The Dallas Cowboys open the 2012 NFL season against the New York Giants tonight. In addition to the challenge of trying to get the season off to a good start against the defending Super Bowl champions (if the preceding makes you gag a little, then you are a bonafide Cowboys fan), the team is also playing against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in the last game of the 2011 season.
However, this may be a very different Cowboys team than faced the Giants in that dismal performance. The secondary has been overhauled, the offensive line features new faces at four positions, and many players that missed that last game are healthy.
A great amount of attention has been paid to the matchup between Dallas' reworked offensive line and the Giant's often dominating pass rush. This is clearly a key to the game. Tyron Smith and Doug Free, who switched positions, have to handle Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. But just handling the pass rush is not all there is to the story, and a healthy DeMarco Murray should make a major difference. During the seven games when Murray was the starter, Dallas posted a 5-2 record last year. This year, he has Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau manning the guard position, and they were brought in as much for their ability to provide better run blocking as the hope they will keep Tony Romo upright. And Lawrence Vickers is expected to be an upgrade over the often ill Tony Fiammetta.
If Murray can give the Cowboys good yardage on first and second down, the Giants will have to protect against the ground game, and will not be able to pin their ears back with an all-out rush. And if Tony Romo has a little time, he will have both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant.
One question that is not answered is whether Romo's safety blanket, tight end Jason Witten, will be in the game. The team made an interesting decision in not taking recently signed backup tight end Colin Cochart to New York, but instead bringing practice squad running back Lance Dunbar. This looks like a contingency plan if Witten is ready to go.
And he has made it clear that he has every intention of playing if he is cleared medically. The team has to make a decision if it wants to hold him out until the second game against the Seattle Seahawks as a precaution, but this is about as big an opener as you can play. The decision may be made very close to kickoff.
One unknown is who will man the slot when the Cowboys go with three wideouts. Kevin Ogletree is technically the third receiver, but the X factor is UDFA Cole Beasley. His route running and sure hands forced the team to keep him, and he may play a bigger role than expected. A lot of eyes will be on him.
While so much focus has been on how Dallas will handle the Giant's defense, New York has some issues of their own when figuring out how to slow down DeMarcus Ware and company. They are expected to have to use Sean Locklear at left tackle instead of the injured Will Beatty, and that may mean a big game for Ware and the rest of the Cowboys pass rush. The team is also looking for more pressure up the middle. Jay Ratliff is out, but Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore and rookie Tyrone Crawford looked good in camp.
Don't overlook that Bruce Carter and Dan Connor are being relied on to provide better coverage of receivers working in the middle, a major weakness for the Cowboys when they had to have Bradie James and Keith Brooking try to defend.
Added to that is the new look secondary, now featuring Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Carr looked very good in pre-season, so it expected that Eli Manning will try to get the ball to whoever Claiborne is up against. Expect the rookie to get help, and the emergence of Barry Church at safety is big. He and Gerald Sensabaugh will have to make sure any rookie mistakes on Claiborne's part do not hurt the team too much.
If a stronger pass rush against a banged-up Giants offensive line gets an extra half-second of time because the secondary is providing better coverage, then Eli Manning may have to focus more on avoiding the sack than completing his passes. This game could come down to which of the two teams is more effective in pressuring the quarterback, and it is not a given that New York will come out ahead.
Dallas also has an additional weapon in second-year kicker Dan Bailey. If this is a close game, he is a very good player to have warming up on the sidelines.
Pop some corn and the top on your favorite beer. Two top-flight quarterbacks with dangerous weapons in the skill positions, and possibly shaky lines, are facing a couple of defenses looking to put the hurt on someone, all in prime-time. This game has the potential to be the exciting, nail-biting ratings monster that NBC is hoping for.