Michael Coe will be forced into a greater role, thanks to Prince Amukamara
's injury. (Tom DiPace/Sports Illustrated)
Last season's opening game was a high-flying barnburner, with the Packers holding off the Saints, 42-34, thanks to a goal-line stand in the closing seconds. So the bar is high for Wednesday night's Dallas-New York showdown, which will kick off the 2012 NFL season.
These two teams wrapped up the 2011 NFL season, too, with the Giants taking down the Cowboys to clinch an NFC East title. The rest, as they say, is history -- New York went on to win the Super Bowl; Dallas limped home after another disappointing finish. The Cowboys could make a statement with a road win in Week 1, but the defending champs have no intention of rolling over.
Here are five things worth tracking in Wednesday night's key Week 1 contest:
1. Can the Cowboys stop the Giants?
Eli Manning has had Dallas' number in recent seasons, posting a 5-1 record and dazzling 101.6 QB rating against the Cowboys since 2009. The biggest problem for the Cowboys, as they've found against other teams too, is that their defense falters when the pass rush fails to get home -- and Manning has been sacked just four times in the previous six matchups between these teams. In the two Giants-Cowboys games last season (both New York wins), Manning threw for a combined 746 yards.
Dallas has remade its secondary in the offseason, adding highly-touted rookie Morris Claiborne and big-money free agent Brandon Carr at cornerback. They'll have to step up on Wednesday, though if DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Dallas' front seven can't get to Manning, it might be a long night for the Cowboys regardless.
2. Will the wounded wide receivers be effective?
The Giants fully expect a hobbled Hakeem Nicks on the field Wednesday, and same goes for Dallas with Miles Austin and Dez Bryant -- though the Cowboys will be without tight end Jason Witten, who has yet to be cleared for game action after injuring his spleen.
At this point, the question doesn't appear to be if Nicks, Austin and Bryant will suit up so much as it is: Will any of them play well? Mario Manningham left the Giants in the offseason, and the Cowboys lost Laurent Robinson, so both teams are still searching for options behind their top two receivers. If Nicks, Austin or Bryant can't get the job done, their respective offenses will suffer.
3. Is Michael Coe in for a miserable night?
Speaking of injuries ... the Giants again will take the field without CB Prince Amukamara, who missed most of last season with a foot injury and now is dealing with an ankle problem. That issue will press the Giants into starting little-used Michael Coe in Amukamara's place.
Coe is in his fifth season, and his third with the Giants, but he has never made an NFL start and has zero career interceptions. Assuming both Austin and Bryant are on the field, Coe will face the tough task of dealing with one of them, even if the Giants go out of their way to shift help to his side of the field. Coe must hold his own or the Cowboys will keep coming back to whichever receiver he winds up covering.
4. How does David Wilson fit the game plan?
New York was thrilled with the draft pick of Wilson in Round 1 this year, and the ex-Virginia Tech star showed why in the preseason, totaling nearly 200 yards on 33 touches (28 carries, 5 receptions). With Brandon Jacobs now backing up Frank Gore in San Francisco, Wilson has to help ease Ahmad Bradshaw's burden in the Giants' backfield. He's an X-factor in Week 1 -- the Cowboys have yet to see him up close and personal, so New York might be able to take advantage of that.
5. Who will win the quarterback duel?
As mentioned, Manning has had success recently against the Cowboys -- and, in turn, Tony Romo. While Manning has two Super Bowl titles under his belt and has resoundingly answered his critics, Romo is rapidly reaching the now-or-never portion of his career.
At 32, Romo is now in his 10th season with Dallas, and it's fair to wonder how many more the Cowboys are willing to give him. If they fall short of their Super Bowl dreams again this year, the Cowboys may start looking elsewhere for answers at QB. Romo has a big chance to get 2012 off on the right foot, on the road against one of Dallas' big division rivals.
Given that these two teams went down to the wire in 2011 before deciding the division, a win Wednesday could loom large later in the season. And there's no telling how important it might be for Romo.