Knuckles will be cracked, chin-strips buckled and the NFC East rivalry between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys continues Sunday night in the Lone Star State.
The schedule makers didn't cheat football fans with this storied matchup out of the NFL chute as the Giants and Cowboys are expected to compete for division supremacy in 2013. The two multi Super Bowl-champion franchises, though, both missed the playoffs last season with the Giants going 9-7 and the Cowboys settling for an 8-8 campaign.
New York, now two years removed from their fourth Super Bowl title, has missed the playoffs three times in the last four years, while the Cowboys have been absent in the tournament in each of the previous three campaigns. In fact, the Cowboys have missed the postseason nine times since 2000 and head coach Jason Garrett is starting to feel the heat even before the season commences.
Garrett is 21-19 as head coach of one of the more iconic sports teams in the world and his boss, team owner Jerry Jones, won't hesitate to pull the plug when things start to go awry. Remember, Jones is the same man who handed legend Tom Landry his walking papers, so no job is safe in Big D.
Garrett could have an easier job coaching now that he has relinquished play- calling duties to new offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.
"Being a head coach is a big job and being an offensive coordinator or playcaller is a big job. You have to somehow, someway separate yourself from the two," Garrett said in July. "I've divvied up a lot of the responsibilities I had over the past couple of years, and this is just the next step in doing that."
Jones actually recommended that Garrett make it easier on himself with a team that has finished 8-8 in each of the past two seasons and 6-10 in 2010. There's no question Garrett has struggled with the headphones on the sidelines and injuries have played their role, too. But there will be no excuse this year for Garrett if he fails to live up to his owner's high expectations.
And when expectations are tossed around, how could quarterback Tony Romo not be included in the discussion. Speaking of high hopes, Romo has carried a lightning rod on his back for several seasons now and the conductor that is a new contract could weigh him down. Romo inked a six-year contract extension in late March and the deal is reportedly worth $108 million with $55 million guaranteed.
Romo is coming off a 2012 season that included a career-high 4,903 passing yards to go along with 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. However, his passer rating of 90.5 was the lowest of his career. He underwent offseason back surgery to have a cyst removed and missed OTAs. Romo, though, is back for training camp.
"Tony is uniquely qualified to lead this team at the quarterback position for the next several years," Jones said in a statement. "He has an abundance of experience and familiarity with our offensive philosophy, our head coach and the personnel around him. He is moving into a period of time where he can maximize all of his natural skills while continuing to build upon the talents that he has developed since entering the NFL."
Dallas is 4-2 in its last six season openers.
The Giants have lost their last two season openers since winning three in row to kick off a campaign and finished with a 9-7 record in 2012.
New York still has high expectations and rightfully so since most of the big names, mainly on the offensive side, are back. Quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning joins forces once again with wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, and David Wilson enters his first season as a full-time starter. Manning talked about the Cowboys leading up to Sunday's game.
"You know, it's hard not to be excited about it. Obviously they're a very good team with a new defensive coordinator, new defensive scheme, but they still have a lot of good players so we have to go in there and play our best football and see what they're going to do defensively," Manning said. "I'm sure they're going to have a few wrinkles that they haven't shown in preseason but we should be able to adapt to whatever they throw at us and be prepared and go out there and play well."
While Manning is the leader of the team, Wilson has added pressure with fellow running back Andre Brown nursing a fracture in his left leg. Giants fiery head coach Tom Coughlin discussed Brown's injury and what to expect.
"I don't know what I can tell you," Coughlin said. "The guy is hurt. He's got a serious injury. What's his status going to be? I can't tell you that. How long? I don't know. I really don't. I can repeat what you hear out there, but I don't know that's the way it's going to be. I know this: he has a great attitude about it and he really believes that he'll come back faster than whatever number anybody puts on it. I'm rooting for him."
Either way, Coughlin should still be confident in calling Wilson's number and the former Virginia Tech star showed signs of breakout potential during the preseason. Wilson's 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame comes into question with durability, but he isn't concerned what others think. Wilson built his solid foundation at a young age.
"I'm a physical guy. I'm from the country, so I grew up chopping wood and building houses with my dad, all that. I'm well put together."
Carrying the football 25 to 30 times a game may not be ideal for Wilson. Just don't tell him that.
"I'm confident and I know I can do it," Wilson said. "The main thing is to just go out there and do it. No matter what I think, people are going to judge off what they see, so I have to go out there, put it out there and let the coaches see it, let my teammates see it and I'll be in that situation more often."
New York and Dallas split last season's series and the Giants have won eight of the past 11 meetings between the division foes. The Cowboys lead the series, 57-42-2, but Dallas has yet to beat the Giants at AT&T Stadium. "Big Blue" is 4-0 at Jerry Jones' Palace just outside of Dallas and handed the Cowboys their first-ever loss at the new facility back in Sept. 2009. However, the G-men are 0-5 in season-opening games against Dallas, losing in 1965, '86, '95, 2007 and '12.
Coughlin is 11-9 against the Cowboys in the regular season, 10-7 as the Giants' head coach and 1-2 with Jacksonville.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Cowboys brought in veteran defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to run the 4-3 scheme he established with the great Tampa Bay teams about a decade ago. Rob Ryan and his complicated system got the boot, and the Cowboys are hoping the transition bears better results.
Kiffin, of course, was at the controls of the Bucs' Super Bowl run and hopes to bring the swagger back to the Cowboys. He has perhaps the best defender in the league in DeMarcus Ware. Offenses must keep an eye out for the freak of nature that is Ware, who has registered at least 11 sacks in each of the past seven years. Ware (56 tackles, 11 1/2 sacks) has never missed a game in his career and should be slighted somewhat he hasn't had the opportunity to play deep into the playoffs.
With Kiffin running the new 4-3 defense and Rod Marinelli guiding the defensive line, Ware could be eyeing another 20-sack seasons, something he achieved in 2008 and came close to in 2011 (19 1/2).
"You have DeMarcus Ware, you have (Jason) Hatcher, you have two good corners. They've got talented players on their defense, their scheme will be very sound and let their athletes run," Manning said. "We've got to go back and look at some old film, some old Tampa stuff, some USC stuff, we have a lot of different film to look at. Obviously if you look at the preseason games, we kind of see what he's done in the past so you have a little idea of what they're going to do, what some of their blitzes and things might be. We know they'll be talented so we have to go out there and execute."
Manning's 135 consecutive starts is the second-longest streak among all active players, regardless of position. He needs 1,935 passing yards to surpass Phil Simms for most career passing yards in franchise history.
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are Dallas' starting corners and both Barry Church and veteran Will Allen will play free and strong safety, respectively. If the Cowboys don't play their cards right in the secondary, Cruz may force the home crowd to become ill with his salsa dance and the Giants are hoping a heel issue from the preseason doesn't re-surface.
Speaking of talented pass catchers, the Cowboys have three in Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten. Witten has been Romo's favorite target the past few years and now may be the time to switch off the always-reliable tight end, who cannot stretch the field much like Bryant and Austin. Keeping Romo unscathed has been a problem, so if the protection holds New York could be in trouble.
Romo has been treated like a rag doll the last few years, getting sacked 36 times in each of the previous two campaigns. In his last three full seasons, Romo has been sacked 106 times. Running back DeMarco Murray needs some holes, too, and is confident the Cowboys will get it together.
"I have a tremendous amount of faith," Murray said of his o-line. "They're great guys, one of the hardest working groups on our team. Coach Frank (Pollack), Coach (Bill) Callahan do a great job with those guys. They'll be ready come Sunday."
The Cowboys bolstered their offensive line Tuesday by inking Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters. Waters is a native of nearby Waxahachie and hasn't played since 2011 with New England. The longtime Kansas City Chief is not expected to play Sunday.
The Giants may be without one of their top pass rushers Sunday in defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Pierre-Paul certainly makes a difference up front and the Giants would love to have him against Dallas' seemingly shoddy o-line. Coughlin said Pierre-Paul, who is coming back from June 4 surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower lumbar region, has "a ways to go" in returning to action and the young defensive stalwart isn't so sure either.
"I don't know," said Pierre-Paul, who noted Monday that fatigue has been an issue. "It all depends if I can take on a double-team and I'm ready for that."
New York will double team Dallas' new-look defense with Cruz and Nicks, and Wilson enters the season opener with a chip on his shoulder. Expect the Giants to grind one out on primetime and keep their unbeaten streak in Big D intact.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 17, Cowboys 13