<
>

Cowboys will lose, but don't blame Jessica

With Eli Manning hot (6 TD passes past two games), Jessica Simpson distracting (Tony Romo fling) and Brandon Jacobs on a roll (5 yards per carry), the Giants are a lock Sunday, Seth Wickersham writes. Getty Images

What's that? You want nine reasons the fifth-seeded Giants will beat the top-seeded Cowboys? Sure, in a New York -- er, New Jersey -- minute.

1. Eli Manning

Note that it's "Eli Manning" and not "The Eli Manning Factor." Now, that's not to say Manning is forever over his inconsistent ways. In fact, Cowboys fans are praying he regresses into one of his 13-of-38 afternoons. But it won't happen, not this Sunday. Not when Manning has hit 42 of his past 59 passes with six touchdowns and one interception against teams with a combined 25-7 record. Not against a defense that, since November, has struggled to stop Aaron Rodgers, Jon Kitna, Jason Campbell, Todd Collins and, in stretches, even Matt Moore.

Watching Manning the past few weeks: He's shaking secondaries around with his eyes, freezing them with pump fakes, hanging in the pocket and finding the open guy -- and the Giants' pass-catchers, after leading the NFL in drops with 42, are holding on to the ball. Manning won't be fazed by two losses to Dallas this year. His confidence, after all, is sky high because …

2. The loss to New England was a good thing

Tom Coughlin made the right call in playing his starters against the Patriots in Week 17, even if it cost him a few of them. He put it on his players to dig deep against the best regular-season team in history, and they responded, even though they lost. Now, the Giants think, "Hey, we almost -- maybe even should have -- beat the Patriots. Why should we fear anyone else?" Last Sunday, that meant the Bucs. This Sunday, the Cowboys.

Hang around the Giants for a little while, and you hardly recognize them. Last year's famously divided locker room is now tight and confident. Guys pass each other and say hi. Players rumored to be prima donnas (Plaxico Burress) are leaders. Leaders who specialized in self-promotion (Tiki Barber) are gone. Nowhere in this group will you find a player who, oh, declares the star quarterback's girlfriend unwelcome around the team and its fans. Which leads us to …

3. Jessica Simpson

No, she's not a problem. Nor was Tony Romo vacationing with her last week in Mexico. But the media's talking about their relationship can be a problem, not to mention an infuriating irritation for those involved. On Tuesday, there were three headlines in Dallas-area newspapers referring to Romo's bye-week vacation, compared to one about Terrell Owens' injured ankle. In Dallas, they're talking about Mexico. In New York, they're talking about how …

4. The Giants are hot

By any objective measure, the Cowboys are a better team than the Giants, with a better coach, better quarterback, better weapons, not to mention 12 Pro Bowlers. But the Giants have been the better team during the past month, and being hot matters more than being a No. 1 seed. Just ask the '06 Chargers, '05 Colts, and the '04 and '01 Steelers. And the Giants are on a roll in part because …

5. They can run

Among backs with 1,000 or more yards, only Adrian Peterson and Fred Taylor averaged more yards per carry than Brandon Jacobs' 5.0. He's the next Larry Johnson, minus the enigma factor. Mix in Ahmad Bradshaw (17 carries for 151 yards against the Bills in Week 16), and New York has enough to keep Dallas off balance and control the clock. And time of possession will be a headache for the Cowboys because …

6. They can't run

Not consistently, anyway. Rushing yards the past five games: 105, 87, 53, 148, 1. (1!) Which wouldn't be such a big deal, but …

7. Dallas has serious questions at receiver

We know about T.O.'s ankle. He'll gut it out, like he did in Super Bowl XXXIX. But how effective will he be? Suddenly, the guy who elevates Dallas' passing game to another level might not even merit a double team. The Cowboys are happy to have Terry Glenn back, but who knows what kind of threat he will be after missing virtually the entire season. Their timing will be off, unlike that of the Giants' offense, which is reaping the benefits of the fact that …

8. The rest of the '04 QB class has arrived

Three playoff teams -- Pittsburgh, New York and San Diego -- put the game into the hands of their respective first-round quarterback from 2004. Opposing defenses wanted the game in the hands of those quarterbacks. Well, the one with the most playoff success in the past, Ben Roethlisberger, turned the ball over four times. The ones who hadn't won a playoff game, Manning and Philip Rivers, carried their teams to wins. Now, amazingly, Manning has had more playoff success than Romo, not to mention …

9. Two good thumbs

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's Picks, click here.