Making predictions on the first week of the NFL season is a treacherous proposition. Every offseason teams turnover 25%-35% of their rosters, complicating any previously held notions based on last season, and to make matters worse the changes under the most recent CBA, which limit the amount of practice time teams have with players, make it even more difficult to predict how teams will start off the season. With that said, there is certainly a level of familiarity with this season’s opening opponent, not only is it a division rival, but it is also the team the Cowboys have opened their season against an astounding five times over the last six seasons, in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, and of course this season.
Before looking ahead to Sunday’s opener, let’s take a look back at last season’s meetings between the two for some context. This time last year the two met under very different circumstances, with Dak Prescott making his first career start just a few weeks after another serious injury to Tony Romo. Ezekiel Elliott was also making his first start, and nobody knew quite what to expect. Prescott managed the game well enough and despite struggles from Elliott, who gained a season-low 51 rushing yards on 2.6 YPC, the offense moved the ball consistently although they failed to cash in on several red zone opportunities, settling for multiple field goals. On the Giants side Eli Manning was mostly average but made a few timely plays and converted their red zone opportunities into touchdowns, while their new look defense did enough to contain the young Cowboys offense. Prescott nearly led the team on a game-winning field goal drive in the closing seconds but those hopes were cut short when Terrance Williams inexplicably stayed inbounds with no timeouts just 10 or so yards outside of field goal range as the clock ran out.
The second meeting came in December and the Cowboys hadn’t lost a game since the opener. Prescott and Elliott had become stars in that short time and were legitimate MVP candidates. The Giants were strong playoff contenders at 8-4 and sat only a few games behind the one-loss Cowboys in the NFC East. The Cowboys started off well, scoring a first quarter touchdown in what looked to be another easy victory, but after that the Giants revamped defense kept Prescott and the passing game under clamps despite over 100 yards on the ground from Elliott. Manning was again very average, turning the ball over several times behind a porous offensive line and little to no running game, but the Giants defense won the day in Prescott’s first “cold weather” professional game.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at where the two teams stand now. To be honest, not much has changed on either side. The Cowboys strength remains on the offensive side of the ball, especially now that Elliott is available, while the Giants will again rely on their defense to carry the day with a poor offensive line and running game. Each team has lost a few key players from each unit such as Ron Leary and Johnathan Hankins but for the most part the names on each side remain the same.
The Cowboys front seven hasn’t changed much either, a few of the faces are different but there have been no dramatic additions or subtractions. Players like Taco Charlton and Jaylon Smith will become important pieces at some point but I’d be shocked if they are able to step in on day one and be impact players, so for the purposes of this game I’m not counting them as some sort of significant upgrade. The real difference for the Cowboys, and probably the most dramatic personnel shift for either team since last season, is in the secondary. Veterans who were arguably short on talent but long on experience in Rod Marinelli’s scheme such as Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox are gone and replaced by rookies or players who lack either starting experience (Jeff Heath) or scheme experience (Nolan Carroll). Despite the fact that Manning and the Giants offense is largely mediocre and inconsistent, they are usually good for a couple of big plays in the passing game to the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. (if he plays) or Sterling Shepard, especially when matched up against the Cowboys. The additions of accomplished veteran Brandon Marshall and decorated rookie Evan Engram only exacerbate this.
We mostly know what we’ll get out of the Cowboys offense and the Giants defense, but for me this game will come down to three matchups. First, how well the Giants poor offensive line can protect Manning against a pass rush that, despite its issues, had five sacks in the two matchups last season. Second, how well the Cowboys new-look secondary can limit the big play receivers of the Giants, and third, how well Dak Prescott can decipher the ultra-aggressive, high-risk, high-reward blitzes from Steve Spagnuolo. I’m confident enough that the Cowboys will hold their own in the first and third matchups but the second matchup will undoubtedly be a difficult task. It’s hard for me to imagine a secondary featuring Nolan Carroll, Jeff Heath, and several rookies keeping Beckham (again, if he plays) and Marshall under wraps all game long. A few months from now when the new players are more integrated into the scheme? Maybe, but in the season opener it will be very difficult.
Honestly, if Elliott were out I’d probably predict the Giants to win by a field goal, but given that he will be available, and that the game is in Dallas, I lean very slightly towards the Cowboys.
Prescott, who grew up in the south, played his high school and college ball almost exclusively in the south, and who has played the vast majority of his professional games in either a dome or warm-weather conditions, won’t have to navigate the cold, flurries, and muck of an East coast winter night along with the Giants defense as he did last December. And in last year’s first matchup the offense moved the ball well despite Elliott’s struggles and Prescott’s inexperience, they just weren’t able to score touchdowns instead of field goals thanks in large part to several drops from the likes of Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant. I expect the offense to run smoother this time around and for the defense to do just enough to get by against a Giants offense that lacks balance.
It will be very tough, but I’m going Cowboys 24-20.