New York Giants host Dallas Cowboys to kick off 2012 NFL season

The New York Giants are trying to figure out whether they were the team that split their first 14 games last season, or the one that closed by winning six straight capped by the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title.

The Dallas Cowboys could only watch their division rival's unlikely championship run with envy.

These teams met on the final day of last season for the NFC East title, and the same matchup will open the new campaign Wednesday night at MetLife Stadium.

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New York was mediocre for most of 2011 before victories over the Jets and Cowboys to close the season gave it the NFC East crown and momentum entering the postseason. The Giants knocked off Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco before Eli Manning captured his second Super Bowl MVP award in a 21-17 win over New England.

New York became the first team that went 9-7 in the regular season to win the Super Bowl, and Manning and other Giants have spoken during the offseason about the need to improve their record in 2012.

Coach Tom Coughlin is not focusing on defending the title, using the slogan "build the bridge" to try to carry the positive feelings from last season into this one.

"This is not that team," Coughlin said. "This is the 2012 team and we've been handed a new set of issues and problems as you followed us and we're in the process of trying to solve them."

One of the problems for Dallas last season was its inability to beat quality opponents, having lost its final seven games to teams that finished .500 or better. The Cowboys led the division with a 7-4 record before dropping four of five to close 2011, with two defeats to the Giants.

In Week 14, Manning rallied New York from a 12-point deficit in the final 3:14 for a 37-34 win at Dallas. Three weeks later with the division title on the line, Manning threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns and the Giants sacked Tony Romo six times in a 31-14 victory.

"We played two hard-fought games with them but those games are over," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We're focusing on our team and the challenge we have with them on Wednesday night."

Typically vocal Dallas owner Jerry Jones has emphasized the opener for his team.

"It's a great opportunity for us is how I look at it," Jones said. "Very meaningful, everybody has all the appreciation in the world for what we're up against here, the quality of the team."

Dallas had the busier offseason, upgrading a secondary that was the culprit in so many late-game collapses. The Cowboys signed Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal from Kansas City and traded up eight spots in the draft to select fellow cornerback Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall selection.

The new-look secondary will be counted on to slow down Manning, who threw for 746 yards in the two 2011 meetings.

"We feel like a lot of times at the end of games last year when teams were throwing it every down, we didn't defend the pass as well as we needed to," Garrett said. "When we were ahead in some games, we didn't run the ball as well as we needed to. And so we tried to address those needs with personnel, tried to get better in those areas."

The Cowboys' running game should be bolstered by the return of DeMarco Murray, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first matchup against the Giants. Murray ran for 897 yards in 13 games as a rookie last year.

New York believes its woes through most of last season stemmed from the inability of pass rushers Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora to stay healthy. Both are fine now and will complement Jason Pierre-Paul in a unit that finished tied for third in the league with 48 sacks in 2011.

Manning threw for a career-high 4,933 yards a season ago and was aided by the stunning emergence of Victor Cruz, who was third in the league with 1,536 receiving yards. Fellow receiver Hakeem Nicks will play Wednesday after suffering a broken foot that landed him on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp.

Romo posted a career-best 102.5 passer rating a season ago with 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but he's lost his last five starts against the Giants. He was sacked nine times in the two matchups last year, and the Cowboys' offensive line has been unsettled in the preseason.

Dallas will find out Tuesday if seven-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten is medically cleared to play after suffering a lacerated spleen in the Aug. 13 preseason opener at Oakland.

The Giants managed to run for more than 100 yards in both matchups with the Cowboys last season, but those performances were hardly the norm in 2011. New York ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 89.2.

They'll look to improve this season behind veteran starter Ahmad Bradshaw, who's expected to get the bulk of the carries with Brandon Jacobs having departed, and flashy first-round draft pick David Wilson, who impressed in the preseason.

New Giants tight end Martellus Bennett will be playing his first game against the team that drafted him in the second round four years ago. Playing behind Witten, Bennett was a disappointment with Dallas before signing with New York this offseason.

"This week is not really about me going against the Cowboys, it's more so the Giants," Bennett said.

This is the ninth straight year that the defending champion has hosted the prime-time opener the next year. The home team is 8-0.

Traditionally played on a Thursday night, this season opener was moved up a day to avoid a conflict with President Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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