Dallas Cowboys verse N.Y Giants = to first playoff game
Facing Dallas means season
Gary Myers is a Daily News sports columnist
The Giants are in a one-game season, even if they do have five games remaining. It's virtually win-or-go-home against the Cowboys in one of their biggest regular-season games in the last 20 years.
They're still alive in the wild-card race if they lose at home to Dallas, but if they have any desire to take their season at least a couple of weeks into January and possibly to Detroit, then they want no part of being a wild card. They need to be NFC East champions and at least get a home game in the first round of the playoffs, even if they don't get a first-round bye as one of the top two seeds.
This game is the Giants' season. This is a game they should win.
Bill Parcells made it clear in a conversation Monday with Keyshawn Johnson what Sunday means to the Cowboys. Johnson, speaking yesterday from Dallas, said Parcells told him: "Put up or shut up. Either get it done now or don't get it done at all."
If the Giants beat Dallas, they will have a one-game lead with four to play, have momentum going into Philadelphia and remain in contention for the NFC's No.2 seed. If they lose, that will make it three out of four in the second half of the season and push them one game behind the Cowboys, who would then own the tie-breaker because they will have swept the season series. So, if the Cowboys win Sunday, the Giants must be two games better than the Cowboys in the last four games to win the NFC East. That will be nearly impossible.
It's all about jockeying for playoff position - not just getting into the playoffs, but getting an advantageous seed. Sunday's winner will be in control of the division. The loser watches the scoreboard to check on Atlanta, Tampa and red-hot Minnesota in the wild-card race. The Vikings are a game back of the Giants and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker edge.
The Cowboys and Giants have played dramatic late-season games. Back in 1985, they played for the NFC East title in game 15 in Dallas with the Cowboys winning, 28-21. In the final game of the 1993 season, the Cowboys beat the Giants 16-13 in an overtime classic to win the division, with Emmitt Smith rushing for 168 yards despite playing much of the game with a separated shoulder.
This game is a couple of weeks earlier in the schedule, but the implications are almost as dramatic. Former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said yesterday that he doesn't think the Giants would fall out of the division race if they lose because Dallas has a difficult last four games: home against the Chiefs, at Washington, at Carolina and home against the Rams.
"The Giants have really impressed me in a lot of games," he said.
But he agrees that all the wild card does "is give you another week of play. To do any damage in the playoffs, you have to be at home."
The 1985 Patriots are the only team to get to the Super Bowl after winning three road playoff games.
There isn't much that separates these NFC teams. The Seahawks, who have the conference's best record at 9-2, look beatable, even in Seattle, where they haven't lost this season. But if you have to win two road playoff games before even getting to Seattle for the NFC title game, forget it. At some point, a brick wall pops up on the road and sends a team home.
Since the NFL went to the current setup of four division winners and two wild cards per conference, the wild-card teams are 4-8 in the first round and 0-4 in the divisional round.
This game surely will be as tight as the Oct.16 game in Dallas, when the Giants tied it up with 19 seconds remaining, but then lost on the first possession of overtime. These teams are so evenly matched, they could go to overtime again.
Keyshawn Johnson was asked if he wanted to stir things up with some pregame trash-talking. He actually went the other way when asked what he thought of the Giants.
"I look at them as one of the best teams in the NFC," he said. "They are way better than us."
Still, the last month is difficult for the Giants, even if they beat Dallas: at Philly, Chiefs at home, at Washington and then at the Black Hole in Oakland on New Year's Eve, where the fans might be in a party mood regardless of the Raiders' record. But beating the Cowboys would give the Giants tremendous momentum to make a run to the playoffs.
But if they lose, they will have to be concerned about whether things are starting to fall apart just like the last two years, just a little later. Losing to Seattle and Dallas back-to-back would hurt their confidence. And then going into Philadelphia, even though the Eagles are without Donovan McNabb and his good friend T.O., would not look so easy anymore.
The only thing at stake Sunday for the Giants is their season.