Commentary

Cowboys are drama kings; Giants are kings of NFC -- for now

A year ago, the Cowboys descended upon Giants Stadium as the NFC's top dogs. Now the roles are reversed, as the Giants have the swagger -- and the clear upper hand on Sunday, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: October 30, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Eli Manning/Brad JohnsonGetty Images/Icon SMIA year ago, an off-target Eli Manning, left, was the target of relentless criticism. On Sunday at Giants Stadium, Dallas' Brad Johnson will be the one under intense scrutiny -- especially if he falters.

What a difference a year makes.

Despite a 6-2 record, the Giants were considered a disappointment at this stage of the 2007 season. Eli Manning was struggling at quarterback. Fans were frustrated. Critics were everywhere. Then, on Nov. 11, the Giants lost a 31-20 home game to the Cowboys, giving the Cowboys the sweep in the series and making the Giants feel as though they were afterthoughts in the playoff race.

On Sunday, the Cowboys return to Giants Stadium, and it's the Giants -- not the Cowboys -- who have the swagger. The Giants are 6-1. They are the NFC's top seed and continue to play no-nonsense football for their no-nonsense coach, Tom Coughlin.

Even though the Giants may be the favorites in this game, the Cowboys remain the story. Internal drama keeps building each week. Whether it's Adam Jones or Terrell Owens' ego or Tony Romo's relationship with Jessica Simpson, the Cowboys are great copy.

The most recent problem is a short-term quarterback controversy. Brad Johnson has struggled in his two starts filling in for the injured Romo. Romo is due back after the bye week that follows this game, but Brooks Bollinger is starting to get some work with the first team in case Johnson falters against the Giants.

At 40, Johnson, a smart quarterback, is showing his age. Despite the addition of wide receiver Roy Williams to go with Owens, Johnson is averaging 5.3 yards an attempt. His quarterback rating is 60.3 and he's averaging three sacks a game. Even worse, Owens isn't getting the ball. The T.O. time bomb is ticking.

As the week progresses, tight end Jason Witten has to make a tough decision. Witten has fractured ribs. He can take an injection for the pain and protect the ribs with padding, but if he takes a hard shot in the middle of the field, Witten could suffer worse injury.

Brian Westbrook of the Eagles went though a similar quandary a couple of weeks ago and he stayed out. Witten, who has missed only two games in the past five years, is doing everything possible to see if he can play.

In the meantime, head coach Wade Phillips is trying to reshape the defense. In Week 8, he took over the play calling and the defense looked sharp, holding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to nine points in a 13-9 victory.

As the Giants learned last season, the outcome of a November meeting against the Cowboys doesn't totally seal the fate of either team. Last year's loss to the Cowboys put the Giants two games behind the Cowboys in the NFC East and made them focus on a wild-card run, which they parlayed into a Super Bowl title.

If the Cowboys lose and drop to 5-4, they would be 2½ games behind the Giants with a bye week to lick their wounds. With injuries riddling their offense and a defense that has underachieved, the Cowboys face a huge challenge Sunday.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Washington Redskins: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin no longer has a bye week to try to get healthier. This Monday night game against the Redskins is just another physical battle for an already battered team. In Week 8, the Steelers matched the Giants hit for hit until long-snapper Greg Warren blew out a knee. A bad snap by replacement snapper James Harrison triggered a nine-point swing that cost Pittsburgh the game. In that loss, though, the Steelers' run defense showed its strength in limiting the Giants to 83 yards on 35 carries. This week, the Steelers will have to play just as well against the league's leading rusher, Clinton Portis, who has 944 yards and is running behind Joe Bugel's well-coached offensive line. Willie Parker will be back at halfback for the Steelers, and Santonio Holmes returns to his starting receiver position after a one-game team suspension for being charged with having marijuana in his car.

2. N.Y. Jets at Buffalo Bills: The Bills have to show whether they are contenders or pretenders this week and next. They lost a hard-fought AFC East game in Miami in Week 8, but it's no sin to lose a divisional road game. A home loss to the Jets could make even the Bills wonder if they are for real. Next week, the Bills travel to Foxborough, and a three-game losing streak within the division would be tough to overcome. Injuries are starting to creep into a lineup that has been relatively healthy all year. Defensive end Aaron Schobel is banged up. There are injury issues in the secondary. No. 3 receiver Josh Reed is out with injuries to his ankle and Achilles tendon.

On the other side, the Jets are almost in a must-win situation. Brett Favre is playing with a sore shoulder that has affected a lot of his throws of late. He's also taking a few more hits than he encountered when he was a Packer. This is a true test to see which team is ready to battle the Patriots for the AFC East title.

3. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts: This was the most anticipated game of the year. But Tom Brady is out for the season. Peyton Manning isn't getting the ball downfield consistently, and the Colts are 3-4. The game is critical for the Colts, who have lost two games in Lucas Oil Stadium. Manning is missing some of the downfield throws by inches. It will help Indy's cause that Joseph Addai returns to the backfield and that safety Bob Sanders is back to help the struggling run defense.

The Patriots are 5-2, but they know every game is a battle with Matt Cassel at quarterback. LaMont Jordan should be available to help an injury-depleted backfield.

4. Green Bay Packers at Tennessee Titans: The football world is still adjusting to the fact that the Titans are the league's only unbeaten team and are running away with the AFC South title. Coach Jeff Fisher has to make sure complacency doesn't slip into his locker room. The Packers are fresh, coming off a bye, which allowed QB Aaron Rodgers to rest his banged-up right shoulder. His biggest worry is whether his offensive line -- which has been soft at times this season -- can hold back the fiercest defensive front four in football.

The Titans play a physical brand of football because they have tough, physical players on both lines. Packers coach Mike McCarthy has a big challenge on his hands in trying to stop the Titans' powerful running offense. Chris Johnson gets the big plays with his speed. LenDale White gets the tough yards and the touchdowns with his big body.

5. Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: If the Browns have any hope of getting back into the AFC North race, this game is a must. A win would put them at .500 and give them some confidence that maybe -- just maybe -- they could get to nine wins. This is also a defining game for Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, whose defense has improved with the additions of linemen Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. The young cornerbacks have played well. What the Browns can't afford to do is let Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco beat them on their home field. The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger did that years ago, and he's owned them since.

6. Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams: The Titans were the first team to become a lock for a division title. The Cardinals have a chance to become the second in the next three weeks by playing all three NFC West rivals. They enter this three-game journey with a two-game lead in the division; if they win all three, they could have a three- or four-game lead by Nov. 16 and can start printing playoff tickets. Amazingly, the Rams might be their toughest challenge. Interim coach Jim Haslett has made the Rams competitive overnight. In Week 8, they battled the Patriots in Foxborough without RB Steven Jackson and DE Leonard Little for a good portion of the game. It will be strange for Rams fans to adjust to their former hero, Kurt Warner, making a playoff run with another team. His presence will bring back some memories.

7. Miami Dolphins at Denver Broncos: For months, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has been trying to find a personality for his defense. He's tried 3- and 4-man schemes along the defensive line. He's played man and he's played Cover 2 zone. What he's found out is the defense simply isn't that good, and it got worse with the loss of CB Champ Bailey for a month with a hamstring injury. Early in the season, Shanahan realized the weaknesses on defense and he tried to outscore teams. Mistakes and some injuries have hindered that process. The bye week allowed Denver's offense to get a little healthier, and Shanahan believes he has a secret weapon developing in the backfield with Ryan Torain, a 213-pound rookie running back who has recovered from an elbow injury and should make his 2008 debut Sunday.

8. Houston Texans at Minnesota Vikings: The Texans went 3-1 in their October homestand, but their wins came against some of the worst teams in football. Andre Johnson caught 41 passes in October, and he will cause headaches for the Vikings' secondary. Clearly, Houston coach Gary Kubiak knows he won't be able to run into the middle of a Vikings defense that is filled by Kevin and Pat Williams. Both tackles are facing possible four-game suspensions for testing positive for water pills that contain a substance that violates the league's steroid policy. Neither player will be affected in this game, so Kubiak knows he has to try to win the game through the air. He also knows that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will probably be getting more than 100 yards rushing against his defense.

9. Atlanta Falcons at Oakland Raiders: The top quarterbacks in the past two drafts face each other, but there clearly seems to be more upside in Matt Ryan of the Falcons. Ryan has done a remarkable job of managing games as a rookie. He bounces back from mistakes and keeps his team in games.

Under interim coach Tom Cable, the Raiders' scoring has gone down. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell isn't totally to blame for those problems. The Raiders aren't blessed with the type of weapons that make young quarterbacks better. The difference between these two quarterbacks seems to be Ryan's superior supporting cast.

10. Jacksonville Jaguars at Cincinnati Bengals: If coach Jack Del Rio can't get the Jaguars to 5-4 in the next two weeks, a major roster shakeup might happen after the season. Starting on Sunday, the Jaguars play the league's two winless teams in the next two weeks. In Week 10, they travel to Detroit. This may sound strange, but the Jaguars are a team that could be upset by one of the winless wonders. They are having trouble stopping the run, and the running offense can't seem to put together 100-yard efforts despite the presence of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. Two wins, though, get the Jags back in the playoff hunt.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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