The Dallas Cowboys have everything in front of them, and one little nagging thing behind them: the New York Giants.
The winners of 11 straight games, the Cowboys (11-1) can clinch the NFC East and move a step closer to nailing down home-field advantage for the conference playoffs if they can beat the Giants (8-4) at MetLife Stadium on Sunday night.
While the Cowboys insist this is just another game, you know there has to be some churning inside them in facing their division rivals.
After all, the Giants are the reason Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and company aren't perfect.
New York posted a 20-19 win in Dallas in the season opener, and one has to believe Jason Garrett's crew wants payback. And if not that, the Cowboys certainly don't want to go into the playoffs wondering if they can beat the Giants.
"I'm looking forward to it a lot personally, and then I know this team," Prescott said. "They're the only blemish on our record right now, and just to be able to go up there at their place and be able to do what they did to us the first game, we're excited for the opportunity."
The Giants know the Cowboys will be motivated.
"They're on a roll right now and I'm sure they don't want to lose," Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. "We're the only team that has beaten them. I'm sure that that's on their mind, too. They feel that they could be 12-0. They're going to try and come out and prove that they should be undefeated. It's going to be a big challenge."
The challenge got bigger for the Giants on Wednesday when defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was lost for at least the rest of the regular season after having surgery to repair a sports hernia.
Not only did the team lose one of its playmakers on defense, it came in a week when the Giants are facing new questions after a poor performance in Pittsburgh ended their six-game winning streak. They still hold the top spot in the wild-card playoff chase, but their schedule is tough with Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington in the final three weeks.
"We believe we are a really good team, even though we haven't played our best ball yet," Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "If we can put the game together this week, I think it will be a statement game, but we have to do it. We have to be able to win, and that's easier said than done."
Here are some things to watch in the nationally televised game:
Free-agent rookie Romeo Okwara probably will start at left defensive end, with Kerry Wynn and Owa Odighizuwa backing him up. Don't be surprised if the Giants occasionally flip Olivier Vernon to the left side just to give the Cowboys something to think about. Linebacker Devon Kennard might see time as a stand-up speed rusher. Wynn is the best run stopper of the group, so he may need to get more time if the Giants want to limit Elliott, who leads the league in rushing.
Respect From ODB
Beckham knows a thing or two about starring right away after winning the 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. So he's highly complimentary of Prescott and Elliott.
"Absolutely, on the Giants or not on the Giants, you have to respect that," Beckham said.
Beckham, a former LSU star, remembers facing Mississippi State's Prescott when they were in the SEC, and he offered Elliott advice on life in the NFL before the season.
"I love to see Zeke out there celebrating," Beckham said. "I love to see Dak out there with a smile. You just want to minimize that this Sunday."
The offense has been inconsistent. It has yet to score 30 points. The running game is among the worst in the league and Beckham has been the only playmaker for Eli Manning. Against the Steelers, Victor Cruz was not targeted once. The week before, Sterling Shepard wasn't targeted against Cleveland.
"We need to score more points and be more productive. Just have to overall execute better," Beckham said.
Dez Bryant's next receiving touchdown will push him past Michael Irvin for second on Dallas' career list. Both have 65. Irvin is the "Hall of Famer 88," who followed the "Original 88" in Drew Pearson, who had 48 touchdowns. The franchise leader is another Hall of Famer, Bob Hayes, with 71.
"He gets that confidence going and I have all the confidence in him," Prescott said. "He feels no one can guard him and I feel the same way."
The Giants held Elliott to a season-low 51 yards on 20 carries in his first game. The key is in the middle with tackles Damon Harrison and Johnathan Hankins.
"From the very first time we played against him, we all said that that guy is going to be a player in this league, and that seems to be true up until this point," Harrison said.