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Eye On the Cowboys: Breaking down the matchup


*'s Michael Eisen scouts the opposing offense, defense, and special teams: *

A look at the expected starters for the Giants' opener in Dallas

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Giants will begin their 93rd NFL season Sunday night when they face their NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in AT&T Stadium. For the third year in a row, and the fourth time in five seasons, the Giants will play their opener in Dallas. In 2016, the Giants swept the Cowboys for the first time since 2011. They have won three consecutive games vs. Dallas after losing five in a row to the Cowboys. On opening day last year, Eli Manning threw three touchdown passes in the Giants' 20-19 victory. In a Sunday night game on Dec. 11, the Giants scored all of their points in the second quarter – on Robbie Gould's 39-yard field goal and Manning's 61-yard touchdown pass to Odell Beckham, Jr. – in a 10-7 victory. Dallas leads the regular-season series, 62-45-2. The Giants have swept the series 13 times, while Dallas has 20 series sweeps, most recently in 2013-14. The Giants are 20-34-1 in Dallas, including 5-3 in AT&T Stadium.

A rushing attack that ranked second in the NFL last year at 149.8 yards a game and returns all of the players who contributed to that success. Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 yards as a rookie. Behind him are a pair of former 1,000-yard rushers in Alfred Morris (5.3-yard average on a team-high 30 carries in the preseason) and Darren McFadden (5.1-yard average). Those exceptional backs run behind an outstanding offensive line that includes two new players (right tackle La'el Collins, left guard Chaz Green) and features three All-Pros in center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin and Tyron Smith, who is probably the NFL's best left tackle.

Which player is key to the Cowboys' offense?

The title goes to a pair of second-year standouts in Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. The former can pick up tough yards inside and gain chunks of yardage after absorbing the initial contact of would-be tacklers. In addition, he has the speed to turn any handoff into a long gain. Prescott started all 17 games as a rookie and threw 497 passes – only five were intercepted. A dual threat, he also rushed for 282 yards and six touchdowns. Although his snaps were limited, Prescott played with confidence and precision in the preseason, completing 18 of 22 passes.

What is the strength of the Cowboys' offense?

Controlling the game with their rushing attack, which not only wears down a defense but opens up the field for Prescott and his very capable receivers. Dallas' formula for success is to establish the run early in the game, then use play-action, rollouts and quick throws to get Prescott into a rhythm. Elliott ran for at least 92 yards in 12 of the 16 games in which he played (he sat out the regular-season finale). And while Dez Bryant understandably receives most of the acclaim, Cole Beasley led Dallas in targets (98) and receptions (75) last season. He also picked up 51 first downs. Terrance Williams is a deep threat. And the Cowboys still have 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, whose 1,089 career receptions place him seventh on the NFL's alltime list. He was second on the team with 69 catches in 2016.

Which player is key to the Cowboys' defense?

Weakside linebacker Sean Lee is Dallas' most accomplished defender. The eight-year veteran finished third in the NFL last season with 145 tackles (93 solo). That included a franchise-record 22 tackles against the Giants on Dec. 11 (according to the Cowboys). Since being drafted in 2010, Lee's 12 interceptions tie him with Carolina's Luke Kuechly for the highest total among NFL linebackers.

What is the strength of the Cowboys' defense?

Their stinginess against the run. Dallas was number one in the league in 2016, allowing just 83.5 yards a game. That was due in part to Cowboys' opponents finishing with a league-low 340 rushing attempts. But Dallas has depth up front, where eight players could contribute. And Lee is a smart and skilled player who is difficult to block and is seemingly always around the ball. The Cowboys are well-coached, play hard, and force fumbles.

Which player is key to the Cowboys' special teams?

Dan Bailey has made 171 of 191 field goal attempts, an 89.5 percentage that is the second-highest in NFL history among kickers with at least 100 field goals. He has four separate streaks in which he made at least 21 consecutive attempts, including a team-record 30 in a row in 2013-14. Bailey kicked four field goals in the 2016 opener, including a 56-yarder that tied his career long.

Based on the Cowboys' scouting report, the Giants must do this one thing to win:

Stop the running of Elliott and pressure Prescott. When those second-year pros get rolling together, the Cowboys are very hard to stop – witness their 11-game winning streak last season when Elliott averaged 112.2 rushing yards per game, and Prescott threw 19 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. The defense must disarm Dallas, and that means minimizing the damage done by Elliott and Prescott.

Statistics you should know:

*The Cowboys had the NFL's most-balanced offense in 2016 with a 51/49 run/pass percentage split.

*Prescott threw off play-action on 24.2% of his throws last year. Only Atlanta's Matt Ryan had a higher percentage.

*Dallas scored either a touchdown or field goal on 54 of 57 trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line in 2016, an NFL-best 94.7 percent. They scored 38 touchdowns, a 66.7 percent success rate that was third in the league.

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