2015 NFL season gets underway: Giants at Cowboys Sunday night

Two bitter rivals from the NFC East meet in a division clash the first weekend of the new season.

Bill Kostroun/AP
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) throws a pass during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the New York Jets Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015 in East Rutherford, N.J.

A battle of division rivals takes center stage as "Sunday Night Football" kicks off this week with the New York Giants traveling to AT&T Stadium in Dallas to take on Tony Romo and the Cowboys.

A new season gives the Giants a chance to wipe the slate clean after a very disappointing 2014 season that saw the team finish third in the NFC East and 6-10 overall. The team has rewarded its franchise quarterback, giving Eli Manning a four-year, $84 million contract extension that includes $65 million in guaranteed money, meaning the pressure is now on for head coach Tom Coughlin to deliver. A second consecutive disappointing season could spell the end of the Coughlin era in New York.

Sunday night, New York will look to Manning and the passing game to be the difference maker against the Cowboys. The team finished seventh in the NFL in passing yards last season and 12th in terms of efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.com. One of the main reasons for their success was Offensive Rookie of the Year Odell Beckham Jr., who wowed fans with his spectacular one-handed catches. Beckham caught 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns and surprisingly never exceeded 44 yards receiving in his first three games, putting his tremendous production into even more impressive context.

The question for Sunday will be if the Giants defense, which was so porous last season, can contain the running and passing threats of the Cowboys. The defensive line for the Giants may have gotten to opposing quarterbacks 47 times last season, good for fourth in the league. But that same line could not stop the run whatsoever, giving up the third-most yards and the most yards per rush (4.9). They will be put to the test when they face the exceptional Cowboys offensive line.

Dallas enters the new season riding high after their 12-4 NFC East-winning campaign. That, despite making some major changes in the offseason, the most notable being the loss of star running back DeMarco Murray. Faced with the choice between wide receiver Dez Bryant and Murray, owner Jerry Jones and his staff elected to go the way of the pass and let the NFL’s leading rusher walk this offseason.

But the Cowboys have good reason to suspect that Murray was a product of his environment, and not producing all on his own. The offensive line for the Cowboys was the best in the league last season, and Football Outsiders ranked them best in adjusted yards per run, second in their ability to get runs to the second level, and second in blocking the open field. These impressive stats will be tested as the Cowboys have continued to struggle to find their lead back, unable to decide between Joseph Randle and former Oakland Raider Darren McFadden.

As long as the run is effective in 2015, Romo, Dez, and the rest of the Dallas offense should continue to be successful. A healthy balance between run and pass enabled Romo to have his best season to date, notching a 113.2 quarterback rating and an 83.6 QBR, both good for best in the league. Romo’s QBR last season was so good, he now sits 5th in single-season QBR since 2006, behind the likes of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers.

The Giants have to hope they can take away Bryant, Romo’s biggest weapon, for big chunks of the game if they are to be successful. Bryant caught 88 balls for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, and his presence on the field gives the Cowboys a consistent deep threat. Romo insinuated this week that he will be looking to spread the ball around, according to the Dallas Morning News.

“Obviously, there are match-ups I’ll be looking for,” Romo said. “I’m not going to deliver those to you guys right now but I think it’s all part of the game and just understanding.” Posturing aside, you can expect Bryant to be his number one target this and every week.

The Giants will undoubtedly improve on their lackluster 2014 season, but they will also likely start this season with a loss as the Cowboys have just too much offensive firepower for the Giants to handle.

You can watch the Giants and Cowboys Sunday night on NBC, beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.

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