EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If you were struggling to put your finger on what seemed off about this particular Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game in December, the fact that it was being played while the sun was still up was a big part of it. Cowboys-Giants is supposed to be prime-time, network-TV gold. Not some run-of-the-mill, 1 p.m. ET start. Not in December.
A year ago, this would have been a game about playoff seeding -- between two of the best teams in the league. And there's little doubt that if it weren't a Sunday night game, it would at least have been in a prominent, late-TV window.
But it was not, and if you've been following this NFC East season, you know why. The Giants have fallen apart completely, to the point where they just fired their coach and general manager with four games left to play, and six days later dropped a lackluster 30-10 home game to their once-fearsome rivals to fall to 2-11. The Cowboys? Well, their season is still breathing, but at 7-6, they're still on the outside of the NFC playoff hunt looking in. They need to keep winning and get some help, and as of 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, the other Week 14 results -- wins by Atlanta, Green Bay and Carolina -- were not helping.
"The situation we're in is a challenging one," Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley said. "But guys aren't going to back down from that challenge. Those aren't the kinds of guys we have in this locker room."
The Cowboys took a pretty memorable punch four weeks ago when they gave up eight sacks in an ugly loss to the Atlanta Falcons. It was the first game of star running back Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension, and the first of three straight losses for a Cowboys team that entered the season with Super Bowl hopes. The losing streak severely damaged Dallas' playoff chances (which stood at 1.9 percent as of Sunday morning, according to ESPN's Football Power Index), and it raised questions about whether the offense could function without Elliott. No one likes excuses, but star left tackle Tyron Smith missed that Atlanta game with an injury, and the Cowboys believe it took them a while to recover from the damage that did.
"Tyron was out, and the protection was a disaster," Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "So that shook some of the confidence in it, and we've been slowly getting that back. That really set us back, because then everything is about protecting the protection, and your focus gets taken away for that, and it makes you defensive on offense. But I really feel we've kind of gotten through that cloud."
The Cowboys' offensive focus Sunday was on hitting some big plays in the passing game -- an accomplishment that has eluded their run-first offense seemingly all season. Knowing the Giants and the way defensive coordinator/interim coach Steve Spagnuolo likes to call a game, they expected New York to blitz a bunch and come after quarterback Dak Prescott, and they were not disappointed. Prescott kept beating the blitz, and he hit enough big plays to make a difference. Dez Bryant caught a 50-yard touchdown. Rod Smith caught an 81-yard touchdown. Beasley had a 54-yard catch-and-run that set up another touchdown. Tied 10-10 at the half, the Cowboys busted it open and did their part, at least, to keep their season alive.
"We know where we are, we know what we've got to do and we're excited to get back to work next week and get after it," Prescott said.
The Giants, unfortunately, also know where they are. From a standings perspective, it's nowhere. The only team in the NFL with a worse record is the 0-13 Cleveland Browns, and the Giants just concluded a week that was all about public relations damage control. Out went coach Ben McAdoo and longtime general manager Jerry Reese, both the object of fan scorn all season. Back in at quarterback was Eli Manning, the beloved Super Bowl champion whose ham-handed benching two weeks ago prompted a fan reaction that ownership admits was worse than it expected. At the helm Sunday was Spagnuolo, the amiable, well-liked coordinator whose Giants glory days were a decade ago but who's still a fan favorite and a steadying hand for a difficult time.
"The building is in a better place right now," a Giants team source said during the week leading up to Sunday's game.
Cowboys' persistence helped get win
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says his team was able to make plays late on both sides of the ball to finish strong against the Giants.
Still, they are playing out the string on a lost season, with no idea who their GM, coach or quarterback will be in 2018. If Cowboys-Giants a year ago was a potential playoff preview between two traditional NFC East powers, this December it has been reduced to ... well, this:
"We have some high-character guys on this team that are working hard every week, doing their absolute best to compete, and I appreciate that," Manning said. "I appreciate the effort, the work, the enthusiasm to go win a football game. Again, we played hard today, we were right there in the mix against a good team, and we just don't have the firepower to finish these games."
They do not. On Sunday, a Cowboys team that has lacked firepower for the past month had more than enough to roll the Giants, who were left to watch and tear another page off the calendar. These two teams don't meet again until the 2018 season, and by that time, it's very likely that neither will have played another playoff game and both will have undergone some changes. Prescott was asked something about going 0-2 against the Giants last season (when the Cowboys were 13-3) and 2-0 against them this season.
"I mean, it's a new team every year. Year in, year out," Prescott said. "So I mean, it'll be a completely different matchup next year."
We know that for sure. We just don't know how long it'll take the Cowboys and the Giants to make their way back to prime time.