East Rutherford -- On the morning of each Cowboys game, you'll get a chance to take a sip of Joe's gridiron insights with our 'Morning Cup of Joe.' He'll offer five storylines to follow when the Cowboys take the field against the Giants in another must-win for the Cowboys to keep their faint postseason hopes alive.
1.Dak Prescott: 'Playoffs start now'
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said, "playoffs start now," Wednesday when he met with the media, and he was almost right. The playoffs actually started against Washington, which brings us to our first storyline. The Cowboys have to match the same intensity and physicality they showed against Washington to have a chance. I asked Prescott if he saw a different level in the Washington game, and he said he actually began to notice it during practice in the week leading up to that game.
It jumped out when you looked at the game tape; the defense ran to the ball and when they got there showed up with bad intentions. And the Cowboys offensive line showed the sort of domination we've become accustomed to but haven't seen enough since Zeke Elliott's suspension began.
Cowboys center Travis Frederick told me you can go overboard in terms of how much energy you output to start the game, but the Cowboys found the sweet spot against Washington. The Giants will have more juice that you'd expect from a 2-10 team, after former head coach Ben McAdoo got fired this week, not to mention Eli Manning returning to the starting line-up, so it's important for the Cowboys to keep up that playoff-like intensity to have a shot.
2.Dak must attack
Prescott's two-touchdown, zero interception outing in a blowout over Washington might cause some to think the sophomore signal caller has emerged from a 3-game funk highlighted during the Cowboys 3-game losing streak. But it's not that simple.
Prescott completed 11-of-22 passes for 102 yards. He was productive in the red zone, with those two TD's, so his QB rating was a solid 93.4. But Prescott will be the first to tell you, completing on 50-percent of his passes isn't good enough.
"Don't think. Just go out there and rip it," he said when asked how he to improve the passing game. "It's about getting the plays coaches give me, executing them, letting it go and trusting my guys down the field."
"Down the field" is certainly an issue with the Cowboys lacking any sustained deep threat. Prescott and Dez Bryant combined to make a couple of big plays, but they had to do more with deep throws to force defenses to back off. And they're running out of time on this season to prove that can make it happen.
3.Avoid the “Lee letup”
Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee will return to the lineup after missing the last three games with a hamstring issue. Lee's impact on this defense has been profound. In fact, the defense has given up more rushing yards in the five games he's missed, a total of 680 yards, than the seven games he's started, a total of 614 yards.
It’s more than just production and communication, though. He’s like a coach on the field making sure all 11 defenders are all on the same page and ready to go snap after snap, and his presence also gives this Cowboys defense confidence to play it’s best.
But against Washington, the Cowboys defense finally found some footing without Lee. They swarmed to the football with a sense of urgency and got there with a level of physicality that made a huge difference in the game. Now that he's back, instead of relying on Lee the way they always have, Lee's fellow defenders need to duplicate their effort against Washington and avoid letting up just because their unquestioned leader is back on the field.
4.Trust Morris to jump-start offense again
Cowboys running back Alfred Morris ripped off 127 yards on 27 carries against Washington, his first 100-yard game since the season finale' in 2015 against the Cowboys.
This is a contract year for the 6-year vet and he's increasing his offseason asking price with every chunk of yardage he gains while Zeke Elliott is serving out his suspension. The Cowboys got a lead and were finally able to get the run game cranked up and the offense showed some resemblance to when Elliott was in the lineup.
Here's the challenge for Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan - even if the Cowboys don't take an early lead, trust Morris to get the offense going.
5.Young guns versus veteran triggerman
Chidobe Awuzie got his first start in the Cowboys base defense against Washington and played well, with three pass breakups. He'll start again, along with fellow rookies Xavier Woods and Jourdan Lewis, with veteran corner Orlando Scandrick out with a bad back.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says he's never started three rookie corner like this. So far this season, the Cowboys plan to jettison several veteran members of their secondary and replace them with younger players hasn't worked well.
The rookie trio has a chance to change that narrative going down the stretch. Manning is back in the starting lineup and will be looking to exploit the lack of experience in the Cowboys defensive backfield. The Cowboys rookies have to play smart and guard against giving up the big play that could change the complexion of this game.