A crucial NFC East matchup between two rebuilding teams trying to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start
Two teams coming off disappointing seasons, the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, come together for NFL’s "Sunday Night Football" in this crucial Week 2 matchup. Just two years ago, they combined for a record of 24-8 while earning two playoff spots for the NFC East.
But last year? Both teams spent the playoffs on the sidelines, watching division rival Philadelphia waltz to a Super Bowl victory. The Giants then changed coaches while the Cowboys changed direction, ditching bad boy Dez Bryant while rebuilding on both offense and defense.
Both feel they’ll bounce back quickly but a loss for either Sunday puts them in a deep hole. 0-2 in a division with the defending Super Bowl champs doesn’t bode well; the NFC is stacked with quality teams and it may take 10, perhaps even 11 wins just to make the postseason this year. Led by two quarterbacks also hoping for comeback seasons — Dak Prescott and Eli Manning — only one will get to rewrite their recent history.
New York at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 16 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Cowboys' offense recover against the Giants' secondary?
Week 1 for Dak Prescott vacillated somewhere between forgettable and ugly. The Carolina Panthers made a mockery of the Cowboys’ young quarterback, sacking him six times while pressuring him into ugly incompletions. Plenty of passes skipped on the turf as the passing game skipped a beat with just 5.9 yards per attempt.
However, the problem wasn’t solely Prescott. Dez Bryant and recently retired Jason Witten were sorely missed; their shoes remain largely unfilled. Cole Beasley pulled in a respectable seven catches for 73 yards but he’s a No. 2 receiver at best; no one else came close to that production. Free agent pickup Allen Hurns was a massive disappointment, pulling in just one reception for 20 yards.
Hurns, targeted just three times needs a few extra seconds to get deep. Can he do it against a Giants secondary ranked 31st against the pass last week? They were respectable in a losing effort last week against Jacksonville, holding Blake Bortles to just 176 yards. Janoris Jenkins was the key to their resistance, returning from a 2017 ankle injury but a mysterious family emergency caused him to ditch practice at the end of this week. He’s likely to play but his presence is not guaranteed.
Prescott, with better offensive line play should have some opportunities against this defense, particularly oft-criticized cornerback Eli Apple if Jenkins doesn’t play. But the receivers have to find a way to get space. Running back Ezekiel Elliott can’t be the only weapon available.
2. Ezekiel Elliott vs. Saquon Barkley
Speaking of Elliott, his battle with this year’s No. 2 overall draft pick should be a heavyweight fight. It’s Barkley who opened eyes last week, busting out for 106 yards and a touchdown while posting a gaudy 5.9-yard average. That included a 68-yard gem that got his team within 20-15 before a failed 2-point conversion that would prove costly down the stretch. (Remember, this guy is just one week into an NFL career.)
Barkley looked like a game changer on the same week Elliott looked... ordinary by comparison. His line wasn’t helpful but 15 rushes for 69 yards won’t move the needle for a team that needs him as the focal point. It was his lowest output on the ground since Week 2 of a suspension-marred 2017 campaign that kept him from reaching 1,000 yards rushing.
The two running backs are friends, meeting back in their college days and have a great degree of respect for one another.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Elliott said about Barkley to the New York Post. “He’s a guy that any play, he could take it to the house.”
“I’m a big fan of his game,” Barkley claimed in return. “I’m excited to see [Elliott] play live again.”
The edge may go to Barkley on this one simply because of the Cowboys’ run defense. They allowed 147 yards on the ground to Carolina last week who doesn’t exactly have an intimidating run game. (Quarterback Cam Newton led the team with 58 yards.) The Giants, meanwhile, have held Elliott in check before, limiting him to 51 yards in a game his rookie season and have a lot of in-game experience. Sometimes, a new guy like Barkley can throw off a defense similar to a first-time major league pitcher.
3. Can Eli Manning have a mistake-free night?
The Giants’ Week 1 loss against Jacksonville wasn’t all Eli Manning’s fault. But then again... a pick-six he threw early on proved the difference in the game. The beleaguered offensive line gave better protection, allowing just two sacks but Manning still made one bad throw that came back to bite him.
How many times have we said that the past two years from 37-year-old Eli? The Giants are betting this two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback still has plenty left in the tank. After all, Tom Brady is age 41 a few states over in Massachusetts making mincemeat out of opponents with the Patriots. But Week 1 was the sixth straight game Manning has played where he threw an interception. He hasn’t posted a QB rating over 100 since Nov. 12 of last season against then-reeling San Francisco.
A Bleacher Report article out this week shed light on the pressure Manning and the organization are feeling already. Barkley is an outstanding pick at No. 2 but the quarterback the Giants passed on, Sam Darnold, had an outstanding debut with that other New York team, the Jets. QBs typically have a longer lifespan so if Manning continues his slide, hampering the Giants from doing postseason damage the choice of Barkley over Darnold could mean the difference in long-term success.
Manning quiets all these critics with a solid performance where he keeps from turning the ball over. New Giants coach Pat Shurmur believes he’ll get that from his QB. But belief and reality have yet to fully come together.
Both these teams showed us Week 1 they’ve got work to do. I just think the Giants’ offense, in the end has more playmakers than a Cowboys’ offense losing their identity. Elliott alone can’t get the job done and we haven’t talked about one of the Giants’ most important weapons yet: Odell Beckham Jr.
As long as Eli Manning can simply manage the game, Beckham and Saquon Barkley could prove a potent 1-2 punch down in Dallas. A mistake-free game by the quarterback could break the game open and incite panic in Jerry Jones land where head coach Jason Garrett would find his seat toasty hot with an 0-2 start.
Prediction: Giants 24, Cowboys 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.