8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Cowboys -4, Over/Under: 48
What has developed over the past few years into the NFL’s premier primetime rivalry, the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys look to renew acquaintances once again in their Season Opener tonight from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It’s typically fireworks when these two bitter rivals clash, with plenty of implications for the Playoffs, as both teams ascended out of the typically convoluted NFC East to reach the Postseason. When last we saw the Giants (11-5 in 2016, 2nd in NFC East), Bob McAdoo’s charges returned to the Playoffs for the first time since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in 2011, ending a four-year drought, the longest such streak in the long successful history of the franchise. New York invested heavily in it’s Defense, which paid off handsomely in 2016, as Big Blue overcame a severely one-dimensional attack hampered by a non-existent Ground Game and an underperforming Offensive Line. The cumulative additions of Olivier Vernon (64 TKL, 8.5 SK, 1 FF), Janoris Jenkins (49 TKL, 3 INT, 18 PD), Damon Harrison (86 TKL, 2.5 SK, 1 PD), and First Round Pick Landon Collins (125 TKL, 4.0 SK, 5 INT, 13 PD) improved this group exponentially, taking a unit that ranked Thirtieth in Points Allowed (27.6) and dead-last in Total Defense (420.3) in 2015, to Second (17.8) and Tenth (339.7) respectively in 2017. And did the Giants ever need these guys to play at such a high level… Consider this factoid; even after making the substantial from last in the NFL in Total defense to Tenth (a difference of 80.6 Y/G), opponents’ still managed to outgain Big Blue by an average of 2.75 Yards per Game. That’s a telltale sign that New York’s Offense struggled mightily to sustain drives, averaging just 2:21 minutes per Drive, third-worst in the league. Needless to say, the Defense was on the field a whole lot. Balance on the offensive side of things would go a long way towards solving this problem, but based off of what we saw out of them in the Offseason, instead of beefing up their Rushing Attack (88.3 Y/G, 29th Overall) they’re doubling down on what they do best, which is sling the ball all over the field. Now in his third season in McAdoo’s West Coast System, Eli Manning (63.0%, 4,027 YDS, 6.28 NY/A, 26 TD, 16 INT) has evolved into a much more consistent passer from the pocket, than the at-times reckless gun-slinger he was in his youth. The now 36-year old veteran was forced to carefully orchestrate the passing game without the benefit of solid protection or the threat of Play Action, as he and his comrades utilized three-receiver sets more so than any other team in the league in 2016. So what did they do this Offseason, you ask? They added Brandon Marshall (59 REC, 788 YDS, 3 TD) to a Receiving Corps that already boasts the explosive Odell Beckham Jr. (101 REC, 1,367 YDS, 10 TD) and productive second-year man Sterling Shepard (65 REC, 683 YDS, 8 TD). At 6-4, 229 lbs. the tenth-year veteran has the size to move the chains on Third Down, and help the Giants’ anemic Red Zone TD Percentage, while obviously drawing coverage away from Beckham, one of the league’s most electrifying (if not volatile) talents.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys (13-3 in 2016, 1st in NFC East) are coming off a renaissance of sorts, matching a franchise record with thirteen victories on the strength of a pair of revelatory Rookies, Tailback Ezekiel Elliott and Quarterback Dak Prescott. The dynamic duo took the NFL by storm last year, performing well beyond their years as Dallas earned their first Division Title since 2014. Elliott, the Fourth Overall Pick in the Draft, became the first Cowboys’ Rookie to lead the league in rushing, totaling 1,631 Yards and fifteen Touchdowns on a very healthy 5.1 Yards per Carry, while also proving to be adept in the Passing Game as well, hauling thirty-two Receptions for 363 Yards and another score to boot. Granted, Jason Garrett’s Pro Bowl-laden Offensive Line has made a number of Tailbacks look amazing over the past few years, but this kid has proven to be something special. Prescott, on the other hand, is the far more surprising of the two, as the Fourth Round Pick seamlessly stepped into the shoes vacated by the injured Tony Romo, to complete 67.8% of his Attempts for 3,667 Yards (7.28 NY/A), twenty-three Touchdowns and just four Interceptions. Furthermore, at a durable 6-2, 226 lbs., Prescott is more than capable of making plays with his legs, rushing for another six scores. It didn’t take long for the Rookie to win over the Lockerroom and the Fan Base, relegating the venerated Romo into what would eventually be an early retirement. With that said, he met his kryptonite in the form of the Giants, who narrowly defeated them in each of their Regular Season meetings last year. In last year’s Season Opener (a 20-19 NYG Win at AT&T Stadium), Prescott struggled in his first career start, completing 25-of-45 Passes for 227 Yards, and wasn’t much better in the rematch at the Meadowlands, going 17-of-37 for a mere 165 Yards, a Touchdown and a pair of Interceptions in the 10-7 slugfest. New York succeeded in slowing down the Rushing Attack enough to put him in longer Down and Distance situations, forcing him to quickly read through his progressions from the Pocket. This is relevant considering the current status of Elliott, who in all likelihood will not be available for this division battle, or for that matter the first several games of the campaign. Due to a litany of Off-Field incidents, the First Team All-Pro was initially suspended for the first six games of the term, with an appeal being heard earlier in the week, that could reduce the number of games missed. Tons of credit goes towards the Mountain of Men in the trenches, but let’s not sell this kid short just because he’s running behind a slew of Pro Bowlers; Elliott averaged over five Yards per Carry, while his teammates Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden, former Pro Bowlers that were briefly Franchise Tailback in their own right, weren’t nearly as successful, averaging 3.5 and 3.6 Yards per Carry in their limited opportunities. While the general consensus is that Garrett’s charges will be able to maintain balance even without Elliott’s presence in the Backfield, New York has proven to be able to reduce Dallas’ ability to dominate Time of Possession, effectively leveling the playing field where they can take advantage of a Defense that wasn’t nearly as effective as the statistics would lead you to believe. In fact, this particular unit can be labeled as the exact OPPOSITE of their counterparts tonight; the Cowboys’ Defense was only on the field for an average 2:43 (24th Overall), and even despite all that rest and consistently playing with a lead, failed to make many big plays, be it Sacks (Thirty-Six), Interceptions (Nine), or Fumble Recoveries (Eleven).