Tonight marks the ninth time that the defending Super Bowl champion has opened their season in prime time. Overall, defending Super Bowl champions have won 12 straight openers.
The last time a defending Super Bowl champion lost their opening game was in 1999, when the Denver Broncos last to the Miami Dolphins 38-21. It must be pointed out that Broncos quarterback John Elway retired after winning the Super Bowl in the 1998 season.
In season openers against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys are 5-0 all-time. The last time these two teams meet to open the regular season the Cowboys defeated the Giants 45-35 in 2007.
So, the Cowboys 5-0 winning streak against the Giants in season openers or the defending Super Bowl champions 12-0 (8-0 in prime time) will fall tonight. Something's gotta give in this one.
Here is a breakdown on how I see the game tonight:
Dallas offensive line/running game
It is not a secret that Dallas enters this game banged up. Tight end Jason Witten might not play due to a lacerated spleen suffered in the preseason, wide receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are slowed due to hamstring pull and various injuries for Bryant.
The biggest injuries have come on the Cowboys offensive line. Against the Oakland Raiders, Dallas was starting a fourth string center and has shuffled the offensive line all preseason long.
Dallas is going to have to protect Tony Romo in the passing game and a make shift offensive line is not how you want to protect your franchise quarterback. The Cowboys need to make blocking schemes as easy as possible tonight.
New York is going to move around, change formations, and try to confuse the Dallas offensive line defensively. A zone blocking scheme and Romo must make sure protection is set tonight.
Another way (I will explain a 2nd way to slow the Giants pass rush next) to help the Dallas offensive line in passing protection is an effective running game. If the Cowboys can run the ball it negates the Giants pass rush.
Running the ball effectively also keeps the Cowboys in second/third down and short situations where run or pass plays can be called. If Dallas can run, they can wear down the Giants defense as well.
Cowboys screen passing game
Another way to slow the New York Giants pass rush would be for Dallas to run several well designed screen plays. Let the overly aggressive defensive line of the Giants run themselves out of plays.
To run the screen game effectively Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray both have to be part of the game plan. Dallas might have to run more screens if Witten does not play tonight, to help the short passing game.
Big D in Dallas must be defense
This is year two of the Rob Ryan defense and that defense has been very good in the preseason. The Cowboys have been impressive in the exhibition games on defense.
Brandon Carr, free agent pick up from Kansas City, provided an immediate impact to the Dallas secondary. The Cowboys were terrible in coverage last season and will be a 7-9 or 8-8 team if that trend continues.
Rookie Morris Claiborne, out of LSU, needs to play like the sixth overall selection tonight. Claiborne will be picked on by Eli Manning because he is a rookie and he must make Eli pay if they pick on him.
Dallas must generate a pass rush and cover if they are going to make noise this season. In the preseason the defense for the Cowboys has been impressive but they continue that play into the regular season.
Eli's relationship with receivers
Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham left to join the San Francisco 49ers in the off season. Hakeem Nicks broke his ankle and has been limited this preseason.
Manning did have Victor Cruz to work with in the run up to the season but has been working on chemistry with the other receivers. If the Cowboys take away Cruz, who will Eli feel comfortable throwing the ball to tonight for a big play.
Giants running game
Brandon Jacobs also left New York to join the San Francisco 49ers. Now Ahmad Bradshaw will carry the bulk of the rushing load with rookie David Wilson helping with some of the running work.
New York rushed for over 100 yards in both victories against the Cowboys last season. Running the ball allowed Eli to go to work in the passing game using play action.
If the Giants are going to win this game they must be able to run the ball. New York's running game in the playoffs last season allowed the Giants run to a Super Bowl.
Follow the rushing battle all night because the team that wins the running battle will win this game.
Giants fearsome defensive line
Opponents of the New York Giants must figure out a way to block this defensive line. Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul are a quarterbacks worst nightmare.
If those three can stay healthy all season, it wouldn't surprise me if the Giants led the league in sacks. New York will try to hit Romo all night and harass him all night long.
New York will have to get a pass rush to protect a young secondary that has given up yard in the preseason. The Giants will be in for a long season if they can't get pressure on the quarterback but the only way that happens if the pass rushers of New York stay hurt the majority of this season.
A win tonight helps set the tone for the 2012 season but a loss doesn't mean either team is doomed. New York had to sneak into the playoffs last season and Dallas was in the mix going into the final game.
Cowboys might lose this game but get better as the season goes along and Dallas gets back key players from injury. Giants will have all the excitement and emotion of celebrating last February's Super Bowl win to feed off of tonight.
No one is giving Dallas a chance but this game will be close heading into the fourth quarter. I wouldn't be surprised if the Cowboys won but all the emotion will be on the Giants sideline and home field advantage as well.
Giants 27 Cowboys 24