Breaking down Sunday's New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys game (8:20 p.m., NBC).
1. If Brandon Jacobs cracks the line of scrimmage, look out. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided a template last week for what could be scary success by Jacobs against Dallas in Week 2. Cadillac Williams, who scares no defensive coordinator with his two surgically-repaired knees but who runs with similarly bullheaded reckless abandon as Jacobs, had little trouble penetrating the Cowboys' front. He then ran ramshod through their secondary for 97 yards with a 7.5-yard average, including one 35-yard run that couldn't have gone over well in Dallas' defensive meetings this week.
In many ways it's easy to compare the Giants' rush assault to the Bucs': the big guy takes the bulk of the carries while the shiftier Derrick Ward -- or Derrick Ward replica Ahmad Bradshaw in the Giants' case -- gets the rest. The Bucs hung 174 yards on the Dallas defense last week. The Giants could conceivably top that against a small 3-4 defense that typically excels more in the pass rush than in run stopping. Jacobs, who's 6-foot-4, 264 pounds, is tailor-made to exploit that. And if he does, it only opens up the play-action for Eli Manning. (A larger concern: it's not like Dallas' inability to stop the Tampa Bay rushing attack had anything to do with a focus on pass rushing. They sacked the flat-footed Byron Leftwich zero times.)
2. Who to watch on the injury report: Both teams' secondaries, plus a certain Cowboys QB. Last week, against the Redskins, the Giants were without cornerback Aaron Ross (hamstring) and his backup, Kevin Dockery (hamstring also), yet they managed just fine with Terrell Thomas in relief. The second-year corner out of USC allowed four completions for 66 yards and squeezed in a pass defense. Not too shabby for a backup-backup. But consider the opponent. Can you name a Washington receiving threat who scares you these days? Dallas is a different beast.
Now take into account this week's initial injury offerings and things get a little scarier for the New York faithful. Ross is likely sidelined again, and this week he could potentially be joined by starting safeties Kenny Phillips and/or Michael Johnson, who each sat out mid-week practices with injuries (knee and shoulder, respectively). Of the two, Phillips' lingering knee problem seems worthy of more concern than Johnson's stinger. If either one sits, it changes this game remarkably.
Things aren't nearly as bleak in Dallas, but a secondary that allowed 276 yards to Leftwich ought to be at least minimally concerned about a rib injury to Gerald Sensabaugh that had the strong safety struggling to walk and breathe last Sunday. Sensabaugh practiced on Wednesday, making him the likeliest of this bunch to play on Sunday. Advantage: Cowboys.
I'm tacking Tony Romo onto this list of potentially injured players to watch for two reasons. One, the guy has a bum ankle. How bum, no one knows for sure, but it's one of his main assets. Nobody gives Romo enough credit, but he's as good as anyone (Roethlisberger's right there, too, in my mind) at keeping plays alive with nifty footwork. We're not talking Vince Young scrambling. But I think you get the idea. And two, because he's playing the Giants, whose front four should give Romo nightmares this week. They're faster and more opportunistic than any group out there. If Romo's even a step slow, it'll show.
3. Add a word to Dallas's dictionary: Distribution. Frustrating as it may be for fantasy football owners who are hoping for one or two players to carry the entire load, the Cowboys appear to be learning how to use their full array of weapons. And weapons, they happen to have a few.
With just 52 offensive plays last week (that's what happens when you score thrice on 40-plus yard plays), offensive coordinator Jason Garrett managed to spread the ball around like we rarely saw in the T.O. Era. And that's a good thing. Those three 40-plus yard catches went to three receivers. In between, Jason Witten made seven catches, four of them for first downs. Backup extraordinaire Martellus Bennett had a catch as well as an end zone look. And Felix Jones had six touches, which is about as good as you can expect behind Marion Barber (14 carries, 79 yards and a TD).
Now try to imagine squeezing in at least five completions to Terrell Owens --on eight or more throws, given his butterfingers -- and you can start to see why letting T.O go may have been the right thing to do.
In three years against the Giants, Owens had a handful of fine performances, but when you start to count the amount of balls directed his way -- 57 looks in his last six games against New York -- you have to start to ask: at what cost? The Giants' secondary will have to provide a more well-rounded effort this week than they ever did in the T.O. era, and that could be a serious challenge given their aforementioned injury problems.
Every week, I'll lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 1 matchup:
Brandon Jacobs: In the two career games he's completed against Dallas, he averages 106 yards on just over 20 carries. Easy start.
Roy Williams: Romo's only beginning to learn what a crisp route-runner this guy is. Expect to see a few more like that 66-yard TD against Tampa.
Tony Romo: Only if you have a better option, which could be as simple as someone like Joe Flacco. One qualifier: keep an eye on the injury report and if the Giants are down more than one starting defensive back, then let that fact override the ankle injury and stick with Romo.
Marion Barber & Felix Jones: Dallas' well-roundedness hurts this duo. Also, if you take away last December (when the Giants will admit they'd worn down without Usi Umenyiora), New York didn't allow anyone to top 88 rushing yards in '08.
New York showed me nothing new in the passing game against the Redskins in Week 1 and that should cause some worry, especially with their lone improvement, Hakeem Nicks, wearing an ankle boot. I fully believe the Giants can win nine or 10 games on defense alone, but not this one. Not without anything comparable to Dallas's arsenal of offensive weapons.
The Cowboys will try to air it out against a wounded Giants secondary and Manning will be stifled by Dallas's still-potent pass rushers once he's forced to throw. Dallas wins its Cowboys Stadium opener 23-10.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.(Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result Packers 21, Bears 15).