By virtue of the teams and markets in it, the NFC East usually has an oversized amount of coverage devoted to it during the offseason. This year though, a lot of that attention was actually warranted. The Philadelphia Eagles wheeled and dealed to wind up with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft starting for them at quarterback during opening week. The Washington Redskins brought in coveted cornerback Josh Norman in a move that is still reverberating around the league. Perhaps nobody in the division rebooted quite like the New York Giants however, who look to unveil a big overhaul in Week 1 against their rival Dallas Cowboys.
The Giants brought in several big-money acquisitions this offseason in Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison to help re-tool a below average defense and drafted rookie wide receiver Sterling Shepard to help star opposite Odell Beckham Jr. After four straight years of missing the playoffs and Eli Manning’s window slowly closing, you can sense the fact that New York will be pressing hard to make new head coach Ben McAdoo’s debut a good one in a division that is certainly up for grabs yet again.
On the other side of the field, the Cowboys will be looking to put another drama-filled year behind them and start to build upon their talented roster that never quite seems to come together at the right time. Many expected Dallas to be right in the thick of the race for another Super Bowl trophy this year but those plans took a big hit after quarterback Tony Romo was ruled out to start the year due to a preseason injury to his back. The team’s offensive line is the best in football and they drafted tailback Ezekiel Elliott to help take the load off of a shaky defense but it remains to be seen just how far the team can go in 2016 with a rookie keeping Romo’s spot warm at quarterback and a host of suspensions hampering the defense early in the season.
The end result will be plenty of mystery surrounding the opener for both teams. This will be the fourth time in five years the two meet to begin the season but with so many fresh faces in new places, it will have a much different vibe than in past seasons. Regardless, if you’re a fan of either squad, this one figures to be yet another close game between division title contenders that is worth tuning in for from a curiosity factor alone.
New York at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 1, 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Three Things to Watch
1. The Dak Attack
Dallas won just one game without Tony Romo at quarterback last season and the biggest reason for optimism around the metroplex centered around the fact that the quarterback seemed fully healthy heading into this year and would play behind the game’s best offensive line. So much for that. Romo injured his back during the preseason, which means it’s rookie Dak Prescott’s time to shine for real after being one of the breakout stars of the preseason. The Mississippi State product completed 78 percent of his passes over four games and looked remarkably poised in the pocket operating head coach Jason Garrett’s offense. Whether he can live up to what he did in the preseason when the real games kick off is anybody’s guess but it’s safe to say that his play will dictate how well the Cowboys’ season goes until Romo returns.
2. Giants’ Big-Money Acquisitions
Giants general manager Jerry Reese dished out nearly $200 million worth of contracts to free agents to reverse the team’s playoff drought in a major overhaul aimed at the defense. Oliver Vernon was the biggest name to be brought in but the addition of Damon Harrison could be just as impactful along the defensive line. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins will be put to the test right away with Dez Bryant taking the field fully healthy while new middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard should be the first player trying to limit Dallas’ ground game. With the first game of the year coming against a division rival, you can bet all the new players in a Giants uniform will be under the spotlight to perform up to their new contracts.
3. Cowboys’ Front Seven
Thanks to suspensions of Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys’ defensive line is a bit of a grab bag of rookies and journeyman free agents. Draft picks Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper likely won’t start but should be rotated in early and often against the Giants during the opener as a result. New York’s offensive line has some solid starters but remains a work in progress so it’s certainly possible that even without some big names, there’s still some pressure applied to Eli Manning and company. Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens seem to have two linebacker spots locked down but it remains to see what kind of depth is behind them. The secondary looks to be improved for Dallas this year but it won’t matter one bit if the cobbled together front seven doesn’t do its job.
An all-rookie backfield is unlikely what owner/general manager Jerry Jones envisioned to start the season for the Cowboys but that’s exactly where the team is for their opener against a division rival. Dak Prescott played extremely well in his first action during the preseason but that’s a different beast compared to the live action of an NFL game that counts in the standings. The Dallas offensive line can certainly help take a load off of their quarterback and the combination of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant will do enough to keep the defense from loading the box to stop Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris at running back. While the offense figures to be productive even with a first-time starter under center, the key to whether the Cowboys win or lose games is likely to come down to a defense that has potential but is far from a sure thing.
The same could likely be said about their opponents given how much of a focus the defense was for the Giants in free agency and during the draft. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is known to be aggressive and figures to bring blitzes even more than normal facing off against a rookie signal-caller. Eli Manning has come up with some big drives in the second half of games against Dallas before and will hope for a similar game plan to play out this year. Despite everything that is going on with New York however, we’ll go with the home team to keep up their preseason momentum behind Prescott and eke out a close win to kick off the 2016 season.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Giants 24
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)