The NFL kicks off its 2012 season with a good old-fashioned rivalry game, not to mention one that could have a profound impact on the playoff picture down the road.
It all begins with the exact same matchup in which the league closed out its 2011 regular season, with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys facing off in a grudge match at MetLife Stadium. The two NFC East contenders last locked horns in Northern New Jersey on New Year's Day in what turned out to be one of the most pivotal outcomes of last year's campaign, a 31-20 victory by the Giants.
The win allowed New York to edge Dallas for the division title and propel the Giants into the playoffs, where a fourth-seeded Big Blue squad maintained its surge of momentum by upending conference front-runners Green Bay and San Francisco on the road to advance to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, then became the first 9-7 team in NFL history to capture the Lombardi Trophy by outlasting New England in a 21-17 thriller.
New York also topped the Cowboys by a 37-34 count in Dallas in mid-December, scoring a pair of touchdowns in the game's final 3 1/2 minutes to overcome a 12-point deficit
Had the Cowboys prevailed in either of those outings, they would have been the NFC East's playoff representative, and witnessing the Giants march to their second world championship in five seasons made the two losses even tougher to stomach.
"You've got to give them all the credit in the world," Dallas linebacker Sean Lee said of the Giants. "They're a very good team and they did a great job last year, but [the two losses] has been a big motivation for us.
"[New York's title run] was tough for us for us to see, especially when we had a shot. We felt we could put ourselves in a similar position. We didn't take advantage of it."
Dallas won't be the only opponent on New York's 2012 schedule with that mindset, the challenge that comes with being a defending champion.
"Everyone's going to give us their best shot, no matter what," said Giants All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. "Every team [we play] is going to have a chip on their shoulder, That's the mentality that we would have if we didn't win the Super Bowl and we were facing the team that did. That's the mentality that everybody has, but we have the mentality that we can't be defeated. We're going to go out there and give everybody our best shot."
New York will be carrying a six-game winning streak counting the playoffs into Wednesday's opener, a surge which began with late-season oustings of the crosstown Jets and Dallas that punched its postseason ticket.
Both participants come into this contest with a host of injury concerns. Dallas will likely be without decorated tight end Jason Witten, its leading receiver from a year ago who's still in the process of recovering from a lacerated spleen suffered in the preseason. Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff has already been ruled out due to a high ankle sprain.
The Giants are currently dangerously thin at both cornerback and defensive tackle. Projected starting corner Terrell Thomas (knee) was placed on injured reserve last week and intended replacement Prince Amukamara won't play because of an ankle sprain. The interior of the defensive line will be minus key regular and onetime Cowboy Chris Canty, presently on the physically unable to perform list with a knee problem, as well as reserves Shaun Rogers (leg, IR) and Marvin Austin (back).
Wednesday's showdown also appears destined to have a few fill-ins of a different sort. With the NFL still engaged in a labor dispute with the Referees Association, it's almost certain that a replacement crew will be used to officiate the game.
Cowboys lead 56-41-2
Streak: Giants have won last two meetings 2011 Meetings: Giants 37, Cowboys 34 (Dec. 11 at Dallas) Giants 31, Cowboys 14 (Jan. 1 at New York)
Cowboys HC Jason Garrett vs. Giants: 1-2 Giants HC Tom Coughlin vs. Cowboys: 12-8 overall, 11-6 with New York Garrett vs. Coughlin Head-to-Head: Coughlin leads, 2-1
Notes: Giants have taken five of the six matchups with the Cowboys over the last three seasons, with Dallas' lone victory over that stretch a 33-20 triumph at MetLife Stadium in 2010 in Garrett's debut as head coach. New York also prevailed in the only previous postseason clash between the foes, upsetting the Cowboys in Dallas by a 21-17 count in a 2007 NFC Divisional Playoff. Garrett was a backup quarterback for four seasons with the Giants from 2000-03.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Dallas: 11th overall (375.5 ypg), 18th rushing (112.9 ypg), 7th passing (262.6 ypg), 15th scoring (23.1 ppg)
N.Y. Giants: 8th overall (385.1 ypg), 32nd rushing (89.2 ypg), 5th passing (295.9 ypg), 9th scoring (24.6 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Dallas: 14th overall (343.3 ypg), 7th rushing (99.1 ypg), 23rd passing (244.1 ypg), 16th scoring (21.7 ppg)
N.Y. Giants: 27th overall (376.4 ypg), 19th rushing (121.3 ypg), 29th passing (255.1 ypg), 25th scoring (25.0 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Dallas: +4 (25 takeaways, 21 giveaways) N.Y. Giants: +7 (31 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Dallas: 49.0 percent (51 possessions, 25 TD, 19 FG) -- 20th overall N.Y. Giants: 57.1 percent (56 possessions, 32 TD, 15 FG) -- 8th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Dallas: 55.1 percent (49 possessions, 27 TD, 16 FG) -- 19th overall N.Y. Giants: 55.7 percent (61 possessions, 34 TD, 15 FG) -- tied 21st overall
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas was able to successfully attack the Giants through the air in last year's encounters, with quarterback Tony Romo (4184 passing yards, 31 TD, 10 INT in 2011) throwing for a combined six touchdowns and 610 yards over those games. He was also sacked on nine occasions in those games, including six times in the season-ending defeat, and when factoring in the probable absence of the trusted Witten (79 receptions, 5 TD) and New York's depth concerns on the defensive line, it wouldn't be surprising if Garrett leans more on a ground game spearheaded by outstanding young running back DeMarco Murray (897 rushing yards, 2 TD, 26 receptions) on Wednesday. The second-year talent barely played in the two 2011 meetings between the clubs, fracturing his ankle early in the initial matchup, but was a definite factor when on the field as a rookie. Murray averaged 114.1 rushing yards and a healthy six yards per carry over a seven-game span prior to getting hurt, and Dallas was 5-0 when he had at least 20 touches. The Cowboys also dealt with health issues at wide receiver during the preseason, with playmakers Dez Bryant (63 receptions, 9 TD) and Miles Austin (43 receptions, 7 TD) missing time with knee and hamstring injuries, respectively, but both should be fine for the opener. How an offensive line where only member from last year's group, center Phil Costa, remains in the same position this season handles the Giants' potentially devastating pass rush will be a definite determining factor as to whether the Cowboys can succeed.
When Romo does drop back to throw, he'll likely be looking often in the direction of Michael Coe (10 tackles), a career special teamer pressed into his first career start at cornerback for the Giants with both Thomas and Amukamara on the shelf. With defensive coordinator Perry Fewell almost certainly assigning help to Coe's side throughout the night, it's important that opposite starter Corey Webster (51 tackles, 6 INT, 17 PD) fares well in his one-on-one battles with either Bryant or Austin, both of which have the skills to beat the defense deep. The starting tackle combo of Linval Joseph (49 tackles, 2 sacks) and veteran Rocky Bernard (30 tackles) will have to be ready as well, with both on track for little rest due to New York's dearth of experienced backups at the position. If they're not consistently standing their ground and making it difficult for Murray to find running room, the Giants could be in for a long night. Fortunately for Fewell, he'll have his entire army of terrific pass rushers at his disposal for Wednesday's game. The standout crew is led by the freakishly athletic Pierre Paul (86 tackles), who's coming off a monster 16 1/2-sack campaign and terrorized the Cowboys in last year's bouts, taking Romo to the turf a total of three times in addition to causing a safety and a fumble. Situational deployment Osi Umenyiora (25 tackles) came up with two sacks in the division-clinching victory and racked up nine in just nine games this past season, while fellow end Justin Tuck (37 tackles, 5 sacks) has tallied double-digit sacks three times his accomplished career and is now healthier after a 2011 decline caused by neck and groin injuries.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The Giants rode the strong right arm of quarterback Eli Manning (4933 passing yards, 29 TD, 16 INT) and the considerable skills of wide receivers Victor Cruz (82 receptions, 1536 yards, 9 TD) and Hakeem Nicks (76 receptions, 1192 yards, 7 TD) in their two 2011 wins over the Cowboys, and expect the reigning champs to be taking to the air extensively in this game as well. Manning racked up a whopping 746 passing yards and threw for five touchdowns against Dallas last season, while the two wideouts alternated in torching the Cowboys' troublesome secondary. Nicks recorded a career-high 163 yards on eight catches in the mid-December clash in Dallas, with Cruz compiling a personal-best 176 yards on six grabs in the finale to cap off a stellar 1,536-yard season for the salsa-dancing 2011 breakout star. Nicks did sit out nearly all of the summer recovering from a fractured foot sustained back in May, but returned for the last preseason game and is expected to be a go for the opener. New York also did a strong job of protecting Manning by yielding only two sacks in those games, though it'll have journeyman Sean Locklear standing in for regular left tackle Will Beatty (back) on Wednesday. With Dallas sporting arguably the league's best sack artist in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, that's a potential worry. One way the Giants can combat the presence of the perennial All-Pro is by getting a running game that was too often stagnant last season untracked. New York ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing yards (89.2 ypg) during their NFC East title run, but there's hope for improvement after the club drafted Virginia Tech speedster David Wilson in the first round of April's draft to pair with reliable returnee Ahmad Bradshaw (659 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 11 total TD).
Allowing big passing plays was a common theme for flamboyant coordinator Rob Ryan's defense last year, but Dallas took some major steps to address that sore spot in the offseason. The Cowboys enter 2012 with two new starting cornerbacks after acquiring sound veteran Brandon Carr (45 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD with Chiefs) in free agency and trading up to the sixth overall spot in the draft to land coveted LSU product Morris Claiborne, both of whom should provide an upgrade to the position. Nickel back Orlando Scandrick (49 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) may be the player on the spot on Wednesday, however, as Cruz did much of last year's damage out of the slot and that will be a matchup the Giants will be looking to exploit. Ware (58 tackles), who finished second in the league with 19 1/2 sacks a season ago, will be counted on heavily as well, as he was mostly contained in Dallas' 2011 meetings with New York and the absence of proven penetrator Ratliff in the middle could weaken the pass rush as a whole. Replacement Josh Brent shouldn't much of a drop-off against the run, an area where Ryan's charges generally performed solidly last season. With the active Lee (105 tackles, 4 INT) and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (66 tackles, 6 sacks) leading the way, the Cowboys surrendered just 99.1 yards per game on the ground (7th overall).
This is a very dangerous game for the Giants, whose injuries on defense will make it quite challenging to slow down a Dallas offense that's capable of moving the ball effectively either with Romo's arm or Murray's legs. And with the Cowboys' secondary seemingly vastly improved with the offseason additions, Manning may not find the pickings as easy as he did in last year's two matchups. Still, New York didn't get to its coveted status as defending world champions by crumbling under adversity. If this contest is tight, and the comparative talent levels of both teams suggests it will be, the Giants have a distinct advantage based on track record. New York went 7-1 in games decided by four or less points or in overtime last season, while Dallas was 4-5 under such conditions. Add in Manning's knack for coming through in the clutch and a pass rush that imposed its will upon Romo in 2011, and the Giants rate a slight edge in a game that could be everything the NFL is hoping for in a curtain-raiser.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 27, Cowboys 24