It's a battle for first place in the NFC East – with, potentially, one bummer of a booby prize.
For coaches Tom Coughlin and Jason Garrett, a defeat on Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium could be a hard shove toward the unemployment line. With Coughlin's Giants (6-6) already reeling from a four-game losing streak and Garrett's Cowboys coming off a brutal overtime defeat to the Cardinals that can be easily traced to the coach's clock mismanagement, the specter of an ignominious collapse looms for the loser.
Heightening the drama is the perception that a pair of big-name coaches are hovering in the shadows as prospective replacements.
There has long been a sense that Bill Cowher, who coached the Steelers to a pair of Super Bowls before stepping aside five seasons ago, regards the Giants as his dream job, a belief enunciated on several occasions by former Pittsburgh star Jerome Bettis.
Similarly, it is no secret in league circles that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is a huge fan of ex-Titans coach Jeff Fisher, with whom he has previously served on the NFL's competition committee.
It's very likely that only one of these teams will make the playoffs, and it's entirely plausible that the coach of the one that doesn't will be on the firing line, bringing a Russian Roulette feel to Sunday's stare down.
Certainly, a case could be made that neither Coughlin, four years removed from a stirring Super Bowl title, and Garrett, who became a head coach only 13 months ago, deserves to lose his job, no matter what happens over the next three weeks. And Sunday's game, while pivotal, won't necessarily seal the loser's fate, as the regular season concludes with a rematch between the two teams at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Between those two matchups, the Giants will face the Redskins and Jets at MetLife, while the Cowboys will battle the Buccaneers on the road and the Eagles at home. For what it's worth, there are rumblings that Washington's Mike Shanahan and Philly's Andy Reid could also lose their jobs, meaning the NFC East is the official home of vulnerable head coaches in 2011.
When owners contemplate coaching changes, one question they usually ask themselves is, Can I get anyone better, and if so, who? In this case, given the respective track records of Cowher and Fisher, it's hard not to conclude what those answers would be.
The Giants missed the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, losing four of their final six games in 2009 and two of their final three in 2010. In each case, their inability to close doomed their once-realistic postseason hopes and rendered their earlier accomplishments moot. This year, once again, the pattern seems to be repeating itself.
Angered by the team's collapse two years ago, owner John Mara assured reporters that "the status quo is unacceptable." New York is a tough place to coach when you fall short of expectations, and though Coughlin – who has one year left on his contract – is very good at what he does, I think he'd have a tough time surviving yet another lost December.
As for Garrett, he works for an owner with extremely high standards who isn't afraid to make bold moves. Hired by Jones as Wade Phillips' offensive coordinator in January 2007, Garrett was viewed as a hot commodity who was being groomed for a head coaching job in the not-too-distant future. His star dimmed, however, in the years that followed, and when Jones dumped Phillips midway through last season after a horrendous 1-7 start and made Garrett the interim replacement, the owner was no longer necessarily anticipating a long-term arrangement.
After all, as Jones reminded me this summer, "Jason was not the fair-haired boy he was when he came in to be the head coach. He had his critics, 'cause he was part of the problem – the problem being 1-7."
That equation changed when Garrett guided the Cowboys to a 5-3 record in the second half of the season and officially got the gig for 2011. I can't help but wonder, however, whether Jones would have made a run at Fisher had the Titans coach been available. Tennessee and Fisher didn't part ways until late January, three weeks after Jones gave Garrett a four-year contract.
If things go poorly over the next four weeks, would Jones eat the final three years of that deal and give up on Garrett? I don't think it's that far-fetched that he would. Earlier this season, after a narrow defeat to the Patriots, Jones told me he thought Garrett hadn't coached aggressively enough. Though he resisted the temptation to make similar comments after last Sunday's defeat to the Cards, the owner surely was tempted.
Jones knows he has a talented team and believes he has a special quarterback in Tony Romo(notes). If the Cowboys, who have been mistake-prone all season, let another opportunity slip away, I don't see him sitting back and reacting passively.
All of this should make for highly compelling theater, beginning with Sunday night's nationally televised spectacle. In the meantime, here's the most entertaining element of your Wednesday reading experience – an ever-inquisitive listing of best-to-bust, with a whole lot of uncertainty in between.
1. Green Bay Packers: If Texas loses to Cal in the Holiday Bowl, and Mack Brown is forced out as the Longhorns' coach, will Aaron Rodgers(notes) risk injuring his throwing arm from giving repeated high-fives?
3. San Francisco 49ers: If I'd told you at the start of the season the Niners would clinch the NFC West title with a Week 13 shutout with Patrick Willis playing less than a quarter, would you have tried to get me to go to rehab?
4. Pittsburgh Steelers: If Bill Cowher took the Jaguars job, and he brought Steelers cap specialist Omar Khan with him, would new Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan address his new front-office employee as "cuz"?
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14. Chicago Bears: Why is Mike Martz asking Caleb Hanie to make throws off of seven-step drops – and isn't it time to follow the example of Broncos coach John Fox and simplify the offense before next Sunday's game in Denver?
15. New York Jets: Why did it take Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb benching Shonn Greene(notes) from her fantasy lineup – and my son flat-out cutting him – for the halfback to snap out of a season-long funk?
17. Cincinnati Bengals: Why do they look so much better against under.-500 teams?
[ Related: Team execs afraid of DeSean Jackson ]
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After getting booted from Sunday's game by Raheem Morris, was defensive tackle Brian Price tempted to ambush his coach in the locker room and declare, like Adam Sandler to Bob Barker in "Happy Gilmore," "The price is wrong, bitch."
32 Indianapolis Colts: Would the Colts ask Andrew Luck to play Aaron Rodgers to Peyton Manning's(notes) Brett Favre(notes) – and could they expect a similarly strained relationship between the quarterbacks?
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