As many ups and downs as the Dallas Cowboys have had this season, the goal of an NFC East championship -- and a playoff berth -- remains in reach. That means the possibility of reaching the Super Bowl is still in play, and that's all you can ask for.
Recent playoff history has proven that if you're in, then you have a shot to win it all. Are the Cowboys good enough to make a serious run? With the way that Tony Romo is currently playing, there is that possibility.
But first there's a little thing about beating the New York Giants --a team that has similar and -- at some positions -- better talent than the Cowboys.
Expect a healthy dose of JPP, Tuck from Giants
When I break down these games, I always try to look at the areas where the Cowboys can get an edge but also where they might run into trouble. To me, both teams are going to have matchup problems.
The area that could give the Cowboys the biggest problem is Doug Free against Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul. If Free was playing at a level like he was in 2010, I'd say this matchup had a great chance of being a wash. Pierre-Paul has gone from a raw rookie pass rusher to a dominant force on the outside and off the edge.
In Week 14, I really believed Free would be able to handle Pierre-Paul because he was more of an athletic pass rusher than a power player. I was mistaken. Pierre-Paul plays with some snap in his upper body and some first step explosiveness, and he was able to get his hands inside Free several times to control him as a blocker. In studying the game in the lab, it appeared that Free was surprised not only how JPP played him, but also the power in which he played him.
With Free there is been technique issues on a weekly basis. But in talking with members of the front office, they'll offer that the lack of a full offseason in the weight room has affected Free as a player. I fully expect Jason Garrett and this offensive staff to give Free help in this game, whether that is making him rush wider with a tight end to that side or chip him with Jones and Morris.
The problem with helping a tackle is that whomever helps -- the back or tight end -- gets in the way of the tackle trying to execute the block. The Cowboys leave their tackles on an island quite a bit so working with extra blockers is something to keep an eye on.
On the other side, Justin Tuck can present problems not only as a pass rusher but also defending the run, where he's been outstanding. Tuck is one of those players that is very smart and crafty, playing well with his hands, and he's able to extend on the blocker and fight down the line of scrimmage. Where Tuck is also dangerous is when he stands up like an inside linebacker and they use him in games or stunts with the other rushers. Where Tyron Smith has to be careful is if you go hard at Tuck, he'll jump around the block and cause you to overextend and miss.
Another matchup to watch is guard Derrick Dockery against defensive tackle Chris Canty. When you study the Giants, Canty is doing a much better job of showing up at key times in making stops. Dockery hasn't seen action since Week 2, but played very well to his credit.
If the Cowboys are going to win, the left side of their offensive line is going to have to do an outstanding job of controlling Canty and JPP to that side.
Cowboys should exploit Giants secondary ...
If the Cowboys have an advantage in this game, it's going to be against the Giants' cornerbacks. There are plays to be made against Corey Webster and Aaron Ross down the field. Webster is the more aggressive of the two.
In the nickel, the Giants will use Prince Amukamara, who hasn’t lived up to his first-round billing. Teams have been able to take advantage of how cautious he has played. Safety Kenny Phillips didn’t play the last time these two teams met, and that will be a boost for the Giants. He is good against the run and pass. His backup, Deon Grant, will make mistakes in coverage. So if Grant does get on the field, look for the Cowboys to try and take advantage.
The Redskins had success against the Giants secondary when they got in bunch formations and ran routes from that. Look to see if the Cowboys use their receivers and Jason Witten in those types of looks to try and confuse them in coverage.
... But look for Giants to do same vs. Cowboys secondary
As the Cowboys can cause problems with their receivers, so can the Giants when they're on offense. In Week 14, the Giants caused plenty of confusion for the Cowboys scheme-wise. Hakeem Nicks is an outstanding receiver, and some of the drops he had against the Redskins and Jets will not happen. He's a Cowboys-killer in the way he plays.
I've said this before about Nicks: He's the Giants version of Dez Bryant. He is a physical body that makes plays all over the field. Despite his drops, I still feel his hands are outstanding and his footwork and body control is even better. Nicks has no fear on where to run routes and he will make defenders pay for having to cover him. He can be a dominant player in the red zone with his body position and his leaping ability.
To me, however, the most dangerous player is Victor Cruz. He has special skills and is a matchup nightmare because he'll line up anywhere in the formation. Like Nicks, Cruz will take his route inside, catch the ball in traffic and take a big hit. When the Giants need to convert on third down, he is usually the man running the route that gets them the first. Manning has a great deal of confidence in him and will do everything in his power to get him the ball on the move. Cruz has the speed and the quickness to get down the field on vertical routes and will make big plays in this way.
In studying the Giants' last two games, they have made more of an effort to attempt more vertical throws. There is no doubt in my mind they'll take shots down the field against Terence Newman and these safeties.
Giants starting offensive line is healthy, intact
The Giants' offensive line was a mess three weeks ago with guard Kevin Boothe playing center and Mitch Petrus taking his spot at guard. After reviewing their win vs. the Cowboys, that group was the reason why the Giants won. Manning wasn't sacked, and they were able to run the ball with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.
This time around, the Giants have their starting group in place with David Baas at center and Boothe at guard. LT David Diehl has had many a battle with DeMarcus Ware, and Kareem McKenzie is on the right side.
What helps this line is Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly, which he was able to do last time. Where the Giants have struggled is when teams make them move their feet in pass protection. McKenzie struggles with this more than Diehl.
If you want me to pick a weak spot, it's at center with Baas. In several games, he's not been able to handle the cut off or reach blocks, and he's struggled in the passing game. Boothe was outstanding against Jay Ratliff in the first meeting, which really surprised me.
Ratliff can not have an off game this time around, or that will be a huge problem for the Cowboys. As banged up as he was last week, Ratliff played well against the Eagles, who are much better at center.
If you don't punish Bradshaw, he'll punish you
When the Giants run the ball on offense, it’s usually with Bradshaw. I know that Jacobs had a huge game last time, but Bradshaw is a real difference-maker for this team. He is a physical back that is difficult to get on the ground. He doesn’t have the elusive moves of a LeSean McCoy, but he has a low center of gravity and will try to punish tacklers. If you don't hit him hard, Bradshaw will run over you.
Final keys to the game
This game can go in two different directions for me. If the Cowboys can't block this Giants front, then there will be huge problems. But if they give Romo time, there are plays to be made against this secondary.
Defensively, the Cowboys cannot allow Manning to feel comfortable throwing the ball. The Cowboys' run defense was solid against the Eagles last week, and Rob Ryan needs that to carry over. But they have to pressure Manning. Of the top quarterbacks in the league, Manning struggles with pressure the most.
The Cowboys defense has to take advantage when he makes mistakes, and we all know that he will.