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Sunday, January 1, 2012
Rapid Reaction: Giants 31, Cowboys 14

By Dan Graziano



EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts from the New York Giants' division-clinching victory over the Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night.

What it means: The Giants finish the season at 9-7 and win the NFC East. The Cowboys finish the season at 8-8, technically in third place in the division behind the Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants started the season 6-2, weathered a brutal second-half schedule and claimed the division title with two victories over the Cowboys in the final four weeks of the season.

Winning the energy battle: The Giants came out of the gate far more fired-up than did their visitors in this winner-take-all game. Thanks to high-energy plays by everyone from Mathias Kiwanuka to Victor Cruz to Bear Pascoe -- and thanks to a laundry list of Cowboys mistakes, especially in coverage -- the Giants were able to build a 21-0 halftime lead and hold on even after the Cowboys came out of the locker room re-energized and much more focused and effective in the second half.

Cru-u-u-u-u-u-zzzz: The player of the game for the Giants -- and maybe the player of their season, at least on offense -- was wide receiver Cruz. Eight days after turning the Jets game on its head with a 99-yard touchdown catch, Cruz caught the ball running across the field in the first quarter and got Sunday night's scoring started with a 74-yard touchdown catch from Eli Manning. And in the fourth quarter, after the Cowboys had cut the lead to 21-14 and were building momentum, Cruz hauled in a 44-yard reception on 3rd-and-7 and a 20-yard catch on 2nd-and-10 to keep alive a field-goal drive. When Manning needs to make a big play, right now, Cruz appears to be his favorite target.

Pressure points: The Giants were able to get a ton of pressure on Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, at least in the first half while they built their big lead. The Cowboys were unable to get any pressure on Manning until the second half, and even then it was inconsistent and they weren't able to finish off sacks. It made the difference in the game, as it seemed clear that the Cowboys' receivers were able to beat the Giants' defensive backs if given time, but they weren't. Manning had all the time in the world to pick apart a leaky Dallas secondary, targeting an overmatched Terence Newman in the first half and Orlando Scandrick, who's likely to replace Newman as a starter in 2012, in the second.

Off-season focus: It seems extremely clear that the two areas on which the Cowboys need to win this offseason are the offensive line and the defensive secondary. No amount of talent at quarterback wide receiver, running back or linebacker will make up for their deficiencies in those two crucial building-block areas, which is where they lost their games and the division down the stretch.

Full-strength strength: The Giants' defense works only when it's able to get that pressure on the quarterback with their defensive linemen. With Osi Umenyiora back and healthy after missing four games with an ankle injury, the Giants were able to mix looks and pressures with him, Justin Tuck and 2011 breakout star Jason Pierre-Paul. If they can keep all three of their great pass-rushing ends healthy (not to mention Kiwanuka, who plays linebacker now but retains his pass-rusher's soul), they will lean hard on that for however deep they go in the playoffs. They get another high-powered passing offense next week with Matt Ryan and the Falcons coming to town, and they'll need to keep after the quarterback to make sure Atlanta's great receivers don't do damage down the field.

What's next: The Giants will host the Atlanta Falcons in a wild-card playoff game at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, right back here at MetLife Stadium. The Cowboys can begin to make plans for what to do with the 14th pick in the NFL draft.