IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are off to a surprising 5-1 start but they have yet to play an NFC East game.
That changes this week when the New York Giants visit AT&T Stadium. Last year the Cowboys went 5-1 in the division and swept the Giants. Despite their strong start, the Cowboys have to keep pace with the similarly 5-1 Philadelphia Eagles, so they can't afford a letdown.
The Giants (3-3) are coming off a disheartening loss to the Eagles but AT&T Stadium has been something of a safe haven for New York. The Giants are 4-1 in Arlington, Texas.
NFL Nation reporters Dan Graziano and Todd Archer offer up this week's game preview:
Todd Archer: To me, Tom Coughlin is one of the five best coaches in the NFL. It looked like he had things turned around after the 0-2 start. But after last week's loss to Philadelphia, was that three-game winning streak fool's gold?
Dan Graziano: You can argue that the three-game streak was against lesser competition (Houston, Washington, Atlanta), but the Eagles aren't far enough superior to those teams to explain a 27-0 thrashing. I agree with you about Coughlin as a coach, and I think that, in the big picture, the Giants' 3-3 record reflects a team that's doing better at this point in its rebuilding process than could reasonably have been expected. With a new offensive coordinator and system, and a slew of new players, the Giants should have struggled out of the gate. But that three-game winning streak showed that the new scheme can be effective and that they're further along in it than anyone realized they were. They're still going to have rough patches, because progress is never completely smooth and because they still have personnel deficiencies to overcome when they play the league's better teams. But they're going to have some good games too. I think they're just kind of a middle-of-the-road team that's hoping the good outweighs the bad enough to get them in contention while they make progress toward better things next year.
Archer: They are definitely playing better, but I think the biggest reason why they are playing better is that they are playing less. The offense is doing a great job of keeping them on the sideline. Maybe I will be the last to the party, but I'm not 100 percent convinced this defense is this good. Over the long haul I wonder if giving up 6 yards per play and 5 yards per rush and not showing consistent ability to get to the quarterback will be part of their demise. There will be games when the offense does not convert as well on third down and the defense will be exposed. But to get off the cynical soapbox here, I think the success starts with coordinator Rod Marinelli. He has made changes to the scheme and allowed the corners to play more man-to-man coverage (a little bit anyway). Linebacker Rolando McClain has been a revelation and is the presence of the defense in the middle. Mostly, however, they are playing hard and that is what Marinelli wants most.
Graziano: It's huge, because they were already thin at wide receiver due to the season-ending injuries to Cruz, backup Jerrel Jernigan and camp star Marcus Harris, either of whom could have filled in for Cruz in the slot. With Cruz down, there's no natural slot receiver for a team that's in three-wide receiver sets more than 80 percent of the time. So they'll have to mix and match to find imperfect solutions. It's not as simple as moving rookie first-round pick Odell Beckham Jr. in there. They like Beckham on the outside as a deep speed threat and worry about capping his value if they stick him inside. But they may not have a choice. The other options on the roster right now are Preston Parker and undrafted Corey Washington, and their practice squad guys are Julian Talley, Juron Criner and Travis Harvey. Unless they want to give the Buffalo Bills something for disgruntled Mike Williams, they're not going to have enough quality options to run the three-wide sets they love. And with starting running back Rashad Jennings down for a little while, they can't lean as hard on the run game as they'd like to either. Cruz is the playmaker into whose hands the McAdoo offense wants to deliver the ball in close range, and they won't be able to replace him.
Speaking of playmakers, Tony Romo looks to have a winner in Terrance Williams on the other side of the field from Dez Bryant. Does Romo have more trusted options in the passing game than he's had in years past?
Archer: I don't know about that. Actually, I think Romo had more trust in Miles Austin than he does in Williams. Some of that is just time on task. He made more work with Austin over the years, but Williams has a good feel for when plays break down to find open spots. He did it two weeks ago against the Houston Texans for a 43-yard touchdown. He did it last week on a 23-yard catch to produce first down on third and 20. He did it last year against the Washington Redskins on their winning drive. Ultimately, the success of the passing game is on Bryant, Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray. I don't want to sound like Romo doesn't trust Williams or the others, but he has more trust in the other guys.
The Cowboys will be without right tackle Doug Free. Jason Pierre-Paul has had unreal moments against the Cowboys but he doesn't appear to be the same player. What has happened to him?
Graziano: Pierre-Paul had a tough time Sunday night with Jason Peters, as most do. Prior to that, I'd have said he was playing quite well, especially against the run. But he still isn't racking up the sacks. He says that's not a source of frustration to him, and that they'll come if he keeps up the pressure. But he's a free agent at the end of this year, and I know he's thinking about trying to cash in with a big contract. Without big sack numbers (and due to injury he hasn't had those since 2011), he's going to have a tough time selling himself as a premier pass rusher. Watching him every week, you see a guy who makes plays and attracts extra attention. But he's not finishing the way he did in 2011. As you said, he always gets up to play the Cowboys. Perhaps this is the game that gets him back on track.
However, Pierre-Paul would be the first to tell you the priority is stopping the run. And no one's running it better than DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys. How much do you think the Doug Free injury will affect Murray, the run game and the performance of that suddenly strong offensive line there in Dallas?
Archer: I think it will affect them to a degree, but I don't think it will kill them. Jermey Parnell will replace Free and on his first snap against the Seahawks, Murray scored a 15-yard touchdown. The Cowboys like Parnell and he competed with Free for the starting spot last year in camp but couldn't take it away. The Cowboys run their best when they go to the left behind Tyron Smith and Ron Leary, but Free and Zack Martin had their moments too. Parnell has the physical ability but he has to be as strong mentally too. When he has had snaps as an extra blocker in short yardage and goal-line situations, he has had some whiffs. I think the Cowboys will help him, but I don't think they will change their offense much at all.