- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Sunday night, the New York Giants can determine whether the fight for the NFC East will go one round or go the distance.
Trailing the Dallas Cowboys by one game in the NFC East, the Giants face a must-win situation. A loss would put the Giants two games behind the Cowboys with three games to play, extend New York's losing streak to five games and jeopardize the coaching future of Tom Coughlin.
Despite last Sunday's three-point loss to the unbeaten Packers, the Giants come into this game with some confidence. They were able to match the Packers drive for drive on offense. Eli Manning is the best fourth-quarter thrower this season and doesn't panic when he's behind.
The Giants also enter Dallas with a two-game winning streak in Big D. A game like this could ramp up the rivalry between the two. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck talked about how he hates the Cowboys and how he thinks Cowboys Stadium is a dump.
But Cowboys Stadium has been good to the home team. The Cowboys are 5-1 at home this season and are angling for their first 7-1 home record since 1999. They come into this game with a hot quarterback. In the past five weeks, Tony Romo has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 273.2 yards a game and has 11 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
They also have a hot rookie running back. DeMarco Murray has rushed for 632 yards in Cowboys Stadium and has averaged 6.7 yards an attempt. On the road, though, his average is 3.8 yards a carry. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Murray averages 29 yards per game after contact.
If the Giants can win, they will keep the NFC East race alive until the end of the regular season. The Giants host the Cowboys in Week 17.
1. Advantage, Tebow: Lovie Smith decided to stand pat at the quarterback position. He wouldn't call Brett Favre. He never considered Donovan McNabb an option. To make the playoffs, the Bears are going with Caleb Hanie or Josh McCown or bust. Sunday, they head into the Mile High craziness of Tim Tebow mania. It's hard to imagine Tebow has a statistical edge in a game against any quarterback, but he does against Hanie. Tebow may be completing only 47.5 percent of his throws, but he has 10 touchdowns compared to one interception. In Hanie's two starts, he has completed only 48.3 percent of his throws and has six interceptions and two touchdown passes. Last week, Tebow did more things from the pocket and completed 10 of 15 passes, many to wide-open receivers against the Minnesota Vikings' "Cover None" defense. Tebow's ability to run has opened up plenty of deep throwing options. On throws that sail in the air at least 21 yards, he has completed a respectable 10 of 37 attempts for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Hanie has thrown eight, completing one to a Bears receiver and three to opponents. Because Hanie doesn't figure to put many points on the scoreboard early in the game, Tebow can either beat the Bears early or try to beat them late. Advantage, Tebow.
2. Impact of the Johnathan Joseph signing: New Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips based much of his offseason change of the Texans' woeful defense on the acquisition of three players: defensive end J.J. Watt, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning. Phillips' coaching and those acquisitions have made the Texans to go from ranked 30th on defense to No. 1. But it's Joseph's ability to play man coverage that has helped shave 83.1 pass yards per game from one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history. Joseph returns to Cincinnati, where he started his career, on Sunday in an important game for both teams. The Bengals need a win to stay ahead of the Jets and other teams in the hunt for the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. The season-ending Achilles injury to Leon Hall and a nagging injury for Joseph's replacement, Nate Clements, leaves the Bengals thin at cornerback. Texans owner Robert McNair and coach Gary Kubiak not only praised Joseph's coverage ability but said he's a better leader in the locker room than they anticipated. Joseph said this week he left the Bengals because the Texans offered more money and guarantees along with more stability at the quarterback position. Unfortunately for the Texans, that stability was ruined by season-ending injuries to quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, leaving Houston with rookie fifth-round pick T.J. Yates. This game will come down to which rookie quarterback can do a better job: Yates or the Bengals' Andy Dalton.
3. Bad memories for Brees: Saints quarterback Drew Brees would love to forget the last time he faced quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. They met in Seattle, when a more talented Saints team lost a playoff game to a 7-9 Seahawks team with Hasselbeck at quarterback. Brees comes to Nashville to face Hasselbeck's new team, the Tennessee Titans. At 9-3, the Saints have a two-game lead over the Atlanta Falcons and can all but wrap up the NFC South if they can beat the Titans. It's a significant game for the Saints because it's their last outdoor game until a possible NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau. The Saints close out their season with a road game at Minnesota and home games in the Superdome against Atlanta and Carolina. The Saints figure to get at least one home playoff game. Brees is 2-2 outdoors this season, and he is significantly better indoors than outside. During his career, he has completed 68.3 percent of his passes and averaged 341.4 yards a game when he has played indoors. Outside, his completion percentage drops to 63.5 and his yards per games fall to 290.4. That still might be good enough to beat the Titans and lock up the NFC South.
4. Vick finally returns for Philadelphia: Michael Vick returns after missing three games with two broken ribs. Initially, the injury wasn't supposed to be as bad as last season's, when he missed three games with rib problems, but like everything else with the Eagles this season, nothing has gone right. Vick vows to be a more cautious runner. He's going to slide instead of running into defenders. He told teammates he won't allow that last unnecessary shot to damage his body. At 4-8, there is no reason any Eagles should be subjected to unnecessary shots. The Eagles play a 4-8 Miami Dolphins team that has re-energized itself. Matt Moore has awakened the offense. What Andy Reid hopes, though, is that Vick's return can offer some on-the-field leadership. The Eagles, as a team, were listless in last Thursday's loss in Seattle. Vick is the leader of the Eagles, so his return should spark something.
5. Tightening up the Packers' defense: Despite the Packers' perfect record, Mike McCarthy expressed to his team that its quality of play needs to improve. For example, he was concerned about having too many dropped passes in last week's win over the Giants. There is no question defensive coordinator Dom Capers has to stop the leakage on the Packers' defense. The Packers are allowing 397.8 yards per game and are next to last in the NFL. No team has ever reached the Super Bowl allowing more than 360 yards per game. The 2009 Saints beat the Colts in the Super Bowl despite allowing 357.8 yards a game. Enter the Oakland Raiders. No one can figure out what happened to them last week. Hue Jackson took his team to Miami, and the Raiders ended up as though they were in the Bermuda Triangle. They fell behind 34-0 and never competed. The Packers and the Raiders have met only 10 times, but the Packers have won the past five and will try to bring the number to six at Lambeau Field.
6. Rookie QB watch: The toll of a long, physical season is starting to catch up with rookie starting quarterbacks. Dalton has a banged up hip. The Vikings' Christian Ponder sat out Wednesday's practice with a sore hip and his questionable against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Blaine Gabbert is healthy, but his ego has taken a beating from a string of losses, bad throwing decisions and virtually no offense. Gabbert hopes the underachieving Tampa Bay Bucs' defense will give him a chance to get some numbers. He's completing only 49.5 percent of his passes and he has seven interceptions and nine fumbles. He's also not throwing the ball downfield, which is reflected in his puny 5.3 yards an attempt average. One of the more interesting rookie QB watches will be in Charlotte, where the Panthers host the Atlanta Falcons. Cam Newton is on pace to shatter just about every rookie record for his position. But Newton isn't about the numbers. He wants to win, and a two-game winning streak gives him some extra confidence going into this meeting against the Falcons. Carolina's biggest concern is on defense, where the Panthers' two starting defensive tackles went on the injured reserve list this week. Watch for the Falcons to rush Michael Turner up the middle to test the replacements.
7. Injured QB watch: The Bucs hope Josh Freeman will return after missing a game with a shoulder injury. Against the Panthers, the Bucs didn't have much of a chance last week. Josh Johnson tried to fill in but he suffered a minor shoulder injury during the game. Freeman has missed some practice time this week but says he should be able to go against the Jaguars. The bigger problem exists in St. Louis. Sam Bradford missed last week after having a setback on his high-ankle sprain. A.J. Feeley doesn't expect to be available because of a thumb injury. There's a chance the Rams might have to go on "Monday Night Football" against Seattle with Tom Brandstater at quarterback. The city of St. Louis is already in depression after losing Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels. Seeing a practice squad quarterback starting against a division rival on Monday night would only add to the suffering.
8. Rex Ryan steals page from Tony Sparano playbook: To spark their struggling running game last Sunday, Ryan ordered seven Wildcat plays to bring variety to the offense. He's still stinging from a recent loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos. Sparano brought the Wildcat into prominence a few years ago to add life and complexity to his running offense in Miami. Will the trickery continue against the Kansas City Chiefs? Of the four 7-5 AFC teams, the Jets have the easiest closing schedule, facing teams with combined records of 19-29. With cold weather and easier teams settling in, the Jets need to ground-and-pound. They currently rank 24th running the ball. They also are in the middle of the league for run defense. Ryan wants some extra toughness from his team down the stretch.
9. Race to the top: The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots continue their race for the AFC No. 1 seed as each team tries to secure its 10th victory. The Ravens have the easiest assignment. They play the winless Indianapolis Colts this week. Linebacker Ray Lewis plans to sit out this game to give his toe injury an extra week to heal. He plans to return to the field next week. The Ravens' defense has proved it can survive without Lewis. It is allowing 13.3 points and only 295.3 yards a game in the three games Lewis has been out. The Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a victory over the Washington Redskins, as long as it's accompanied by a Jets loss. The Redskins have lost seven of their last eight games. They also lost tight end Fred Davis and left tackle Trent Williams for the final month of the season for substance issues. It's been a long season for Mike Shanahan.
10. Wrapping up the schedule: The 49ers have a chance to go to 11-2 and have a huge edge when they meet the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The 49ers are on a five-game winning streak against the Cardinals and have won seven of their past nine meetings. They won the Nov. 20 meeting in San Francisco, 23-7. Since then, Kevin Kolb has returned. Also, the Cardinals are getting younger and better on defense. In a game that is completely off the radar, the Buffalo Bills travel to San Diego to face the Chargers. Norv Turner has little hope of saving his job, but at least Philip Rivers had some fun flinging the football around in Jacksonville on Monday night. The Bills have no pass rush, so Rivers could have fun Sunday.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The fight for the NFC East between the Cowboys and Giants could go one round or the distance. Sunday will determine that, writes John Clayton.