After their spectacular demise last year and subsequent quiet offseason, the Cowboys came into 2009 with far less hype than in previous years. But they're still the Cowboys, and if they beat the Giants to open their new spaceship/megamall/stadium, they will reclaim their status as the NFL's most discussed team and a Super Bowl favorite. Both teams are coming off impressive Week 1 performances: The Cowboys offense, which regressed last year from excellence in 2007, looked explosive again in a 31-24 win over Tampa Bay. The Giants were strong on both sides of the ball in beating Washington, 23-17.
Cowboys Offense vs. Giants Defense
Watch out for the big plays. Against Tampa Bay, Dallas gained 188 of their 462 yards on three long touchdown passes by Tony Romo, who passed for a career-high 352 yards (yes, it's somewhat surprising that Romo's career-high is so pedestrian). All signs point to a resurgence of the Cowboys passing game, the loss of Terrell Owens notwithstanding. Most observers know that that TO's production took a tumble last year at age 34. His attitude will not be missed, and the offense might even improve with bigger roles for Roy Williams and Miles Austin, two physically gifted receivers.
Stopping the pass will be a tall order for the Giants because of their banged up secondary: Aaron Ross is out again with hamstring problems; Kenny Phillips declared his status "up in the air" with a knee injury he predicts will linger all season; Kevin Dockery missed practice Friday after limited participation Wednesday and Thursday; and Michael Johnson won't be 100 percent after sustaining a stinger last week. It's anybody's guess whether Phillips or Dockery will play, or how effective they will be if they do. Either way, there are a number of injury scenarios between now and the end of the game that could be disastrous for the Giants pass defense.
Last week, the Giants [read: Corey Webster] shut down Santana Moss, Washington's number one receiver. But they had a much harder time with Antwaan Randle-El and Chris Cooley, Washington's slot receiver and tight end, who amassed 166 yards between them. In Patrick Crayton and Jason Whitten, Dallas has good talent in those roles, so stopping those guys might pose problems. Weakside linebacker Michael Boley, a free agent acquisition reputed as a good pass defender, is expected to return from injury and a one-game suspension on Sunday, though he will probably back up Chase Blackburn. Boley's acquisition was motivated by the presence of Whitten and Cooley in the division, but because he is probably rusty and hasn't played so much as a preseason snap with his new team, it would be unrealistic to expect immediate dividends on the investment.
With all the uncertainty downfield, the onus of stopping the pass is on the Giants pass rush, which did a good job pressuring Jason Campbell last week. Watch for speed-rushers Osi Umenyiora and Matthias Kiwanuka on the blindside edge against massive Flozell Adams, who struggles with speed rushers. But even though the Giants could use a big play from the pass rush like Osi's play last week, they must maintain their lane integrity and not let Romo get out of the pocket. If he does, our inexperienced secondary could break down and let receivers get behind them.
The Cowboys' running game was good last year - seventh in the league according to the advanced stats of FootballOutsiders.com - and might be better this year. Felix Jones adds breakaway ability to a stable headlined by Marion Barber and rounded out by Tashard Choice, who broke a long run against the Giants last year.
Side note: Last year, the Cowboys were the 7th most pass-happy team in the NFL, passing on 60 percent of their plays. Perhaps this doesn't apply to this game, but expect this distribution to change their year with their talented backs and their need to limit Tony Romo's mistakes.
Giants Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
Last week against Tampa Bay, the Pokes allowed 174 yards at 5.6 yards per carry. To prevent this from happening again, expect the Cowboys to stack the box against the Giants, a common strategy until Eli Manning and his young receivers prove themselves. This tack worked in the second meeting between these teams last year, as Dallas held the Brandon Jacobs-less Giants to 72 yards, less than half their season average of 157.4.
This leaves the game in the hands of Eli Manning, the receivers, and the pass protection, which was a disaster in the teams' late-season tilt last year. In that game, Eli took eight sacks and fumbled twice, though the substitution of Kevin Boothe for an injured Kareem McKenzie was a big reason why. The O-line will have its hands full on Sunday: Last year, Dallas rushed five men and NFL-high 36 percent of the time, finishing first in Adjusted Sack Rate, a Football Outsiders stat that adjusts raw sack totals for number of passing attempts and situation.
Blitzing is a particularly effective strategy against the Giants: Last year, the Giants had the best passing game in the league when opponents rushed only four men, but slipped to 24th when opponents rushed five and 22nd when opponents rushed six.
Prediction: If you disregard the teams' first game last year, in which the beyond-awful Brad Johnson started in place of Tony Romo, the Cowboys have soundly outplayed the Giants in their last handful of meetings. This includes the 2007 playoff game, in which Dallas outgained the Giants 336 to 230 and controlled the ball for more than 36 minutes. When you throw in the Giants' injuries, the expected crowd of 100,000, and the Cowboys 6-2 record at home last year....
No. The Giants will capitalize on a couple of Romo mistakes and remind people that they are the best team in the conference, if not the league. 30 - 24 Giants.