The Hidden key?

IRVING, TX. - Much has been made this week about the subplots surrounding the Sunday showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants: Eli Manning's recent struggles, Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey calling out the coaching seemingly after every New York loss, and now Michael Strahan's disparaging comments about teammates in a radio interview.

One player who has drawn absolutely no attention this week – and this week – but could have an enormous impact on the game is Dallas punter Mat McBriar.

Dallas head coach Bill Parcells is famous for given the impression that he barely acknowledges – or, it seems, even tolerates – kickers and punters. But like every coach, he knows that a good kicker and punter can change the outcome of a game. He sees them as necessary evils, and as Mike Vanderjagt can attest, doesn't have much patience for those who fail to do their jobs.

The Dallas-New York game features two head coaches in Parcells and New York's Tom Coughlin who swear by the battle for field position, and each is committed to winning the battle of field position – a war that can be won or lost via effective punting.

The Meadowlands is known for its blustery conditions, especially later in the season, but Sunday's matchup is expected to be played in relatively mild conditions for this time of year in East Rutherford, N.J.

"I've been lucky when I've played there before," said McBriar, who is averaging a gaudy 48.8 yards on 42 punts this season. "I think the worst I've had is winds of about 10 miles an hour. They're saying the wind shouldn't be that bad this weekend, and it's supposed to be in the 40s – that's almost tropical for up there."

But McBriar, in part through conversations with other punters and with Parcells, has heard all of the horror stories of what it can be like when the weather changes at Giants Stadium.

"In that stadium, the wind on the field is usually blows the opposite way from the direction it's blowing through the flags at the top of the stadium," he said. "It blows in one direction and swirls around and blows back out."

The unusual wind patters make pregame warm-ups even more important at that venue than at other stadiums around the National Football League.

"There's not a lot you can do, when it's really blowing," he said. "All you can do is try to take as many (punts) as you can before the game, from as many different spots on the field as possible, and try to determine how the ball is going to blow."

Not only will adverse conditions affect the direction of the ball, they also will affect the Cowboys' ability to cover the punts.

"(Special teams coach) Bruce (DeHaven) is pretty big on directional punting – he usually wants to have it deep and outside the numbers (by the hash marks on either side of the field," McBriar said. "Of course, it doesn't always work out that way.

"If I can put it near the sideline and give it some hangtime, it will give the guys help covering. Again, that doesn't work every time. If it did, this would be easy."

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