Two Super Bowl contenders clash in this NFC East opener
The NFL season hasn’t officially started but for the Dallas Cowboys, it’s like they’re already 1-0. Friday’s decision to grant prized running back Ezekiel Elliott a temporary court injunction virtually ensures he’ll play a full season rather than serve a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Sure, Elliott may eventually miss time, similar to what happened to Tom Brady and Deflategate. Postponing your court date doesn’t mean the charges disappear.
But that looks like a problem for the 2018 Cowboys, not the '17 edition that feels strongly they have a shot at the Super Bowl. Casinos in Vegas agree, as they dropped the odds from 15-1 to 12-1 shortly after the decision. It’s like having a devastating knee injury to your star player heal overnight. Fantasy football owners across the land also rejoiced, creating hilarious Twitter memes that overshadowed the serious of this domestic violence case where the truth remains a mystery.
Of course, even Elliott’s presence doesn’t automatically ensure a victory against the New York Giants Sunday night, a team with Super Bowl aspirations of their own. (It’s worth noting Elliott would have played Sunday night either way.) A crowded NFC East field, perhaps the best division in the NFL, will likely come down to these two teams, the Giants’ defense clashing with the offensive firepower of Elliott and second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys have to be careful not to get too confident.
But they can enter Sunday night with a black cloud lifted. That alone tips the scales their way entering what may be the best matchup of Week 1.
For history buffs, this is the 111th meeting all time between these two historic franchishes. The Cowboys hold a comfortable advantage overall (62-46-2), but the Giants have won three straight.
New York at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 10 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Cowboys -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Don’t sleep on the Giants' defense
Elliott’s return is imperative for the Cowboys to stop their slide against the Giants. The Giants' D, heralded as one of the best in football kept the ‘Boys to just a total of 26 points in their two meetings. They’re also the only team last season to keep the Cowboys from scoring fewer than 10 points in a single game.
Overall, the Giants allowed just 17.8 points per game, second in the NFL behind the Patriots. Their 88.6 rushing yards per game allowed tied for third (Dallas led at 83.5) and they ranked seventh at 5.12 yards per play allowed.
Those are important numbers compared to a Cowboys offense that likes to be explosive. The Giants' secondary consistently came up with big plays – their 17 interceptions were fourth in the league last year. Landon Collins, Eli Apple, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins are four reasons why New York has one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL.
That will make it tough for Dak Prescott to stretch the field with Dez Bryant. Bryant had a total of two catches for 18 yards in the team’s two matchups last year. If that effort happens again? The Giants should expect to win.
2. How much does Ezekiel Elliott mean to this game?
We’re well aware what Elliott means to the team. His 1,631 rushing yards led the NFL last season by more than than 300 yards over second-place finisher Jordan Howard. His 15 rushing touchdowns were third, behind only LeGarrette Blount and David Johnson, and he averaged 5.1 yards per carry. And he did all of this as a rookie.
But most importantly, Elliott’s presence took the heat off of fellow 2016 draft classmate Prescott. It gave the quarterback more options and more time to throw with defenses focused on slowing down the running game.
Dak Prescott's QB rating last season with Ezekiel Elliott on the field: 109.9.— Brandon George (@DMN_George) September 8, 2017
Without Zeke on the field: 86.9.
Now, Elliott wasn’t MVP-like in his two games against the Giants last season. But their first meeting, in which he gained just 51 yards also was his first career NFL game. It wound up being his lowest output of the season; he never gained fewer than 80 yards in any game after that.
Elliott allows Prescott to do his thing and will take pressure off a Giants defensive line that is capable of breaking through. It should add at least another touchdown to the Cowboys’ total as the young running back is looking to take out his frustration over this disciplinary process on the field.
For the Giants, Jason Pierre-Paul will be key to stopping Elliott. He gained 107 yards in their second meeting last season but keep in mind that was without the star defensive lineman on the field.
3. Will Odell Beckham Jr. play?
So much has been written about Elliott it’s easy to forget about the other offensive superstar in this game. Beckham, hampered by a sprained left ankle suffered in the Aug. 21 preseason game against the Browns, remains a 50/50 shot for Sunday night, according to published reports.
It seems implausible the Giants will keep him out for such a big matchup. Even rival Bryant doesn’t buy it despite the fact Beckham hasn’t practice in weeks.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to play,” Bryant told the New York Post Friday. “He’s the heart and soul of that squad.”
Offseason pickup Brandon Marshall, a former No. 1 receiver in his own right, will likely see an increased role Sunday night. But don’t be fooled; Marshall is aging, leaving Beckham the one true deep threat on this Giants team. His 61-yard touchdown catch proved the difference the last time these teams played in the regular season.
However, long plays may still be curtailed even if Beckham does suit up; you’d have to think his speed wouldn’t be 100 percent, limiting his big-play ability. But a conservative game plan with Beckham on the field is ten times better for the Giants than an aggressive one without.
While the Cowboys are riding high, the Giants tend to thrive in this type of underdog environment. (Remember how they won two Super Bowls with Eli Manning?) Honestly, in this first game of the season for both teams it’s Manning, now 36, who may be the wild card. Last season, during two victories against Dallas a quarterback notorious for turning the ball over threw just two picks. If he can limit mistakes once again, relying on short passes and the availability of Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants still have a chance.
But the availability of Ezekiel Elliott, along with the momentum it brings the Cowboys may be just too much to overcome. Their top-ranked rush defense should stymie a Giants running attack that’s hardly intimidating. Add in home-field advantage for the Cowboys and it’s easy to see a silly Manning mistake down the stretch handing Dallas an important early-season victory.
Prediction: Cowboys 21, Giants 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.