One game. Two rivals. One division title.
Nothing else matters.
When the Cowboys and Giants take the field in New Jersey on Sunday night, they will sport matching 8-7 records and matching goals: the NFC East. The loser's season is over. And that is how it should be.
I know the feeling, playing in three a "playoffs or bust" games in my career. Coincidentally, all three games were played at the Meadowlands, two as a Jet and one as a Dolphin. In 2002, we needed a New England win against Miami and our own victory against Green Bay at home the final week of the season. The Patriots did beat the Dolphins in overtime, and we upended the Packers, 42-17. In 2006, also with the Jets, we beat the Raiders 23-3 in Week 17 to make the playoffs. And with Miami in 2008 we made NFL history, going from 1-15 the season before to 11-5, winning the AFC East by beating the Jets, 24-17 in Week 17. That made us the first team to go from one win to division champ in consecutive seasons.
Both teams will certainly be jacked up on Sunday, but self-control will be important. Football is a game full of emotions, energy and excitement. This type of game justifies the blood, sweat and tears. But the emotion must be channeled into being alert and aware. Smart, efficient football will win out. The Cowboys and the Giants know each other extremely well and are good enough to match each other point-for-point and play-for-play. Remember Week 14? The Giants rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter, and then block a Dallas field-goal attempt to hold on for a 37-34 Sunday night victory.
Think about this if you're a Cowboy fan. What if the 'Boys don't give up a safety and then fumble right before the half, which led to a Giants field goal? Dallas wins! This game will be decided on game-changing mistakes rather than big-time plays.
Which leads me to this week's assignment: Devising a game plan for Tony Romo and the Dallas offense vs. the Giants defense. Wow, my right hand just started hurting as I typed that line.
Much has been made this week, and rightly so, over Romo's bruised and swollen right hand, which he injured during the first quarter of the Cowboys' loss to the Eagles last Saturday. I've played with a sprained right thumb before, and it was difficult to grip the ball and make last-minute adjustments. Gripping the ball can certainly be an issue, and guiding or aiming the ball can be the result.
However, there were encouraging reports out of Texas this week concerning Romo's hand. Wide receiver Laurent Robinson said afterwards he couldn't tell that Romo was even hurt: "He had a lot of speed on the ball. He looked good."
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett thought Romo also had a good day Wednesday, "He's still got swelling in his hand, but it's still early," Garrett said. "We hope that he progresses. He has progressed since the game. We'll see how he responds to the work he got today and hopefully we'll get some more work tomorrow and he'll get himself ready to play in this game."
To me, the swelling is the key. If the swelling can be eliminated or reduced, gripping the football will become less of an issue. I would be most concerned with getting hit again. Another hit could cause the hand to swell again and affect his grip. A solid grip on the ball is crucial to a quarterback. Handoffs, pocket movement, and, of course, delivering the ball with accuracy and velocity can be affected.
The Cowboys definitely need Romo at his best Sunday. Tony, who is the fourth-rated QB in the league at 102.2, played exceptionally well against the Giants' porous secondary three weeks ago. He was 21 of 31 for 321 yards with four touchdowns and no picks against what is now the league's 28th-ranked defense. With that type of performance, only a few things need to be tweaked. Have you ever heard of the saying, "Same girl, different dress?" That's the thought process for Sunday. Get the ball to your playmakers using the same concepts but present them differently. Different formations and motions. Add a couple of trick plays. Have something dialed up for special teams. And let's play ball!
Now, for the game plan:
- Priority No. 1: Protect Romo! If he's not standing in the fourth quarter, the Giants win. Jason Pierre-Paul was a beast in Week 14. The 6-foot-5, 278-pound defensive end, who is only in his second season, was a one-man wrecking crew. Check out Pierre-Paul's stat line from that game: eight tackles, two sacks, two tackles for losses, one forced fumble and one blocked game-tying field-goal attempt. He was too disruptive for the Cowboys not to pay more attention to him this time around. There are different ways to handle a game-changer on the defensive line. Because of Pierre-Paul's athleticism, mere presence by a tight end is not good enough to slow him down. The Cowboys must hit him every play. The tight ends and running backs must "chip" him on their way out on each pass play. Also, think about sending the play action fake to his side. This idea gives him more to think about and places one or even two "chippers" on his side. Does it affect your route running ability to control underneath coverage? Absolutely it does. But I want Tony Romo available for all four quarters. That's the Cowboys' best shot to win!
- Secondly, be creative with Felix Jones. With DeMarco Murray on injured reserve, Jones is now the featured running back. I know the Cowboys plan for Jones to get 20-25 carries. The thought has always been that more than 25 touches reduce his productivity. But I just think he is too explosive. His speed can create a big play at any point during the game. In the first matchup, Jones carried 16 times for 106 yards and had six catches for 31 yards. Do the math. Every time he touched the ball, the Cowboys averaged more than six yards. Backfield screens, quick screens on the perimeter and pass routes from spread or empty formations are viable alternatives to the run game. Get him in space and watch the magic show!
- Finally, I think the slot formation is another good way by which to attack. Put Miles Austin and Dez Bryant on one side with Jason Witten opposite. This formation forces a defense to show its cards early. If both corners align with both receivers, the quarterback can normally assume that the coverage is man coverage. If a safety or linebacker is aligned over the inside receiver, the quarterback will assume the coverage is zone. Man coverage creates winning matchups for Witten while zone coverage gives the advantage to Austin and Bryant on a safety or linebacker. Better yet, Romo has a pre-snap idea of the coverage. The defense has declared itself before the ball is snapped.
Oh, I just thought of something else! Dallas can also motion Jones outside of Witten from the two-back slot formation. Look at the possibilities now! If man coverage, both Witten and Jones are one-on-one with a safety or a linebacker. Now, you've just killed two birds with one stone: Created winning matchups and found a different way to get Jones the ball.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning is no slouch as he proved in week 14 (27-of-47 for 400 yards and two touchdowns). But even with two really good quarterbacks, this game may be decided by which defense - one defense - comes up with the biggest play.
One play in one game could make the difference. For the division championship. And for the playoffs.
Which gives you a shot at the ultimate prize. The Lombardi Trophy!