When the Giants and Cowboys take the field Sunday night for their regular-season finale, exactly three weeks will have passed since the first meeting between the two division rivals, a game played in Dallas in which the Giants pulled off an exciting 37-34 win.
While philosophically not much is expected to change for either team as far as their approaches this weekend, the Giants plan to take a little bit from that first meeting and mash it together with some other strategies that they hope will enable them to walk away with the NFC East title and a playoff berth.
"We have our game to look at, so we have to look at that and see how they attacked us and some different things that they did so we'll game-plan that and we just have to see how we can be consistent," quarterback Eli Manning said.
Safety Antrel Rolle added, "We're looking at it and are going to prepare for it to the best of our abilities, and hopefully we have the same intensity and focus that we had in last week's practice so we can go out there and put the stamp on it."
While the Giants are certainly hoping for the same result as the first meeting, there are things that they are planning to do a little differently in order to ensure that the game doesn't go down to the wire.
One of the biggest things that the Giants are hoping will be different this week is the number of big plays that the defense allowed the Cowboys to make. In their first meeting, quarterback Tony Romo had five passes of at least 20 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown play to receiver Dez Bryant.
This week, members of the Giants' defense are confident that those big plays made by the Cowboys in the first game will not happen again.
"I think we've proved last week what kind of defense we can be if we put our minds together and we practice hard throughout the week," Rolle said.
Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said, "If we play a complete game from beginning to end, we'll pitch a shutout."
Another area that the Giants will be looking to clean up is their third-down defense. In the first meeting, New York allowed the Cowboys to convert on 50 percent of their third-down attempts.
Conversely, there are things that the Giants are hoping to repeat, including their ability to run the ball as effectively as they did in the first meeting, when they recorded 110 yards on 31 carries.
With the game being played outdoors in the cold, an effective, physical running game would go a long way toward allowing the Giants to maintain a balanced attack.
"I think the guys are ready," said Manning, who threw for 400 yards in the first meeting. "We know what's at stake, and it's a combination of being prepared, being focused and also being relaxed and going out there and trying to make sure you totally understand the game plan and what your assignments are and play your best football."
Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, "It will come down to who is the most physical and who makes the fewest errors."
SERIES HISTORY: 99th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead series, 56-40-2. The Giants defeated the Cowboys 37-34 in Cowboys Stadium on Dec. 11. The Giants lead the postseason series 1-0, having defeated the Cowboys in Dallas in the 2007 NFC divisional round.
--Quarterback Eli Manning and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul will represent the Giants in the Pro Bowl.
This is Manning's second Pro Bowl selection. He was first chosen in 2008, and he becomes the first Giants quarterback to be selected to two Pro Bowls since Phil Simms, who played in 1985 and 1993.
"It's a real honor," said Manning, whose passing offense is currently ranked fourth in the NFL, its highest ranking since 1973, with a franchise-record average of 293.5 yards per game. "Obviously, when you make it to the Pro Bowl, it's because your team, the offensive line, my receivers are doing a great job protecting me, getting open, making plays."
Pierre-Paul, in his second season, becomes the third defensive end on the roster to earn Pro Bowl status, joining teammates Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. A former first-round draft pick, Pierre-Paul has 15.5 sacks, fourth in the league and is the most by a Giant since Michael Strahan had 18.5 in 2003.
"It means a lot," Pierre-Paul said of his Pro Bowl berth. "I don't really understand the whole Pro Bowl thing, but it means a lot. It means I'm doing good."
Giants right guard Chris Snee and receiver Victor Cruz were named as second alternates at their positions.
--It's been a stunning season for receiver Victor Cruz, the second-year undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts who has set the Giants' single-season record for receiving yards with 1,358 and has the longest play from scrimmage in franchise history thanks to his 99-yard touchdown reception last week against the Jets.
As Cruz continues to put the finishing touches on his breakout season, he reflected on the year he's had, at times pinching himself.
"Coming into this season, I didn't think I'd get 1,300-plus yards and eight touchdowns, so it's definitely exceeded my expectations," he said. "I'm just happy that my teammates have been backing me up and that the coaching staff believes in me."
Cruz said that, for the most part, he hasn't received too much in the way of special treatment from opposing defenses. One team that he did note gave him a little more attention than usual was this week's opponent, the Cowboys, whom he said double-teamed him early on.
"(They'd) send a guy out to chip me and knock me off my route a little bit," said Cruz, who had six catches for 74 yards in the first meeting. "So I think defenses, especially in this next game, are going to try to do some more things to me."
And if they do? Cruz smiled.
"That will just open things up for other guys on our offense who can make the big plays."
--Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in three weeks for his performance in the Giants' 29-14 win over the Jets. Pierre-Paul had five tackles (four solo), including two sacks for losses of 14 yards, and three quarterback hits.
Pierre-Paul is the first NFC defensive player to win the award twice in three weeks since New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins was honored in Weeks 12 and 14 of the 2010 season. He is the first Giant to win the award twice in one season since Osi Umenyiora, who won the award in Weeks 4 and 7 of the 2007 season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- Lead changes in the last game played between Dallas and the Giants. That marked the second time in the post-1970 merger that the Giants and Cowboys exchanged a lead that many times. The first time occurred on Sept., 20, 2009, a 33-31 Giants victory over the Cowboys in the first regular-season game played at Cowboys Stadium.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everyone says the Giants fight hardest when their backs are against the wall. They can't get any more backed up than they are now." -- S Antrel Rolle, on how he thinks the team will respond.
"If you have a guy who can play with a cracked rib, I'm quite sure he's going to play with a dinged-up hand." -- LB Michael Boley, on whether the Giants expect to see Dallas QB Tony Romo, who injured throwing hand last week, take the field this weekend.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The anticipated return of defensive end Osi Umenyiora could mean that Jason Pierre-Paul, who has been a force at defensive end, will be shifted inside to defensive tackle on pass-rushing situations, as was the case earlier in the season before Umenyiora suffered an ankle injury.
If defensive coordinator Perry Fewell deploys that personnel strategy, it will be interesting to watch because Pierre-Paul has not been as effective when rushing from inside, where he tends to have his speed and reach neutralized by opponents.
--WR Hakeem Nicks, who re-injured his hamstring in the first quarter against the Jets, was confident that he would be ready to go for Sunday's game against Dallas. Nicks, who originally strained his hamstring last month, said he's been doing a new stretching routine that has helped keep him limber, but that he hasn't been able to do the routine the last two weeks because of the early kickoffs.
--WR Jerrel Jernigan, who's played in just eight games this season but has yet to record his first NFL reception, could be in line for a few more snaps on offense this week if the Giants are without TE Jake Ballard. The Giants, who used a lot of three-wide sets last week with Ballard missing, didn't get the production they were hoping for from WR Ramses Barden, so New York might look to mix things up by getting Jernigan more involved.
--DE Osi Umenyiora, who has missed the past four games with an ankle injury, went through agility drills and took a limited number of snaps. However, the team will wait to see how he comes through the week before determining his status for Sunday.
--DE Jason Pierre-Paul said that if fellow DE Osi Umenyiora does return to the lineup this weekend, it would allow him to take more of a rest. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has said in the past that Pierre-Paul plays faster and more effectively when he has about 10 to 12 snaps shaved off his workload.
--LB Chase Blackburn has quietly taken over as the team's starting middle linebacker. Blackburn, who was signed Nov. 30 and was on the field that weekend in the Giants' game against Green Bay, has started three games in the middle for New York. He has 17 tackles (12 solo) since rejoining his teammates and taking over for injured rookie Mark Herzlich (ankle).
--TE Jake Ballard (knee) did not practice Wednesday. However, he was able to do some agility work and jogging on the side and appeared to move well. Ballard's status for Sunday is uncertain.
--DE Osi Umenyiora (knee/ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday. Barring any setbacks, Umenyiora appears to be on track to return for Sunday's game.
--RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) did not practice Wednesday as part of his managed weekly practice schedule. Bradshaw is expected to work later in the week on a limited basis.
--LB Mark Herzlich (ankle) did not practice Wednesday and is not expected to play Sunday.
--WR Mario Manningham (knee) was limited Wednesday. Manningham's status for Sunday will depend on whether he experiences any setbacks in his ailing knee.
--WR Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday. Coach Tom Coughlin said he was hoping Nicks, who strained his hamstring last week against the Jets, could return later in the week.
GAME PLAN: Last week, the Giants' defense rebounded from a poor showing against Washington to post its best game of the season against the Jets. What was the difference? A more aggressive scheme in which the Giants got after Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Giants drew the safeties in closer, and they won the battle in the pit.
Against Dallas, look for more of the same. The Cowboys' offensive line will be without starting left guard Montrae Holland, who was placed on injured reserve. Derrick Dockery, a nine-year veteran, will get the start in his place.
Given quarterback Tony Romo's hand injury and the fact that they'll be playing outdoors this time, the Cowboys could try to put more of a focus on their running game this week. If they do, it will be imperative for the Giants' defensive tackles, former Cowboy Chris Canty and Linval Joseph, to step up and make sure they take away the interior running lanes.
Offensively, the Giants' running game figures to be key given the wintery weather that's expected on Sunday night. In the teams' first meeting, Brandon Jacobs recorded his first 100-yard rushing performance this season, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
Last time, Eli Manning lit up the Dallas pass defense to the tune of 400 yards, as the offensive line kept the Cowboys' pass rushing tandem of linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer out of Manning's face. However, Manning could be without his full arsenal of receivers, as tight end Jake Ballard and receivers Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks are all nursing injuries.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Giants offensive line vs. Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware -- The last time these two teams met, the Giants' tackles shut Ware out in the sacks column thanks to linemates providing chip-blocking help to slow down Ware's pass rush. Look for the Giants to continue to isolate Ware by providing help wherever he lines up.
Giants CB Aaron Ross vs. Cowboys WR Mikes Austin -- The last time these two met, Austin finished with just four receptions for 63 yards, but he also scored a touchdown against Ross. Ross, who started the season with a bang, has been inconsistent down the stretch against more elite receivers, so it will be interesting to see if the Giants switch to more man-to-man coverage in this game unlike the zone coverage they mostly used in the first meeting.
Giants LBs Michael Boley and Jacquian Williams vs. Cowboys TE Jason Witten -- When the teams last met, the Giants held Witten to just three receptions for 12 yards, and Witten was targeted only five times. The Giants will need to make sure they close up the huge gap that existed between the linebackers and safeties, thereby giving Witten less room to find a soft spot in the coverage.