The Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants are set to kick off the NFL season on Wednesday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It's a rematch of last year's regular-season finale, which the Giants won to clinch the NFC East title before going on to win the Super Bowl. As always, both teams enter the season with high expectations. But which of these two division rivals is primed to have the better year? ESPN.com NFC East blogger Dan Graziano and ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer debate.
DAN GRAZIANO: Well, Todd, we've got to stop meeting like this. It doesn't seem that long ago that the Cowboys rolled in on New Year's Day with hopes of winning the division title, only to give up the first 21 points and help launch the Giants on a Super Bowl run. They tell me the Cowboys have fixed their defense, and given what they spent on their two new cornerbacks, they'd better hope so. But when I look at these Giants, what I see reminds me a lot of last season. They're really strong at quarterback, wide receiver and pass-rushing defensive end but have questions elsewhere on the roster. Their hope, once again, is that Eli Manning and that pass rush are good enough to overcome their deficiencies. The division picks I made last week had the Giants going 12-4 and repeating as division champs, and the Cowboys finishing in third place at 8-8. So it's clear what I think about it. Both of these teams have flaws; I just feel like the Giants have shown they're better at overcoming flaws and adversity better than other teams are.
TODD ARCHER: Wow, 12-4 and you see a team with questions? There can't be that many questions to finish 12-4. But it's hard to go against the Giants just because of their two Super Bowl wins in the last five years. They've done it and they get the benefit of the doubt. The Cowboys haven't done it and they don't get the benefit of the doubt. Winning at MetLife Stadium is difficult anyway, but it will be even more difficult because of what happened in training camp. Maybe Jason Witten and Jay Ratliff play, but that's pushing it. Miles Austin didn't play in the preseason. Dez Bryant missed the last week-plus in camp. The offensive line hasn't taken a snap together. So, other than that, the Cowboys are in great shape. But I'm not sure I see the Giants finishing 12-4. I think the Cowboys go 10-6 and make a wild-card run, but I'll admit I felt better about it before camp started.
DG: When I look at the Cowboys, the last thing I worry about is the Austin/Bryant/Witten crew. If any of those guys is out, they're in big trouble anyway. My thing with them is that I don't think they're strong enough on the offensive line, or up front on defense, to overcome a significant injury to one of their star players. They feel a little flimsy to me in too many spots still. And I'm not 100 percent sold on the idea that the improvements at cornerback will automatically help the pass rush. I feel like it works better in the other direction -- i.e., a great pass rush supports the secondary. I think the Giants are built on that philosophy, and that they really lean hard on those strengths, especially in big games.
TA: Man, I hate having to agree with you on this, but I think the Giants and other teams have shown a pass rush can cover up for an average/mediocre secondary. I can't think of too many great secondaries that make a pass rush. But that's the way the Cowboys have gone in signing Brandon Carr, trading up for Morris Claiborne and keeping Mike Jenkins. Carr was great in the preseason and he gives the Cowboys a physical presence on the outside that they have lacked. The Cowboys' offensive line is a huge question and I know I'm going to commit heresy in your eyes here, but Tyron Smith had some issues at left tackle this summer. The interior is a huge question, too, but the Cowboys believe in Bill Callahan. He has a great reputation and I think eventually the line is OK this year. Maybe not versus the Giants, though. But I will say this: The Giants' line is a little suspect, too, so that could be a push if Rob Ryan has figured out a way to defend Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
DG: No doubt the Giants' line is suspect, and where that really shows up is in the run game, which ranked 32nd in the league last season. I don't see how it's improved, which means once again it'll be up to Manning and the receivers to get it done on offense. I know from talking to Redskins people, after they beat the Giants twice last year, they feel you have to shut down one side of the field against Manning and limit his range of decisions, or else he'll pick you apart. You think these Cowboys are built to do that this year? At the very least, I can't imagine we see too many Giants fullbacks hurdling Cowboys cornerbacks this time around.
TA: I was surprised Henry Hynoski was not invited to the Olympic hurdle trials after what he did in January, but, yes, I think the Cowboys are better suited at cornerback to shut off one side of the field this year. Doesn't mean they're going to do it, but they have a better chance to do it. And I think Nicks' foot injury helps them, too. He's not going to be 100 percent for this game and not moving as well as he usually moves. But Cruz in the slot could be a major issue, as he was last January. I can still see his leaping grab on third-and-7 after the Cowboys made it interesting there for a bit. One guy who will make a difference for the Cowboys this year won't even take a snap. It's secondary coach Jerome Henderson. To me, he has future head coach written all over him. He has changed the attitude of this secondary. Defensive backs were more aggressive in camp. Maybe it's because Dallas has Carr, who likes to play press coverage, but I think Henderson has brought a swagger built on productivity and not just bravado.
DG: Good point on Nicks, and if he's limited that not only helps the Cowboys but probably gives them the advantage at wide receiver (assuming, of course, that both of their guys are healthy). I'm also interested to see whether Witten plays and, if he does, how he looks after his spleen injury. But I think this is a big game for Tony Romo. Last year's opener, when he turned the ball over against the Jets, just fed into his (I believe largely unjustified) reputation as a guy who can't get it done in big games. A win here against the champs would at least delay the "same old Romo" stuff for a few weeks, if not set him on the path to wiping it out. Manning doesn't have to worry about such things after his second Super Bowl MVP award, but games like these are the ones Romo has to win if he wants to combat the popular perception of the kind of quarterback he is.
TA: I have a column up on Romo talking about how he can change the narrative so many have of him by winning, specifically his lack of leadership. I don't believe there is a player who catches more grief in the NFL than Romo. Everything gets distorted with the guy. I asked Manning on the conference call if he is aware of all the garbage Romo receives and, paraphrasing, he said yeah and you have to ignore all of the outside voices. I think Romo does a good job of that. If the Cowboys beat the Giants, then Romo will get a reprieve, but it'll be short lived if they lose at Seattle. He has to walk a tightrope that other quarterbacks don't. But if you're asking me who wins this one, I have to go with the Giants, but it'll be closer than people think.
DG: I'm taking the Giants to win this game, too, but the only thing we know about an NFL season before it starts is that we don't know anything. I think everyone can agree that it'll be great to see a real game again after so long, and that the NFL picked a pretty juicy matchup to start its season. I know I'm looking forward to it and you are, too. Thanks for the chat, and I'll see you in the press box in a few hours.