Eight months and four days after they met for the 2011 NFC East championship, the Giants and Dallas Cowboys will square off in a rematch Wednesday night in which the full ramifications might not be known for months.
No one will clinch anything in the nationally-televised kickoff to the NFL season, but it could prove to be a very important initial step on the long journey that is the NFL season. For the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, it will provide the first evidence whether they can turn the words of this season's slogan and "Build the Bridge" from their outstanding play in the playoffs to the new season.
"'Build the Bridge' means to carry over all the good things that happened at the end of the season last year over into the new season," coach Tom Coughlin said. "The qualities that allowed us to go forward and win the world championship and some of those would be during the course of the last six games we gave up 14 points. We only had one turnover. Our special teams made a strong contribution. We rushed the ball better. Those types of things."
Is it possible to build a bridge over an eight-month span, when so much changes from season-to-season in the NFL?
"It definitely should (carry over)," safety Antrel Rolle said. "We won't be able to say whether or not if there is a carryover until Wednesday night. If we go out there and play with the performance that we know we can give and hopefully there is some carryover, which we all are looking forward to. We're trying to make a mark for ourselves."
The Giants have some recent experience at constructing a bridge from a championship to the following season. After winning Super Bowl XLII four years ago, they were the NFL's best team through the first three-quarters of the 2008 season, putting together an 11-1 record. Then wide receiver Plaxico Burress had a firearms mishap, the offense fizzled and the Giants lost their first postseason game.
"We came back with a very good attitude about practicing and looking forward to the season and playing well and were able to carry over some of the things that we had done pretty well during the previous season," Coughlin said. "We ran the ball well. We had a nice mix. Defensively, we played pretty well and probably with the exception of going to Cleveland (a poor Monday night performance that resulted in their only defeat in the first 12 games), we were consistent throughout those first 10, 11 ballgames."
Coughlin was asked if he sees anything in the current Giants to make him believe they'll be similarly quick out of the gate.
"That's the goal," he said. "That's what we're trying to do. I know they're anxious to play, so let's play it."
The Cowboys are also eager to get started, though they have a far different motivation. Dallas was sent home without a postseason berth after losing to the Giants, 31-14, on New Year's Night. Three weeks earlier they had blown a 12-point fourth-quarter lead on their home field and fallen to the Giants. The Cowboys have lost five of the last six games in this rivalry.
"Ultimately, you have to go do it," said Dallas coach Jason Garrett, the Giants' former backup quarterback. "You can talk about thin lines, or we were close, or they were close, or if we would've done this, or would've done that. That's not how it works. It's a bottom-line business. Make sure you take care of the bottom line. There are a lot of reasons and a lot of explanations about how things turn out, but the fact is you just need to go do it. That's something that we try to pride ourselves on down here in terms of talking to our players about. You can't make excuses; you have to go get the job done."
Although these teams are intimately familiar with each other, the run-up to the game includes a healthy dose of the unknown that is part of all season openers. Surely the Cowboys will make some offensive and defensive changes as they look to reverse their fortunes against a longtime adversary. And the Giants know they can't expect to continue their success if they roll out the same game plans.
But the mystery is in the details. The Giants won't know exactly what Dallas has planned until the game unfolds.
"It's a little more complex than usual because obviously it's the start of the year, they've seen what we do," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "We've had some success. There's going to be the natural modifications or adjustments that take place, but here it's been made a little bit more challenging because you've got two new corners (Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne), so now you're trying to incorporate what you saw in preseason and what they did to us schematically last year. What are the normal adjustments and changes that are going to take place? Well, what is going to take place because of the presence of those two corners that they've invested a lot of money to get, so you're gambling. You have to have enough answers so 'If they take this approach, we're going to do this.' If they take another approach, we'll do something different, but to be quite honest, you don't know and so we'll wait and see. You're playing the odds or your hunches that they're going to do what we think and devise your game plan accordingly, but you certainly have in your hip pocket the ability to go to something else if they're doing something much radically different than what we anticipate."
In their two victories over Dallas last season, the Giants scored 68 points and totaled 947 yards. Eli Manning passed for 746 yards, threw five touchdown passes and was sacked only twice by the heavy-pressure Cowboys defense. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz combined for 25 receptions for 491 yards and two touchdowns. Dallas will likely try a new tact Wednesday to slow down the onslaught.
"The first game, they had a very different approach than what they did the second game," Gilbride said. "You have your base defense, but they committed very much to a lot of man coverage and a lot of doubling of Victor and Hakeem and basically said, 'You've got win somewhere else.' And it got even more radical at the end and that's when Jake Ballard made two great big plays for us that enabled us to come back and win the game. The second game, they still played man, but not nearly as much. The percentage wasn't and the doubling, when they played man, was the same but it was a much, much lower percentage and it was much more zone and a more conservative approach and let those great pass rushers, if you can hold the ball a little bit, they have some tremendous, tremendous pass rushers that maybe they can get to the quarterback and have some success that way."
The Giants may not know exactly what they'll get from the Cowboys. But they can accurately predict what kind of game it's going to be, because the twice-annual get-togethers with Dallas follow a similar pattern.
"Just hard fought games," Coughlin said. "Every game is a tough game. (They) seem to go pretty close to the wire. The 17th week last year was a little bit of an exception, but every game is a battle. These two teams play each other hard and they're two talented teams that are very physical and that's the way these games always are."
The Giants expect another hard-fought scrum in the opener. They're just hoping for the same results they got a year ago.
"It's definitely a great honor to be playing the first game of the regular season and at home, at our stadium," Manning said. "It should be a great atmosphere, a great crowd. It's a fun environment, looking forward to that and looking forward to playing a tough team in the Cowboys. There's a great tradition and history between the Giants and the Cowboys and we're looking forward to another great battle."