The playoffs are starting one week early for the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys.
While Tony Romo appears to be on his way toward starting for Dallas, Eli Manning enters this showdown after being named to the Pro Bowl for the second time.
The stakes could not be higher as these archrivals meet Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, with the winner earning the NFC East title in the NFL’s regular-season finale.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed the Giants as three-point home favorites, with the total set at 47.
New York and Dallas are both 8-7, so the winner will earn the No. 4 seed and a home matchup with Detroit or Atlanta next weekend. The loser is eliminated, and a tie would give the crown to the Giants thanks to their 37-34 road victory over the Cowboys on Dec. 11.
“Obviously Dallas is coming in, we’re both playing for the same thing, for the same prize, so we know we’re going to get their best effort,” Manning said. “We have to match that and play better football.”
The big question is about Romo, who threw passes with his bruised right hand during practice Wednesday, although coach Jason Garrett characterized him as limited. Romo bruised the hand on the helmet of a Philadelphia defender in last Saturday’s 20-7 loss to the Eagles and had it wrapped after it swelled.
“I was able to do some things with the ball that we weren’t sure about so it was a good start to the week,” Romo said. “We are going to keep working on it and get all the treatment and stuff. We should be good to go for this weekend.”
Garrett did not commit to Romo as his starter yet, and said the biggest issue was to get the swelling down.
Romo has been magnificent this season, throwing 29 touchdowns and just nine interceptions with a career-best 102.2 passer rating – the league’s fourth-best mark. He was bypassed for the Pro Bowl, however, in favor of Manning.
Manning is enjoying a stellar year with a career-high 4,587 passing yards – the NFL’s fourth-highest total. He owns the league’s second-best fourth-quarter passer rating at 107.5, guiding the Giants to come-from-behind victories in the final period five times.
His most recent comeback was in the first meeting with Dallas. Manning threw for 400 yards and led the Giants to two touchdowns in the final 3:14 to rally them from a 34-22 deficit.
“We were able to overcome some adversity and some tough situations, but I think our guys never get too down or never get too worried,” Manning said. “We always feel we’re in the game and that’s a good attitude to have.”
Romo was outstanding in that game as well, throwing for four touchdowns and 321 yards as he feasted on a Giants defense playing without injured safety Kenny Phillips. Phillips has returned, grabbing an interception each of the last two weeks.
The memorable first matchup ended when Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul blocked Dan Bailey’s 47-yard field-goal attempt on the game’s final play.
That block was a prime example of the all-around impact of Pierre-Paul, who also sacked Romo for a safety in that contest. Pierre-Paul, named to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday, has 15 1/2 sacks to rank fourth in the league.
“It was a big win and this week we have to play all out and leave everything on the field,” Pierre-Paul said. “Either you win or you go home.”
The New York pass rush could get a major boost since two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora practiced on a limited basis Wednesday after being sidelined for the entire month with a high ankle sprain and knee problems.
The Giants will face a Cowboys offensive line that is being forced to make a change after starting left guard Montrae Holland was placed on injured reserve with a partially torn left biceps suffered Saturday. Veteran Derrick Dockery will likely start in Holland’s spot.
Dallas, meanwhile, is hoping to generate a better pass rush after Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware and his teammates failed to sack Manning in the earlier meeting. Ware is tied for second in the league with 18 sacks.
“I think they protected well at different times, they used different kinds of protections, they got the ball out quickly,” Garrett said. “I thought he did a good job when there was pressure, moving and getting the ball out of his hands.”
Hakeem Nicks missed practice Wednesday with a hamstring injury but said he’ll play, while fellow receiver Mario Manningham could return for New York after missing last Saturday’s 29-14 win over the Jets with a knee injury. Dallas also needs to worry about Victor Cruz, who did not make the Pro Bowl despite being third in the league with 1,358 yards receiving.
Manning has been forced to carry the Giants because of a rushing attack that has produced a league-worst 88.1 yards per game. Brandon Jacobs, however, rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns in the first matchup.
Felix Jones gained 106 yards on 16 carries in that contest after DeMarco Murray was lost for the year. Jones missed practice all last week with hamstring tightness and only stayed in for four carries against the Eagles with the Cowboys looking ahead to this game.
The last time these teams met on the final day of the season with the division title on the line, Dallas won 16-13 in overtime at New York on Jan. 2, 1994. The circumstances were different because both teams had already clinched playoff spots, but the Cowboys earned the NFC’s top seed and went on to win their second straight Super Bowl.