December usually signals the arrival of the holidays and a huge meeting between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants.
But so wayward have the two teams’ once promising season gone, the pair a combined 8-16 entering their meeting on Sunday (1:00 PM, FOX), that it was flexed out of its original 4:25 PM time slot to accommodate a surprisingly meaningful game between Seattle and Jacksonville.
In recent times, the Giants and Cowboys have played some great, meaningful December games, some of which have determined playoff fates. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who previously served as a backup quarterback for the Cowboys from 1993-99 and for the Giants in 2000, has been on the Cowboys sidelines for many of these match-ups, having been on the Cowboys’ coaching staff since 2007.
This weekend, the rivalry experiences a sense of déjà vu, as Garrett, whose 6-6 Cowboys remain on the fringe of the NFC playoff chase, knows exactly what the new head coach on the sideline across from him is going through.
Steve Spagnuolo has been tabbed to replace Ben McAdoo as the head coach of the Giants. Currently bearing the interim label, Spagnuolo could be in the running for the full-time position after the Giants (2-10) wrap up their season on December 31. It’s pretty much the same situation Garrett found himself in back in 2010.
In some ways, the 2017 Giants perfectly mirror the 2010 Cowboys. Many expected Dallas to become the first team to “host” a Super Bowl, as Super Bowl XLV was slated to be held at Cowboys Stadium (now known as AT&T Stadium).
However, preseason expectations, much like those thrust upon the Giants this past summer, came crashing down, as the Cowboys started the year 1-4. Much like these Giants, the Cowboys likewise had troubles involving a beloved quarterback, albeit due to injury and not a benching, as Romo suffered a broken left clavicle when Michael Boley drove him to ground on an attempted sack during the teams’ first meeting of the season in October in Arlington.
Romo missed the rest of the season, replaced by veteran Jon Kitna (who was later likewise injured in December, forcing Stephen McGee to finish the season).
Furthering the comparisons, the Cowboys suffered two humiliating defeats right after Romo’s injury. A 35-17 loss at home to the Jaguars was bad enough, but then came an embarrassing 45-7 defeat on the road in Green Bay.
That turned out to be the end for head coach Wade Phillips, who was ousted in his fourth season with the Cowboys at 1-7. In his place was Garrett, who would make his debut at MetLife Stadium (then known as New Meadowlands Stadium) against a surging 6-2 Giants team.
To the shock of many, the Cowboys jumped out to an early lead, mainly thanks to a Kitna scoring throw to a rookie Dez Bryant, while cornerback Bryan McCann returned an Eli Manning interception back 101 yards for a touchdown when the Giants were about to take the lead in the red zone.
As a power failure caused the stadium’s lights to flicker and cease, temporarily plunging the stadium into complete darkness on a November night, Kitna hooked up with running back Felix Jones and receiver Miles Austin for two more scores, creating a 33-20 final.
While that started a bit of a tailspin for the Giants, who missed the playoffs, the win started a 5-3 stretch that wound up earning Garrett full-time coaching duties. While he acknowledged his situation was different from Spagnuolo’s, he did reflect on his experience as an interim coach in a Wednesday afternoon conference call.
“It was a collective challenge. We had to somehow, someway, process what had happened and then get our sights set on a ball game that we were going to play in six days,” Garrett recalled.
“I thought our coaching staff did a really good job and our team did a really good job somehow processing it and just really getting focused and locked in on what that preparation day was and how important it was to us and we were able to do that the rest of the week. That was really the big challenge and the thing that we focused on.”
Spagnuolo and Garrett have a bit of a history, as both were respective defensive and offensive coordinators in the teams’ 2008 meet-up in the NFC Divisional Playoffs at Texas Stadium. Though Garrett’s high-octane offense, starring Romo, receiver Terrell Owens, and tight end Jason Witten, got the best of Spagnuolo’s defense, featuring defensive linemen Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiota, twice in the regular season, Spagnuolo had the last laugh, earning a 21-17 upset win that concluded with a Romo interception to cornerback R.W. McQuarters.
The Giants would ride the wave of momentum to victory in Super Bowl XLII. The pair have met once prior as head coaches, with Garrett’s Cowboys winning 34-7 when Spagnuolo coached the Rams in 2011.
Spagnuolo made it clear that despite the Giants’ 2-10 mark, he won’t be back down against the Cowboys. Back in the coordinator spot, his unit shut down another powerful Cowboys offense twice last season, handing Dallas two of their three regular season losses.
“The number one focus right now is to figure out a way to beat the Dallas Cowboys. I can tell you that,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s our hope to unite, restore and find a way to win football games. When I mean restore, you know, restore Giant pride. It’s hard to be real prideful when you don’t win a lot of football games. But, I think the guys feel that. They understand it and we’ll function that way going forward.”
Dallas is looking to not only keep their playoff hopes alive, but to pull off their first season sweep of the Giants since 2014. They took the first matchup, all the way back in Week 1, by a 19-3 final in Arlington.