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Giants have overcome a lot just to get to this point

Giants head coach Joe Judge watches play against

Giants head coach Joe Judge watches play against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. Credit: AP/Michael Ainsworth

When the Giants left AT&T Stadium in October, having just been handed their fifth straight loss, it seemed as if their season was over before it even had a chance to begin. Not only were they winless, but for the past few weeks, they had been playing without Saquon Barkley.

The Cowboys won that game, 37-34 — Greg Zuerlein kicked a tying 40-yard field goal with 1:56 left and won the game with a 34-yarder as time expired — but their hopes of accomplishing anything beyond it seemed to be carted off the field with Dak Prescott and his severely fractured ankle that same day.

"That was a hard moment for all of us," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy recalled this week.

So how did two teams whose fortunes seemed so bleak, who spent the majority of the year playing without their most important offensive pieces, manage to make it to Sunday’s rematch at MetLife Stadium, where the winner has a shot at the NFC East title and a home playoff game?

It’s been a season of attrition in the division, from the very first days to this last one, and the team that best embraces the uncertainty this 17-week maze of a schedule has presented likely will be the one that comes out on top by the time Sunday is over.

That could be the Giants or the Cowboys. It could be Washington, the only team among the three that controls its own fate.

The winner of the division, no matter who it is, won’t have a winning record. But it will have overcome more adversity than just about any other team in any of the three franchises’ long histories. It will have notched the kind of victories that don’t always show in the standings.

"I think that’s what this year has been," Giants safety Logan Ryan said of such obstacles. "A lot of teams lost a lot of players, it hasn’t been a healthy season. With COVID, you don’t know who’s going to play and who’s not. It’s kind of that anxiety of 2020 football. It’s something that I’ve never experienced, none of us have ever experienced, the differences of this season."

Those issues began for the Giants in Week 2 when Barkley suffered an ACL tear. It was the first real black cloud of the season for them.

"I would have loved to have been able to coach Saquon for 16 or 16-plus games this year," Joe Judge said. "Absolutely. He’s a fun guy to coach, he works really, really hard . . . Obviously, he’s a weapon you want to have out there."

Between the time Judge helped carry Barkley off the field in Chicago and now, the Giants have lost their top four edge rushers (though Kyler Fackrell will be back on Sunday). They changed their offensive line coach when Marc Colombo was fired and replaced by Dave DeGuglielmo. They lost outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema to a college job. They played two games without quarterback Daniel Jones, one without offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and one without Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry because he went to a chiropractor who tested positive.

Now they will play Sunday with a third different offensive line coach. Assistant Ben Wilkerson will replace DeGuglielmo, who tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s a sad song the Cowboys don’t really care to hear. They have spent most of this season without Prescott and a few weeks without backup Andy Dalton, who missed time because of a concussion and COVID-19. Dalton is back and playing well, but the Cowboys placed two defensive players on reserve/COVID-19 on Friday and had to cancel their last full practice of the week because of those test results.

"The commitment never changes for your football team," McCarthy said. "We always have to find a path to victory, and that’s been our mindset. We’ve had a lot go on starting with that injury [to Prescott] and since then, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to grow and learn from those experiences."

When the winner of the NFC East is decided on Sunday night, one team will continue. They’ll have been battered and pummeled by the season and they’ll have more losses than wins, becoming only the third team to make the NFL playoffs with a sub-.500 record, but they will play on. They’ll have survived.

For the other two, their season will end. But just making it this far in these circumstances seems fairly incredible.

"I think our willingness to stick together, our belief in one another through good, bad or indifferent, no matter how it’s gone, has given us a chance and given us a possibility to play a last game and a meaningful game, so you’ve got to be grateful for that," Ryan said of the Giants. "We definitely earned the right, the ability to play in this game and it to mean something. I think that’s just coming back around with everything we’ve endured this year."

And everything yet to come.

rNotes & Quotes: Fackrell and CB Madre Harper were activated off injured reserve on Saturday. The Giants places FB Eli Penny (illness) on IR and waived QB Joe Webb to make room for them on the roster ... P/K Ryan Santoso was a standard elevation from the practice squad.

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