One year ago, the Jets reached their second straight AFC Conference Championship game under Rex Ryan after surprising their division rival New England Patriots in the divisional round. They couldn't get over the hump, however, for the second straight season.
Meanwhile, the 2010 season was one of upheaval for the Cowboys. A preseason full of expectations devolved into a first-half record of 1-7 and Wade Phillips' firing. The team rallied behind interim coach Jason Garrett and backup QB Jon Kitna to finish 5-3 in the second half, but the changes continued in the summer, with Garrett axing starters Roy Williams, Marion Barber, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo and Igor Olshansky.
Following the roster purge, optimism - at least big picture optimism - seemed to be present at Valley Ranch, but injury problems have engulfed the Cowboys this week as they prepare for their opener against the Jets. Terence Newman, out for almost all of training camp, will miss the opener. His counterpart at corner, Mike Jenkins, had returned to practice after missing most of camp himself, but he's now doubtful after suffering a new injury at practice. Starting offensive tackle Tyron Smith also appears to be out with a hyperextended knee suffered at practice. Among reserve players, Martellus Bennett is not expected to be ready to play after his knee injury a week ago.
The Cowboys do expect other players who have struggled with injuries late in camp - like starting center Phil Costa, Jay Ratliff, DeMarco Murray, Keith Brooking and Marcus Spears are expected to play against the Jets. The departure of Davis, Gurode and Colombo and the injury issues faced by Smith and Costa mean that Dallas will be breaking in several new starting players in their line against a tough Jets defense and a tough Ryan scheme. Youth will be served for Dallas at their skill positions, with Felix Jones taking over primary ball-carrying duties, and DeMarco Murray stepping into a primary backup role. Dez Bryant will join Miles Austin as starting receivers. Tony Romo will still have his security blanket, Jason Witten, and John Phillips is back to add blocking umph.
Dallas does have their own Ryan this season in Rob Ryan, but they are only at the beginning stages of building their defense. Kenyon Coleman was brought in to (as it turns out) replace Olshansky at defensive end, while Abram Elam is back to tandem with Gerald Sensabaugh at safety, bumping Alan Ball back to corner. Coleman and Elam were both with Ryan previously, so two starters will face a shorter learning curve. Orlando Scandrick was signed to a contract extension bigg enough to suggest that he will be a starting corner for Ryan starting in 2012 at the latest.
Rob Ryan's new defense will contend with an evolving Jets offense dependent on more development from Mark Sanchez. Sanchez's inconsistent play has kept the offensive unit from reaching a high enough level to get New York to their first Super since the 1968 season. he has pro bowl caliber linemen in D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, and the Jets have added Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mayson to Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller to form a veteran receiving corps. Shonn Greene is expected to carry the load in the running game, with LaDainian Tomlinson still around to complement.
The Jets are listed as four-point favorites, with Tyron Smith's and Mike Jenkins' participation doubtful but not yet ruled out. MetLife Stadium is expected to see scattered thunderstorms Sunday, with most expected to clear out by game time. Kickoff temperature should be in the upper 60's.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:20 CDT, and the game can be seen on NBC. The NFL is back, and we should have an entertaining one in New Jersey.
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