TOM CANAVAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The NFL rushing title will be on the line with Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley on the field. There is a chance this could be Eli Manning’s final start for the team he led to two Super Bowl titles in the last 15 years.
Not bad for a somewhat meaningless regular-season finale between the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys (9-6) and the struggling New York Giants (5-10) at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
The big-name interest points don’t appeal to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Giants coach Pat Shurmur. Both want wins and momentum.
Garrett wants the momentum for the Cowboys’ wild-card playoff home game against either Seattle, Minnesota or the Eagles next weekend. He plans on playing just about everyone who is healthy this weekend.
Finishing his first season as the coach of a team that has missed the playoffs the past two years and six of seven, Shurmur wants to build for next year. The Giants have already won two more games than in 2017, and they are 4-3 since their bye week.
“We think it’s important to practice well and go play well in a game like this,” said Garrett, whose team has gone 6-1 down the stretch to win the division for the second time in three years. “We’ve been in the situation a couple times in recent years and you have to handle them a little differently based on the availability that you have of your players, but typically if a player’s not healthy enough to play he’s not going to play. But the other guys are going to play.”
Garrett said his coaching staff will be finished breaking down the three potential playoff opponents this week.
Shurmur isn’t taking any solace that the Giants have lost some close games.
“The fact that we fight until the end is what I think is important,” he said. “Now, when there’s a victory to be had, we’ve got to go take it, and I think that’s part of learning and part of what we need to do better.”
Here are five things to watch:
ELI’S SWAN SONG
Manning has been the Giants’ starting quarterback since the middle of his rookie season in 2004. The soon-to-be 38 year old led New York to Super Bowl titles in the 2007 and ’11 seasons. He has one more year on a contract that will pay him more than $22 million next season. There is no heir apparent on the roster, but Manning’s drawback is his lack of mobility. It will be a focal point to see what the Giants do after the season and also how the crowd reacts to Manning on Sunday.
Elliott enters the final week with a 183-yard lead over Todd Gurley and a 236-yard advantage over Barkley for the rushing title. Barkley needs 114 yards from scrimmage to join Eric Dickerson (2,212 yards in 1983) and Edgerrin James (2,139 in 1999) as the only rookies with at least 2,000 scrimmage yards in NFL history. He also needs two catches to surpass Reggie Bush (88 receptions in 2006) for most by rookie running back in league annals.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones all but said on his radio show Tuesday that right guard Zack Martin, who has battled a knee injury all season, will sit with nothing on the line for Dallas. Martin missed a game for the first time in his career two weeks ago before returning in the division-clinching win over Tampa Bay. The five-time Pro Bowler hyperextended his left knee in a preseason game. He left both of the games against Philadelphia after aggravating the injury, returning the first time but not the second.
OTHER SIT-OR-PLAY QUESTIONS
Dallas receiver Tavon Austin has been out since Week 6 with a groin injury but is getting close to a return. The question is whether to give him something of a test run before the wild-card game.
Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford is likely to sit after injuring his neck last weekend. Cornerback Anthony Brown’s back flared up late last week, keeping him out of the win over the Bucs. He’ll probably rest as well. Brown’s injury led the Cowboys to keep linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) out for the sixth time in seven games against Tampa Bay, so they might decide to save him for the playoffs as well.
ABOUT THAT PASSING GAME
The Cowboys need as much time together as possible with a passing attack that’s been a work in progress all season. They improved dramatically by adding Amari Cooper in a midseason trade with Oakland. However, he has been held to 32 and 20 yards receiving the past two games after going for a career-high 217 yards with three touchdowns against the Eagles.