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Spagnola: The Unpredictable Predictable In 2020

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FRISCO, Texas – How crazy is this, fittingly in this crazy year of 2020, heading into the 117th Cowboys-Giants meeting?

The Cowboys are 1-3.

The Giants are 0-4.

The Cowboys have the NFL's 30th-ranked defense.

The Giants have the NFL's 31st-ranked offense.

Keep hearing this proclamation that the Giants are just what the Cowboys need since they have not scored a touchdown in 21 consecutive possessions and none over the past two games, something that has not taken place for the G-Men in consecutive games since 1998.

But then there are those in a New York state of mind suggesting the Cowboys are just what the Giants need since the Cowboys defense is giving up 36.5 points a game and already have been pummeled for 39, 38 and 49 points in the past three games, including giving up an historically preposterous 307 yards rushing to the Browns this past Sunday.

At 1-3, the Cowboys worst start since 2010, they are just a half game out of first place in the NFC East, Philadelphia leading at 1-2-1.

The winless Giants at 0-4 have lost the first four games in a season for the third time in the past eight years, but when it comes to the NFC East they are just 1.5 games out of first place merely a month into the season.

The NFC East is the only division out of eight in the NFL without a team owning at least a .500 record, and there are 16 teams – half the league – with at least a 2-2 mark at the quarter pole.

Here is another congruent oddity: With the Cowboys 1-3 and the Houston Texans 0-4, that means the NFL teams from Texas are 1-7. And with both the Giants and the Jets starting off 0-4 – 1976 the only other time this has occurred – then New York teams are only a game behind Texas at 0-8.

Go figure.

Oh, and both teams have first-year head coaches, Mike McCarthy with the Cowboys and Joe Judge with the Giants. And, of course, the Cowboys have a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan and the Giants a new offensive coordinator in former nine-year Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.

Not exactly a whole lot of desirable commonality among these two division bedfellows.

"This already is not our daddy's football season, or even your last year's friend's football season," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Friday said during his segment on 105.3 The Fan. "This is this year."

No doubt.

And let's cut the rhetoric that the Cowboys players are frothing at the mouth wanting to beat their old coach. Many actually hated to see him go, and as Dak Prescott reminded, "I've got nothing but respect for Coach Garrett."

As for Garrett, who spent 21 seasons in the Cowboys organization as player, offensive coordinator and head coach, the gentleman he is, revenge for being let go is not in his soul, predictably saying when asked Thursday his emotions coming back to face the Cowboys, "The biggest thing that we're all focused on is what we can do to help the New York Giants play as well as we can play. That's what we're focused on as players and coaches."

Then furthermore, "I obviously spent a lot of time in Dallas and am very grateful for my experience there, all the players I was fortunate to coach, the guys I was fortunate to coach with and everyone in that organization, and really the people of Dallas. They were amazing to me. It was a great time of my life."

And as for the rhetoric, yes, Jason intimately knows the Cowboys personnel, but then the Cowboys know what he likes to do offensively, although Red Ball doesn't have anything comparable to Dak Prescott at quarterback, Ezekiel Elliott at running back nor the Cowboys receiving corps to work with up there.

And don't even consider the Cowboys enjoying a huge edge playing at AT&T Stadium Sunday, just because they've had the largest crowd of the eight teams allowing fans in stadiums so far this year (25,021), because as Judge has said of the Giants Sunday playing before fans in the stands for the first time this abnormal season, "I'm looking forward to playing Dallas this week. It's a bonus that there are going to be fans there as well. That's just added incentive to it."

Plus, you can bet the Giants aren't feeling sorry for the Cowboys decimated offensive line. They've had their own problems since starting left offensive tackle Nate Solder opted-out for COVID-19 reasons, their first-round draft choice expected to start at right tackle, Andrew Thomas, is struggling on the left side and Cowboys free-agent castoff Cam Fleming has been starting at right tackle.

As for the Cowboys, three-fifths of the presumptive starting offensive line will not be starting against the Giants on Sunday. First, Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick decided to retire. Then should-have-been Pro Bowl right tackle La'el Collins just had season-ending hip surgery. Now starting center Joe Looney is expected to miss two to three games with a knee sprain.

And to top it all off, the Cowboys have gone in a day's time from being "very concerned" as COO Stephen Jones put it to me Thursday over the pinched-nerve neck problems of Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith to on Friday McCarthy stating maybe the best left tackle in the NFL today will have season-ending neck surgery next week.

What next?

"This is a correctable surgery Tyron needs to have done," McCarthy said, though suggesting not something that will be career-threatening for the 29-year-old 10th-year veteran.

That leaves only guards Connor Williams and Zack Martin the last men standing on that once line of the future. Oh, and who knows when veteran backup tackle Cam Erving will be ready to return from injured reserve, having missed his required three games on injured reserve with a sprained knee, though did work back into limited practice this week.

But hey, there is no crying in football.

With all that, then a huge game Sunday, with the Cowboys likely relying on a combination of Brandon Knight, Terence Steele, Greg Senat and possibly Jourdan Mills to man the offensive tackle spots, with All-Pro guard Martin the likely game-day swing tackle and possibly the Cowboys having to sign center Marcus Henry off the practice squad for backup center duty on game day.

Wouldn't bet on this one if I had a mind to with your money.

But this game is somewhat as large as Big Tex this OU-Texas weekend in Dallas, especially with 12 games still remaining and this being a division matchup in a division begging for someone to win.

"Playing in division games, those mean the most," Dak says. "You've got to win your division, you've got to own your division. It's important for us to start this turnaround right now with the first game with a division opponent."

Ah, division games, maybe a slight advantage to the Cowboys if history matters. Since Dak's arrival in 2016, the Cowboys have the best division record over these past four years, going 18-6, having lost only one in each of the past three seasons. And when it comes to three of those six losses, two came in Dak's rookie season to the Giants, the 2016 season-opener, 20-19, and the rematch, 10-7. Plus the other one was to the Eagles in the final game of that season when the Cowboys pulled starters in Game 16 with the division title wrapped up at 13-3 and playoff status set.

Next in the East over those four years of division games comes Philly at 16-8, with the Giants 8-16 and Washington 6-18. The Cowboys have won two of those division titles (2016 and 2018) and Philly the other two.

And let me remind all since Philadelphia won the division in 2019, no team has repeated as NFC East champs since the Eagles did so from 2001-2004. Not a one over the past 15 seasons.

With all four teams starting off so poorly, even though there will be an extra NFC wild-card team this year, the only path into the playoffs in the East likely will be winning the division title. History tells us, since the formation of the NFC East in 1970, there's never been a season where all four teams (five through 2001 with the Cardinals once a member) when all teams in the division had a losing record after four games.

Looking at the scene this way, don't think either team, not the Cowboys nor the Giants, can count on the desperation factor in their favor. Both are wildly desperate. And then look at it this way, if the Cowboys win, with the Washingtons playing the Rams Sunday and the Eagles at the 3-0 Steelers, both potential losses, the Cowboys could vault into first place at 2-3, a half game up on the Eagles.

Who'd a thunk it?

Yep, 2020, crazy year, stretching the limits of our wildest imaginations.

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The Cowboys are back at AT&T Stadium next Sunday, October 11th to take on their rivals, the New York Giants. A limited number of tickets are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!

Details on all of the health and safety procedures you can expect at AT&T Stadium this season can be viewed at www.DallasCowboys.com/safestadium.

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