Football is here. Not training camp football. Not preseason football. Not football practices that ESPN randomly decides to cover because Tim Tebow is participating. Actual, meaningful and consequential games – games that will have an impact on who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t.
Today’s showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants is huge for a lot of reasons.
First and foremost, this is a divisional battle. While being up one win or down one loss obviously won’t kill anyone’s year, divisional match-ups have a strange way of mattering just as much at the beginning of a given season as they do at the end.
Beyond that, this is a statement game for the Cowboys. If they can earn a big win against the defending champs, they can silence all of the haters out there who say that they’re in for trouble this year. A single win can completely alter everyone’s perception.
Finally, although nobody is really talking about it, this game will tell us a lot about the Giants, too. Mind you, this wasn’t a squad that was consistently dominating last season. Eli Manning and Co. should probably prove that they can control the league for an entire year a la Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots before we start assuming that they can. (Note: Not that controlling the league during the regular season is more impressive than the Giants’ two Super Bowls. But we’re talking about the regular season right now.)
With all that in mind, here are three things from each team to keep an eye on tonight:
1. How will Tony Romo look?
Even though the Cowboys can’t get rid of him if things go wrong this year, it kind of feels like 2012 is a make or break season for Tony Romo. Dallas really needs him to come up huge, for obvious reasons. That said, Jerry Jones isn't giving his boy much to work with.
Dez Bryant and Miles Austin will play tonight, but both are hobbled. Jason Witten is out, too. All of that spells bad news for the passing game. As noted by the good folks at ESPN: "Over the past three years, according to Stats & Info's 'next level' numbers, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has completed 73.5 percent of his passes to tight end Jason Witten." Can Romo look good tonight despite all of the stuff going against him? We’ll find out soon enough.
2. Can the secondary keep Eli Manning in check?
The Cowboys realized that their secondary was in disarray last year and opted to address it this summer. Now, it’s debatable whether the combination of a rookie and Brandon Carr will illicit fear from the opposition – but it’s a start. Eli Manning has consistently dominated the Cowboys over the past couple of years, however, it remains to be seen whether that was because of how good he was or how bad this team’s defense was.
3. What will DeMarco Murray do?
Because Dez Bryant and Miles Austin aren’t at a hundred percent, and because Jason Witten is at zero percent, and because the Cowboys don’t have any other receiving options of note, the running game could be a huge asset for Dallas if it gets its act together. DeMarco Murray was on-and-off last year but, when he was right, he did put up 897 yards on 5.5 yards per carry. Can he step up and become a reliable, consistent option? Time will tell.
New York Giants
1. How will Eli Manning look?
Again, Eli Manning has owned the Cowboys over the past three years. According to ESPN, since 2009, he’s won five of his last six match-ups against them and has done it while putting up a 101.6 QB rating. Coming off a monster 2011 season, though, it remains to be seen whether he can replicate last year’s success sans Mario Manningham and with a hurt Hakeem Nicks. Speaking of which…
2. Can Hakeem Nicks be Hakeem Nicks?
Hakeem Nicks will play tonight, but we have no idea how effective he will be. As noted by CBS Sports, after playing in the Giants' final preseason game, he sat out the two following practices. An improved Cowboys secondary could make a hurt Nicks really have to work for his yards today.
3. Will this game be close?
Fun fact via our friends at KansasCity.com: "New York went 7-1 in games decided by four or less points or in overtime last season, while Dallas was 4-5 under such conditions."