EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –** The NFL certainly could have given the Giants a less daunting challenge to open the NFL season than the one they will face Sunday night.
They will be in Dallas to face a Cowboys team that won their division last season with a 12-4 record. Six Cowboys offensive players made the Pro Bowl (one, DeMarco Murray, left the team for Philadelphia in free agency). AT&T Stadium is one of the NFL's loudest and most inhospitable venues for visitors.
Surely, Eli Manning, who carries the heaviest burden for the Giants' fortunes, would prefer a bit easier setting and opponent to start the season. Actually, no.
"I think it's good to start in the division," Manning said. "Sunday night, it should be a great environment. And a very good team. They were strong last year, good on defense. Offensively, very, very strong. So we know we've got to go out there and play well. They're going to be fired up, it's going to be loud. But those are fun environments to play in. Hopefully, we're up to the challenge."
Manning reflects the attitude of all the Giants. They must travel to Dallas at some point during the season, so why not right away? They believe they're going to be a good team, and what better way to prove it than to defeat the reigning NFC East titlists in their own house with the entire nation watching?
Perhaps most importantly, if the Giants are going to win the division, they will almost certainly have to defeat the Cowboys, which they have not done in any of the teams' last four meetings.
"It's definitely a big game for us," said left guard Justin Pugh. "We've got to go out there and it's going to be a crazy environment. That first quarter, when they have the flames going, the cheerleaders dancing around, we've got to go out there and focus in, lock into our game, run the ball, and then give Eli some time.
"(The game is) huge, especially since Dallas has beaten us the past two years. We've got to go out there and finish a game. Run the ball, convert third downs, and have a good game."
Another factor in reaching their goals is to start better than they did the previous two seasons (0-6 in 2013, 0-2 a year ago).
"Last year, we came in, we were sitting here talking about the same things," defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said. "We needed a fast start. It's so important to try and get a fast start. Unfortunately, we didn't get it last year. Ended up hurting us throughout the year, and we never really got things going to the extent we wanted to. It's important to get a fast start this year, and not dig a hole for ourselves."
This will be the first true test for the defense installed by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who held the same position in 2007-08. Ironically, his first game then was also on a Sunday night in Dallas.
Spagnuolo was asked this week about the progression of his unit.
"We're almost there," he said. "I don't think the full volume is in yet, but I don't know that we need the full volume of defense right now. Sometimes, I think in the first game, you play a little faster, you play a little bit better, with less thinking. So we've been conscious of that, and purposely haven't put things in for all the reasons, questions you all asked. We've got a lot of young guys. But you don't want to get caught short-handed, either. So you've got to have enough in the package. I always say, you've got to have enough bullets in the gun to win the shootout."
Keep an eye on these five players as the Giants face the Cowboys on Sunday
But Spagnuolo will be without two weapons he likely counted on when he was hired: defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who continues to recuperate from the serious injuries he sustained in a July 4 fireworks accident, and linebacker Jon Beason, who won't play because of the knee injury he suffered three weeks ago in a preseason game vs. Jacksonville.
He has a young and largely untested group of players. Safety Landon Collins and linebacker Uani 'Unga will make their NFL debuts, and safety Cooper Taylor will play for the first time since 2013 and could make his first career start.
"Obviously, guys like Cullen Jenkins and DRC (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), they've been out there in the battles, so they're battle-tested," Spagnuolo said. "But hopefully, we'll gel quicker, rather than slower. We're going to have to live through some growing pains. I think that's going to happen."
Offensively, the Giants will begin Year 2 under coordinator Ben McAdoo without wide receiver Victor Cruz, who is sidelined with a calf injury. But the Giants still have plenty of playmakers at running back (Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa), wide receiver (Odell Beckham Jr., Rueben Randle, Preston Parker) and tight end (Larry Donnell and Daniel Fells).
"Hopefully, we can have another day being productive throwing the ball," Manning said. "We're going to need to. We have some weapons at receiver who can make some plays. I've got to do my part, get them the ball. We've got to be balanced, we've got to run the ball. Hopefully, we can have a good day and make some plays."
The key to the offensive operation might be how well the restructured offensive line performs.
"I think that's a group that's working hard," McAdoo said. "We have a couple different situations and ways we can go there, but they're working through it, they're working together. I'm excited for them. I said that earlier, I'm excited for those guys."
On special teams, the Giants have a new punter in Brad Wing, a new return specialist in former Cowboy Dwayne Harris, and a returning kicker in Josh Brown, who succeeded on 24 of 26 field goal attempts last season, a team-record 92.3 percent.
The Giants believe this is a team that will contend for a playoff berth and a division title. Now they have to prove it.
"I'm excited to see how they respond, obviously, to going to Dallas and opening the season there," coach Tom Coughlin said. "There's a few guys that have been through that experience when it was a positive thing, a plus. But basically, it's seeing our team come together, seeing us pull together now that we're at 53, plus the 10 practice squad kids. I'm looking forward to that part of it."
So is everyone else.
Playmakers on Cowboys first-team offense, defense, and special teams, presented by Nike