giants went to a coverage he could successfully attack.

“He has a real mature approach, a real calm approach, and he’s a really fiery guy. He’s a great competitor and for him to balance those things throughout the game and wait for his opportunities is really impressive.”
Dallas Cowboys strongside linebacker Bruce Carter has missed the past three games with a thigh injury, but he did some running before Sunday's game against the New York Giants and expects to practice this week.

Carter
Carter
"For the most part, I'm able to do everything I need to do," Carter said. "I got a couple of extra days to get ready, given we have a Monday night game."

In the New Orleans game on Sept. 28, Carter was credited with six tackles and two pass breakups, one that was intercepted by fellow linebacker Justin Durant.

But Carter didn't finish the game, he was injured chasing down a runner and didn't return.

The Cowboys have used a variety of players at linebacker this season because of injuries, with Rolando McClain (middle), Durant (strong and weak side), Anthony Hitchens (middle) and Kyle Wilber (strongside) getting the majority of playing time.

Other injuries of note:
  • Running back DeMarco Murray (ankle) didn't finish the first half of Sunday's game but did start the second half. Murray, who finished with 128 rushing yards, said his ankle felt fine. He said he didn't get the ankle re-taped.
  • Quarterback Tony Romo came into Sunday's game with a sore ankle and ribs. It didn't appear as if Romo had any problems moving around the pocket and he did take a few hits but nothing that would be alarming. Romo was a perfect nine-for-nine in the second half.
IRVING, Texas -- One of the things Jason Garrett liked most about Scott Linehan’s philosophical approach is that he excelled at getting the ball in the hands of his best players.

That’s harder than it sounds.

Bryant
Bryant
 
Murray
 After all, defensives devise schemes and coverages to take away every team’s best runner and receiver each week. It takes an innovative mind to ensure it doesn’t happen.

Of the 401 plays the Cowboys have run this season, 241 -- 60 percent -- have been directed toward Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray.

Murray has carried the ball a league-leading 159 times and has been targeted on 25 passes. Bryant has had 57 passes directed his way.

No other team has more than 50 percent of its plays directed toward two players. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (105 carries and 35 targets) and Antonio Brown (61 targets) have the ball in their hands or directed their way on 49.5 percent of Pittsburgh’s plays.

“He’s always done a good job of featuring the best parts of his offense,” Garrett said. “That’s something I believe in more than anything else that we do.

“Somehow, some way as coaches we have to have systems in place that feature the guys that we have and we believe in our systems and we’re convicted to our systems, but we’ve got to say, ‘OK, this is the best part of our team. We’ve got to do that. We have to make sure we do this. This isn’t very good. We can’t do much of that. We want to make this better. We want to be more balanced.’”
IRVING, Texas -- Quarterback Tony Romo returned to practice as did running back DeMarco Murray, left tackle Tyron Smith and defensive end Anthony Spencer.

 Each is expected to play Sunday against the New York Giants.

Romo usually misses Wednesday practices to do additional back exercises so he can be at his best on Sunday. Romo also suffered bruised ribs and an ankle injury against Seattle.

Murray, who leads the NFL in rushing (785) and carries (159) had a stomach virus that kept him out of practice on Wednesday. Garrett said the Cowboys, as you would expect, will continue to feature Murray and look for ways to get Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar more involved.

Tyron Smith tweaked his ankle against Seattle, but Garrett said a MRI “was a positive for us.” He is expected to play against the Giants.

Spencer, who usually doesn’t practice on Fridays to manage his knee, returned to practice, and there’s a chance he practices Friday just to make sure he gets in two days of on-field work this week.

Bruce Carter (quadriceps) and Doug Free (foot) were the only players to miss practice and neither is expected to play Sunday against the Giants.

DeMarco Murray misses practice

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
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IRVING, Texas -- The NFL's leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, missed Wednesday's practice with an illness. Dallas Cowboys' officials don't believe it's anything serious and he's expected to play Sunday against the New York Giants.

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Murray was battling the illness over the weekend.

Defensive end Anthony Spencer missed practice with a sore left foot. Spencer said he hopes to practice later this week.

Quarterback Tony Romo (back), linebacker Bruce Carter (quad), tackle Doug Free (foot) and linebacker Rolando McClain (personal reasons) also missed practice on Wednesday.

Carter and Free won't play Sunday, while Romo and McClain are expected to participate in the Giants game.

The Film Don't Lie: Giants

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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A weekly look at something the New York Giants must fix:

The Dallas Cowboys have the No. 1 rushing offense in the league. They are averaging 160.3 rush yards per game, 10.5 more than any other team. Running back DeMarco Murray leads the league in rushing by 243 yards after only six weeks. In other words, Dallas likes to run the ball and is very good at doing so.

Although the New York Giants have a lot to fix after Sunday night's 27-0 loss in Philadelphia, the most important thing this week is their run defense. The Giants made a poor game-plan decision Sunday, and the Eagles took advantage of it. The Giants stayed in a nickel defense pretty much all night, which wasn't a problem in and of itself. But they uncharacteristically took their best coverage linebacker, Jacquian Williams, off the field far more than usual. They kept both safeties high for much of the game and relied on linebackers Jameel McClain and Jon Beason for run support, and LeSean McCoy had a field day while the Eagles' line blew the Giants' front four off the ball.

The Giants need to use safety Antrel Rolle in the box more than they did Sunday. They're better off when Williams is on the field to cover the tight end and the defensive backs help in run support. If they don't go back to that formula Sunday, they're going to have a tough time stopping Murray before he gets to the second level.

DeMarco Murray making history

October, 13, 2014
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SEATTLE – Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray wasn’t around to speak with reporters in the locker room after another solid performance.

Murray’s numbers said everything about him. He rushed for 115 yards on 29 carries in the 30-23 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray now shares an NFL record with Jim Brown, and he can leave Brown behind next week against the Giants.
It was Murray’s 15-yard touchdown run, where he cut across the field, with 3:16 remaining that sealed the victory.

Murray has rushed for more than 100 yards in six consecutive games to open the season, becoming just the second man in league history to achieve that. The other is Jim Brown, who did it in 1958 for the Cleveland Browns.

Seattle had the best rushing defense in the NFL, allowing just 62.3 yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry.

“We thought it was going to be tough sledding to run the football, but we had to be persistent with it,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Our guys did an excellent job.”

Murray has rushed for 785 yards after six games, the most in franchise history and seventh-most in NFL history.

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Sunday was not easy. He had five carries where he gained 0 yards and four with just 1 yard picked up. This was a gritty effort by the NFL’s leading rusher.

“I think we just didn’t tackle well and a couple of times it was on our gap,” Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett said. “They’re a gap running team they’re not really the blow-you-off-the-ball type of offense.”

Whatever the opinions are, the Cowboys rushing attack was solid. It gained 162 total yards, 52 from backup Joseph Randle on just five carries, in the victory and for the first time in the Garrett era, the running attack is leading this offense.

“We just stuck with it,” tight end Jason Witten said. “Coach [Scott] Linehan talked about that early, they are No. 1 in the league in rush defense.

"Those short runs can turn into long ones. We were able to a good formation and DeMarco has hard runs. I really think he has shown his maturity as a back, sticking with us and sticking with it and coming out on the back end on a couple of those late in the game.”
IRVING, Texas -- DeMarco Murray is off to a fantastic start to the season. He leads the NFL in rushing yards (670) and he’s on pace to set the franchise record in carries.

Coach Jason Garrett wants to limit Murray's carries as the season progresses so he won't get worn down late in the season.

Yet, there’s one other area where Murray is also doing well in, and that’s situational football.

Murray
He leads the league with 29 fourth quarter carries, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy is second at 27. Murray is fifth with 99 fourth-quarter yards. When the Cowboys need to close out games, Murray has been just as good.

“Sure and that’s an instinctive thing, an intuitive thing for a back to have,” coach Jason Garrett said. “And I think he has that. He does that a lot. It’s not give-up football. It’s just understanding where the play is and taking care of yourself and taking care of the ball.”

On several fourth-quarter runs, when the Cowboys are trying to stretch the clock, Murray has been pushed toward the boundary and instead of going out of bounds, he’ll do a baseball slide to keep the clock moving.

Murray has never played baseball, yet it’s smart plays like these that gives Garrett confidence he’s got the right man carrying the ball late in games.

Murray has 24 rushing yards in the final two minutes of games and of those five carries, three are been for first downs, which leads the NFL.

“I think they’re giving us an opportunity to do that,” Murray said of the Cowboys’ running attack. “The offensive line is playing well. The tight ends are blocking well on the edge and like I said before Dez [Bryant] and Terrance [Williams] and Dwayne [Harris], great receivers, blocking downfield. It makes it easier for those guys when we’re running well with the play-action and things like that. I think we’re playing fine.”
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin shows his team the NFC East standings every week. He's not going to have a tough time getting his players' attention with them this week.

Winners of three games in a row, the Giants are nonetheless in third place in their division with a 3-2 record. The two teams in front of them are the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, both 4-1.

The Giants' next two games are on the road, the next two Sundays, in Philadelphia and then in Dallas.

"We know what's in front of us, but we need to keep focused on ourselves," defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "We have a lot more work to do and we can get a lot better. If we do that, it doesn't matter who we play."

That's a perfectly appropriate frame of mind for the players to have. But the fact is, if the Giants win their next two games, they would enter their Week 8 bye in control of the division. They would be 5-2, with the Eagles' and Cowboys' records guaranteed to be no better than that, and they would be 3-0 in their division games, all three of which will have been road games.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Matt RourkeLeSean McCoy is off to a slow start for the Eagles, but is coming off an 81-yard performance in Week 5.
If they lose their next two games, the Giants would be 3-4, with the Eagles and Cowboys each no worse than 5-2, and they'd be 1-2 in the division. They could also split the next two games, but if they do that, they'll obviously slip somewhat significantly behind whichever team beats them.

It's a critical stretch, and the Giants are in the right frame of mind to handle it. They followed a couple of easy victories with Sunday's tough, brawling comeback, and they believe their new system and personnel are working well together. So what are their chances to make the most of this opportunity?

The Eagles are first up. They're 4-1 and their only loss was in San Francisco, but things aren't going smoothly. Six of their 18 touchdowns have come on defense or special teams. Quarterback Nick Foles, who threw just two interceptions last year, has five interceptions and three lost fumbles in five games this year. They are allowing an average of 26.4 points per game. They fell behind in each of their first four games and came close to blowing a 34-7 third-quarter lead to St. Louis on Sunday. Last year's NFL rushing leader, LeSean McCoy, is averaging 54.6 yards per game, 2.9 yards per carry and has only one touchdown. They have suffered multiple injuries to starting offensive linemen, a problem they avoided throughout the 2013 season. As a result, their offense is not what it was as they rolled to a division title in the second half of 2013.

The Giants' newfound ability to milk the clock and operate their offense in rhythm while minimizing turnover risk could enable them to control the game against a still-wobbly defending champion. But McCoy did run for 81 yards and the team for 145 on Sunday, with right tackle Lane Johnson back from his drug suspension. And Foles' play-action passing game improved as a result (9-for-12 with an average of 9.3 yards per attempt). The Eagles remain dangerous with Darren Sproles complementing McCoy out of the backfield and Jeremy Maclin leading the downfield attack. They will be a tougher offense to get off the field on third down than any the Giants have faced since their opener in Detroit.

The Cowboys are dominating in the run game behind NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray and a powerful offensive line that features three of their last four first-round draft picks. They have won four games in a row, though by the time the Giants get there, Dallas will be coming off a tough road game in Seattle. Obviously, if the Cowboys can run the ball against the defending Super Bowl champs and take a five-game winning streak into the Giants game, they will have everyone's attention. But so far, their formula has been effective. Murray was so effective on first down Sunday that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was 15-for-20 for 185 yards on second-down throws.

Dallas' defense entered Week 5 ranked 26th against the pass and 14th against the run, but it hasn't been the crippling weakness it looked to be on paper before the season started. Part of the reason for that is substandard competition, but one of their four victories was an impressive throttling of Drew Brees and the Saints. The Cowboys' offense is so good at keeping the opposing offense on the sidelines that the defense isn't asked to do too much.

These will both be difficult games, and after they're over, the Giants will hit the bye week with a much better idea of how they stack up in the NFC East race.
IRVING, Texas -- When you talk about the most important players on the Dallas Cowboys' roster, you can’t mention too many players before you get to Dwayne Harris.

He’s an impact player as a punt and kick returner, he excels on punt coverage and he’s the best blocking receiver on the roster. You can’t run against eight-man fronts unless receivers are blocking linebackers and safeties.

Go ahead, ask running back DeMarco Murray just how important Harris is to the running game and see what he says.

[+] EnlargeDwayne Harris
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDwayne Harris makes plays for Dallas when he gets on the field.
When Harris has gotten an opportunity to contribute as a receiver, he’s made an impact there, too. Not bad for a sixth-round pick from East Carolina.

Talk to enough coaches and they will tell you all Harris does is make plays.

In his first preseason game, he caught five passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 15 seconds left.

Last season, he had an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 90-yard kickoff return in a win against Washington, and he caught a seven-yard game-winning touchdown pass against Minnesota with 35 seconds left.

Last season, he finished third in the NFL in punt returns (12.8 yards per return) and second in kickoff returns ( 30.6 yards per return) .

Here is what Harris has to say about his journey to the NFL:

What was the name of your first team?

Harris: The Bulldogs

What was your first position?

Harris: Center

What position did you play in high school?

Harris: Quarterback

What’s your most memorable high school memory?

Harris: "We played our rivals Southwest DeKalb and I was the first freshman to ever beat them. I can’t remember all the stats, but I led us to a win.

What colleges did you visit?

Harris: "I visited North Carolina, Southern Miss, Kentucky and East Carolina. Those are the only schools that offered me to play quarterback. Everybody else wanted me to play receiver."

Why East Carolina?

Harris: "It was my best chance to play quarterback. I red-shirted. I made the switch to receiver after my freshman year. Going into my sophomore year I just thought about the statistics. Me, I’m 5-foot-10 so I just made a business decision. It was about getting to the next level and what gave me the best chance to do that.

"Initially, I wasn’t playing as much. I had a Wildcat package, but I wanted to be the starter because I wanted the ball in my hands all of the time. I talked to my coach and told him I wanted to change positions. Initially, they tried me on defense and I played cornerback for about a day.

"During my red-shirt year, they were going to take the red-shirt off and put me at running back, but it didn’t work out. One of our running backs had a great game, so they didn’t need to take the red-shirt off.

"Then they moved me to receiver. I had never played it before, so it took my about five games until I got on the field as a receiver. Until then, I was just a punt returner and a quarterback."

When did you start to think you had a chance to play in the NFL?

Harris: "After I broke every receiving record at ECU. I went to the Senior Bowl and saw some of the guys who were also at the combine. At the combine it was the same guys I had seen play in college, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know them."

What was draft day like? Did you expect to go higher than the sixth round?

Harris: "I expected myself to go higher than that. I don’t think a lot of the guys picked higher than me were better than me. I wasn’t mad at all on draft day, I was just happy I got a chance to be picked by somebody. I thought whoever got me was going to get a steal."

The Cowboys cut you in October of your rookie year and signed you to the practice squad where you spent nearly two months before getting back on the active roster. What was that experience like?

Harris: "It was an experience. You don’t know what to think. You don’t know what your next move is going to be. It was the first time it had ever happened to me. It was a scary 24 hours. Once they brought me back, I just continued to try to work hard and improve my craft."

One of the reasons coach Jason Garrett said they cut you is because you couldn’t get your weight down. You weighed 210 and they wanted you about 205. Did they tell you that?

Harris: "They’ve been saying I weigh too much since I got here. In college I played at 210 and I was a good player at 210. They wanted me to drop a little weight to make me quicker. So I did. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten any faster, but that’s what they want me to do, so I did it."

When did you know you could be an impact player at this level?

Harris: "From the beginning. Anytime they gave me a chance to play I had a good game and did what I had to do. And that’s from Day 1. In my first preseason. Whenever I got a chance I just tried to make plays."

What do you love about football?

Harris: "I just love the game. I love the physical nature of it because I’m a physical guy. The game is like life to me. You know the way Dez [Bryant] loves it and he shows all that enthusiasm -- I’m the same way -- I just don’t get quite as excited as he does."

How would you describe your football journey?

Harris: "It’s just beginning. I haven’t really touched the base of my talent. I haven’t really actually gotten to play or do anything besides special teams -- I play a little offense -- but I haven’t gotten my chance to really shine."

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