EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A good start is what is on the line this time when the New York Giants host the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL season opener.
The stakes were much greater the last time the NFC East foes faced off to close the last regular season. New York won to claim the division title en route to the Super Bowl title. Dallas was left out of the postseason.
Tonight at MetLife Stadium, the winner will take the early upper hand in the divisional race.
For Eli Manning and the Super Bowl champion Giants, this will be a chance to silence the critics and detractors who have sounded off repeatedly after they beat the New England Patriots in February to claim their second title in five seasons.
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The Giants heard it all. They were lucky to get into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. They really didn’t beat the Packers or 49ers, they were just handed the games. There is a lot more, but that is the gist.
That is now over.
The goal for Tom Coughlin’s players is to show they have constructed that bridge the 65-year-old coach urged them to build to link their late-season 6-0 run to the title to the 2012 campaign.
“The leadership we have on this football team, that’s going to be the spine of the bridge, if you will,” defensive captain Justin Tuck said. “I think we’re in a good place as far as where we want to be coming into the game.”
The Giants are confident, and they don’t care what outsiders are saying about them.
“We’ve already showed people who we are,” safety Antrel Rolle said. “We can care less about that. We leave that up to spectators. We’re just going out there and playing ball. And that is what it is all about. We can care less about what kind of recognition we are getting or who is crowning us and who is not crowning us. None of that matters coming into the 2012 season.”
Jerry Jones’ Cowboys face a much different task after an 8-8 campaign that ended with an embarrassing 31-14 loss to the Giants on New Year’s Day.
The outspoken owner, who boasted to fans that his team would kick the Giants’ posteriors in Dallas when the clubs meet a second time this season Oct. 28, knows the window for the aging Cowboys to return to the franchise’s glory years is fading fast.
“It’s a great opportunity for us is how I look at it,” Jones said of the season opener. “So very meaningful. Everybody has all the appreciation in the world for what we’re up against here, the quality of the team, so to have success up there would be very meaningful.“As in any game in the NFL, it’s certainly not how you ultimately will wind up one way or the other, but it is a big game in front of really the entire world of sports, high visible game against the world champions.”
Romo will again be under the spotlight. He has yet to lead the Cowboys to a title, and many wonder whether he will after a late-season meltdown in which Dallas lost four of its final five games, including two to the Giants.
“I think they always stick with you,” Romo said of the last game. “That’s what fuels you in the offseason and makes you you want to remember those moments so you can improve from them. As a football team, we’ve taken an approach that we need to get better. I think we’ve done that with the personnel and our approach and the way the guys have been committed. It’s been great to see. Now it’s time to take it to the field.”
There are a couple of key matchups to watch.
Manning and receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks combined for 14 receptions for 237 yards in New York’s 37-34 win in Dallas on Dec. 11, and they had 11 more catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns in the division-deciding game.
In the offseason, the Cowboys signed former Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr as a free agent and moved up eight spots in the first round of the draft to take another cornerback, Morris Claiborne of LSU.
The key to the Giants’ success in the postseason was the ability of the defensive line to pressure quarterbacks. The assault will again be led by All Pro Jason Pierre-Paul, Tuck and fellow two-time Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora.
Dallas has revamped its offensive line, signing veteran guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, and having tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free switch sides. Center Phil Costa returns in the middle.
Both running games should improve this season. The Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray is healthy after hurting his ankle in the first Giants’ game. New York, which finished last in the league in rushing, should be better with speedy first-round draft pick David Wilson backing up Ahmad Bradshaw.
The Giants have some weaknesses the Cowboys can exploit.
Michael Coe is the surprise starter for New York at cornerback after injuries ended Terrell Thomas’ season and have Prince Amukamara out the opener. Rookie Jayron Hosley, the third-round draft pick, is battling a pain issue with turf toe.
The other area of concern for the Giants is tight end. Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum both sustained major knee injuries in the Super Bowl. Ballard is no longer with the team, and Beckum will start the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
Former Cowboy Martellus Bennett, who signed with the Giants as a free agent, will be Manning’s main target at tight end.
“I’m excited about the opportunity for this game, playing at home as the defending Super Bowl champs,” veteran offensive tackle David Diehl said. “This is a huge game. This is a game the minute that schedule came out we had circled as a team, but also we know the minute that we beat them in the division to take over last season, this was a game they had circled right from the get-go.”
Diehl believes this will be a heavyweight fight in which both teams won’t be thinking about last year.
“When you play in the NFL, this is a short-memory league,” he said. “People do think about that, but what people are talking about now is: ‘Who is going to win it this year?’”