When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ordered more divisional games to be played late in the season, he envisioned something like what's taking place in the Meadowlands on Sunday night. What he couldn't have anticipated was that a winner-take-all matchup in the NFC East could feature such mediocre teams.
The buildup to this game has been appropriately tepid even with some New York trash talk - based on the fact the Giants and Cowboys have matching 8-7 records. There's a belief they've backed into playoff opportunities, although that beats what the Philadelphia Eagles have accomplished this season.
For Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, Sunday's game offers the chance to regain some credibility after his stunning gaffe against the Arizona Cardinals and his team's penchant for surrendering double-digit leads. He's not coaching for his job, but that hasn't kept reporters from asking Cowboys owner Jerry Jones about Garrett's future. Jones provided his most definitive answer while appearing on the team's flagship radio station Friday.
"We'll answer this thing as many ways as you want to answer it, with as many circumstances," Jones told 105.3 The Fan. "His job has no bearing and is not a part of this ballgame. Yes, he's going to be our coach next year, period, no matter what the score is."
The Cowboys owner seems oblivious to the notion that he's caused a lot of this ongoing speculation. Jones admitted earlier this week that he approached Garrett during the first quarter of last Saturday's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to update him on quarterback Tony Romo's injury status because he didn't want his head coach having to make a decision alone.
Some in the local media have suggested this was business as usual for Jones, but in my mind it takes things to another (frightening) level. In light of Garrett's game-management struggles, Jones' presence on the sideline reinforces the perception he doesn't completely trust the coach. The owner insists he's advised every head coach during games, but that's simply not true.
Garrett said Monday that he has "no issue at all" with Jones, but surely he realizes how weak it made him look in front of his players and assistant coaches. Any NFL head coach with an ounce of pride would be embarrassed to be consulted by someone from the front of office during a game. In fact, this would be an even bigger national story if the TV cameras had captured footage of the Jones-Garrett sidebar.
In on-the-field news, the Cowboys know it's only been three weeks since the Giants lit them up for 37 points and more than 400 yards passing at Cowboys Stadium, a facility that has been far too inviting to opponents. Eli Manning attempted 47 passes in that game, and he wasn't sacked a single time.
The glorified fullback known as Brandon Jacobs gashed the Cowboys for 101 rushing yards in that game. This has the makings of another shootout because neither secondary has shown any consistency over the past couple months.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan believes the absence of safety Abe Elam in practices leading up to last month's game may have led to some communication breakdowns. But to the naked eye, it also appeared the Cowboys had no hope of covering Giants receivers even when they were on the same page.
"I know we're gonna play a helluva lot better, and that's gonna be the biggest thing," Ryan told reporters Friday. "I think when we execute, we've got a helluva defense. I don't think anybody's very good when they're not executing or at the top of their game. In the championship game, you've got to be your best, and we will be. We can't wait."
On the other side, Tom Coughlin's job could very well be on the line Sunday. The security he created with a Super Bowl title in '07 has all but vanished as the Giants are in danger of missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Coughlin's teams have been at their worst in December, which is the quickest way for a coach to get fired. He has the type of fiery personality that can wear on players after a few years, as evidenced by his time in Jacksonville.
Fortunately for him, Giants co-owner John Mara admired the way the Steelers stayed with Bill Cowher through some rough seasons. He feels extremely loyal to Coughlin, but the Giants' fan base seems ready for change. The Giants coach told the New York Post this week that he's confident he'll return in 2012 despite no assurances from ownership.
"I just expect to," said Coughlin. "That's the nature of the business. I don't see any reason why I wouldn't."
No matter how poorly the Giants have played this season, a win over the Cowboys on Sunday would probably keep Coughlin safe for another season. But the way December has gone, neither Coughlin nor Garrett should feel too comfortable.