(Sports Network) - A three-game winning streak has the New York Giants in first place in their division and brimming with optimism, while the Dallas Cowboys' confidence is clearly shaken after stumbling badly out of the blocks in what's supposed to be a special 2010 campaign.
The desperate Cowboys will try to regain their swagger -- as well as save a season teetering on the brink of disaster -- when the reigning NFC East champions host the red-hot Giants in a colossal Monday night showdown between longtime rivals.
Expected to be on the short list of contenders to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLV, which will be held in Cowboys Stadium, Dallas has instead gotten off to a startling 1-4 start that's put the franchise's grandiose plans in obvious peril. It's the first time the Cowboys have dropped four of their first five tests since 2001, and a loss this week would give the club its worst mark after six games since it began the 1989 season with eight straight setbacks en route to a 1-15 ledger.
Dallas' wounds have been largely self-inflicted, as a deluge of penalties, turnovers and special-teams breakdowns have all contributed to its present poor record. Mistakes doomed the Cowboys once again in last Sunday's 24-21 loss at Minnesota, with the Vikings scoring 10 points off a pair of interceptions of quarterback Tony Romo and getting another touchdown via a 95- yard kick return from wide receiver Percy Harvin to start the second half.
The Cowboys also committed a troubling 11 penalties that totaled 91 yards, with one of those flags negating a would-be long touchdown catch by Miles Austin when the standout receiver was called for offensive pass interference.
While the Cowboys have been reeling, the Giants come into Arlington flying high off three October victories that has given Big Blue a share of the NFC East lead with Philadelphia at 4-2. A rejuvenated defense has been at the forefront of the surge, with New York having surrendered the second fewest total yards (264.8 ypg) and passing yards (172.0 ypg) in the league and racking up 21 sacks through the first six weeks.
The much-improved unit could face its sternest test to date this week, however, as Dallas ranks third in the NFL in total offense (400.0 ypg) and is averaging 305 yards per game through the air (fourth overall).
New York did permit 302 net passing yards in last weekend's tussle with Detroit, but forced three turnovers and got a big effort from its running game to hand the spirited Lions a 28-20 defeat. Top running back Ahmad Bradshaw put up a season-best 133 yards on only 19 carries, with bruising understudy Brandon Jacobs adding a pair of short touchdown runs on the afternoon.
The Giants have averaged 157.8 rushing yards over the course of their three- game tear, which began with a 17-3 home verdict over Chicago in Week 4 and was extended with a 34-10 road rout of Houston the following Sunday.
The Cowboys lead the all-time regular season series with the Giants by a 55-38-2 count, but were swept by New York in last year's home-and-home. The G- Men were 33-31 road winners when the clubs met in Arlington in Week 2 of last season, and completed the sweep with a 31-24 win at Giants Stadium in Week 13. The sweep was the Giants' first of the Cowboys since 2004. Dallas' most recent win over the Giants came in 20-8 fashion at Texas Stadium in 2008. With a win on Sunday, New York will own its first three-game winning streak against Dallas since 2000-01.
New York was a 21-17 road winner over Dallas in a 2007 NFC Divisional Playoff, a game that ranks as the only postseason meeting between the franchises to date.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has a 9-7 record against Dallas as a head coach, including 8-5 since arriving in New York in 2004. Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 3-5 against the Giants in his career as a head coach, with one of the defeats coming for his Bills team in 1999. Phillips is 4-4 against Coughlin head-to-head, including a victory for Buffalo over Coughlin's Jaguars during the 1998 season.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The defense isn't the only area that's been performing at an elite level during the Giants' successful stretch. New York has been running the ball with authority over the past few weeks, with Bradshaw (582 rushing yards, 3 TD, 14 receptions) registering a pair of 100-yard outings and averaging a healthy 5.7 yards per carry during the win streak. The fourth-year pro has flourished in his first go-around as the feature back for an offense that now stands fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (136.3 ypg). The Giants can throw it a little bit as well, with quarterback Eli Manning (1479 passing yards, 10 TD, 8 INT) having completed nearly 65 percent of his attempts while working with a young and talented cast of pass-catchers. Steady wideout Steve Smith (34 receptions, 1 TD) eclipsed the century mark in receiving yards in both meetings with the Cowboys last year, 2009 first-round pick Hakeem Nicks (36 receptions, 417 yards) is a physical force whose six touchdown catches rank near the top of the league, and Mario Manningham (18 receptions, 2 TD) has flashed big-play potential as the third option. Turnovers have been an issue on occasion, as Manning's been picked off eight times so far and Bradshaw had some fumble problems early on, but the team had just one giveaway against the Lions.
The Giants may not have to worry about turning the ball over on Monday, considering the Dallas defense has produced only four takeaways this season and three of them came in the team's lone win at Houston back in Week 3. That lack of momentum-changing plays has been a sore spot for an unit that's otherwise held its own, as the Cowboys have allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the league (281.4 ypg) and limited Minnesota to a mere 188 total yards during last week's frustrating setback. After being gashed for 153 rushing yards by Tennessee two weeks ago, Dallas tightened up its run defense and held Vikings All-Pro Adrian Peterson to a modest 73 yards on 24 carries last Sunday, with inside linebacker and top tackler Bradie James (37 tackles) heading the charge with 10 stops (nine solo). New York must also account for outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (24 tackles, 7 sacks), one of the game's most feared pass rushers who's compiled six sacks over his past three tilts. The Cowboys will need to get Ware going once again with the secondary, and cornerback Mike Jenkins (14 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) in particular, having struggled as of late.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Moving the football hasn't been too tough a task for the Cowboys, but the multitude of penalties and miscues have stymied an offense that doesn't lack for weapons. Romo (1566 passing yards, 10 TD, 7 INT) is a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback who's hit on nearly 70 percent of his passes for the year, while there's depth abound for a receiving corps headlined by Austin (33 receptions, 486 yards, 2 TD), a true game-breaker who excels at gaining yards after the catch. Counterpart Roy Williams (21 receptions, 5 TD) is finally starting to shake his underachiever tag, with the well-paid wideout having garnered five touchdown catches over his past three games, and tight end Jason Witten (23 receptions, 1 TD) is as reliable as you'll find at his position. Romo's been intercepted five times during Dallas' current two-game slide, however, and the team hasn't always run the ball consistently. The dangerous Felix Jones (229 rushing yards, 18 receptions) and short-yardage specialist Marion Barber (175 rushing yards, 1 TD, 6 receptions) do form a capable two-back tandem, with Jones having received the bulk of the work as of late. The former first- round pick had a career-high 24 touches, including 10 receptions for 61 yards, against the Vikings.
The Cowboys have done an excellent job protecting Romo, who's been sacked one time or less in all but one of this year's games, but the line will have its work cut for it against a New York defense that's made life miserable for enemy quarterbacks lately. Ends Osi Umenyiora (16 tackles, 8 sacks) and Justin Tuck (36 tackles, 4 sacks) spearhead a fierce pass rush that's produced 14 sacks during the team's three-game surge, with the former having amassed an eye-popping seven sacks and forcing six fumbles as a one-man wrecking crew over that time span. The Giants have also been very good against the run this month, having yielded a scant 49 rushing yards per game over the past three weeks, with Tuck and tackle Barry Cofield (28 tackles, 2 sacks) holding their own up front and linebackers Michael Boley (39 tackles) and Jonathan Goff (31 tackles, 0.5 sacks) doing a good job in containment. New York's seventh-ranked rush defense (92.8 ypg) has been complemented well by a sound secondary that's gotten good play out of rugged corner Terrell Thomas (33 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) and safeties Antrel Rolle (37 tackles, 1 INT) and Kenny Phillips (32 tackles, 1 INT).
Though the Giants' defense is a formidable foe, that still shouldn't deter those with key Dallas players on their roster. Start Romo, Austin and Witten like you would every other week, and both Jones and Williams have been very dependable from a fantasy perspective as of late. Bradshaw and Nicks are the two must-plays on the New York side, while Smith and Manning should make for solid choices as well. Jacobs doesn't get a whole lot of carries as a clear backup to Bradshaw, but the fact that the bulky back has scored four touchdowns in the last three weeks warrants him flex consideration. Barber owners need to keep the one-time fantasy star on the bench, as he's clearly being phased out of the Dallas game plan. The Giants' defense is the one to own out of these two participants, especially when factoring in Romo's recent tendency for interceptions.
There's little doubt as to which of these teams has been playing a crisper brand of football at the moment, and New York's sweep of this series last season also needs to be considered when handicapping this matchup. The Cowboys are still way too talented to be dismissed here, however, especially since they'll be playing at home and are in a situation where there's no longer any margin for error. Remember that Dallas rose to the occasion with its backs to the wall late last season, and the thinking here is the sense of urgency will finally bring out the best in a Cowboys team that may be too much for the Giants to handle when it's operating in sync.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 27, Giants 21