The 2012 NFL season will kick off Wednesday night with an exciting NFC East matchup between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. Last season, the Giants beat the Cowboys in both of the teams' regular-season meetings, and each victory came at a crucial time for the eventual Super Bowl champs.
In Week 14, the Giants halted a four-game losing streak with a dramatic 37-34 comeback win over the Cowboys. Their second meeting took place in the final week of the regular season with the division title on the line. The Giants didn't need any late-game heroics that time around, as they routed the Cowboys, 31-14, in front of a raucous home crowd.
The Cowboys now have to start their 2012 season right where their 2011 campaign came to a painful end.
Here are three key questions heading into the game:
1) Can the Giants' pass rush dominate the Cowboys' offensive line?
The Giants finished last season tied for third in the NFL with 48 sacks. Nine of those came against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants have an explosive quartet of pass rushers. Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka are each capable of dominating in one-on-one situations. Pierre-Paul will be the Cowboys' main concern. I expect him to be even better than he was last season, when he racked up 16.5 sacks.
The Cowboys, though, have made several changes to their offensive line since the 2011 regular-season finale, when Tony Romo was sacked six times. Most importantly, their offensive tackles swapped sides. Talented second-year player Tyron Smith is now protecting Romo's blind side, while Doug Free has moved over to the right side, where he is better suited to hold up in pass protection. If the Dallas line can give Romo a clean pocket, he should be able to exploit a suspect Giants secondary.
2) Can the new additions to the Cowboys' secondary slow down Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz?
The Cowboys struggled mightily against the Giants' passing attack last season. Quarterback Eli Manning put up gaudy numbers in those two games, throwing for a combined 746 passing yards and five touchdowns while giving up just one interception. The talented receiving duo of Nicks and Cruz accounted for most of those yards. Nicks collected 163 receiving yards in the first contest, while Cruz bettered him in the second with 178.
Owner Jerry Jones and the Cowboys' front office sought to address this issue in the offseason by overhauling the cornerback position. They spent big money to sign free agent Brandon Carr, one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks. Then they traded for the sixth overall pick in April's draft to select LSU's Morris Claiborne, arguably the top rookie cornerback.
How these two new corners play against the Giants will go a long way in deciding this game. If Carr and Claiborne can match up with Nicks and Cruz in man coverage, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be able to throw his exotic-blitz package at Manning and the Giants' offensive line. If Carr and Claiborne struggle, Ryan will be forced to play it safe in the back end and rely on DeMarcus Ware to fight through constant double teams and create pressure up front.
3) Which team will be more affected by injuries?
New York, which already lost cornerback Terrell Thomas for the season, will be without cornerback Prince Amukamara, who is recovering from a high ankle sprain. Starting left tackle Will Beatty is unlikely to play, as well. Fortunately for the Giants, it looks like Nicks is going to play, despite missing most of the preseason while he recovered from a broken foot.
The big question for the Cowboys is whether seven-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten will be available after he lacerated his spleen in the preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders. On Tuesday, the Cowboys listed Witten as doubtful for the contest. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, meanwhile, has been ruled out as he battles through a high ankle sprain. Former starting cornerback Mike Jenkins, who was just recently cleared to practice with the team following a shoulder injury, is listed as questionable. In relatively good news for the Cowboys, key starters Miles Austin and Phil Costa are both scheduled to play after dealing with hamstring and back issues, respectively.
Both teams will be forced to rely on their depth Wednesday. The Giants need cornerback Michael Coe to play well in place of Amukamara, while the Cowboys could be depending on John Phillips to fill in for Witten.
Both offenses will struggle early, thanks to limited continuity in the preseason. Romo and receiver Dez Bryant will hook up for a few big plays, but it won't be enough to overcome Manning and the Giants' ferocious pass rush.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.