What are the keys to the game Sunday night for the New York Giants when they invade Arlington, TX. and try to pull an upset of the Dallas Cowboys? Here are five things to watch from a Giants' perspective.
Ereck Flowers and the offensive line
The Giants enter AT&T Stadium with a rookie left tackle and an offensive line coordinator Ben McAdoo admits is still "working through" some things. Those things would include getting Ereck Flowers ready to protect the blind side of Eli Manning and figuring out if Geoff Schwartz, coming off a broken ankle and a dislocated toe that wrecked his 2014 season, is healthy enough to man the right guard spot.
We have been emphasizing this along. With or without Victor Cruz, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. If he is given time to deliver the ball to them, and the Giants running backs are given some lanes to run through, this offense can be special.
With the defense a work in progress, you get the idea that it will need to be special for the Giants to win Sunday.
Head coach Tom Coughlin was talking about Flowers when he told Giants.com "There's no room for a bad day. There can't be a bad day."
He could have been talking about the entire line.
The Giants' front seven on defense
The Cowboys have an offensive line considered to be the league's best. The Giants have a defensive line and front seven that is considered, well, unproven. If the Giants are going to have any chance of slowing Tony Romo and the Dallas offense they have to be able to hold their own at the line of scrimmage.
There will, of course, be no Jason Pierre-Paul for the Giants on Sunday night and, for that matter, the foreseeable future.
Romo, for one, won't miss seeing Pierre-Paul lined up across from him. "You feel like you always come to the line finding where Pierre-Paul is and he's been a great player for a long time for them. He's very disruptive," Romo said.
The Giants MIGHT be able to be disruptive without Pierre-Paul. Johnathan Hankins is a good player. Devon Kennard could be a star in the making. Robert Ayers is solid. There is potential with guys like Damontre Moore, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Kerry Wynn and Jay Bromley.
To be successful, though, the Giants need that potential to translate into performance. It also wouldn't hurt if middle linebacker Jon Beason is capable of not only playing, but playing well.
The Giants' safeties ... of course
The safety position has been a concern for the Giants the entire offseason, and it still is. The Giants let Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown and Quintin Demps go, and they have seemingly gone through Plans A, B, C and maybe even D to replace them. Including a brief, aborted reunion with Brown. Where are we as the season dawns? Still with a question mark at safety.
Rookie second-round pick Landon Collins looks like the real deal, but this will still be his first NFL game. Cooper Taylor? A third-year guy with the actual play and practice time of a rookie. Craig Dahl and Brandon Meriweather? Guys who are Giants mostly because of desperation, and both are players with better pasts than futures.
Can the young safeties communicate with their teammates? Can the old ones still get the job done? Mostly, can the Giants avoid breakdowns in the back end that cost them points?
Extra-curriculars with Odell
We know the Cowboys, especially victimized cornerback Brandon Carr, are tired of talking about "The Catch." Even Beckham seems tired of talking about it. We saw in the preseason that the entire league seems to have Beckham fatigue, and they aren't shy about taking that out on the young star wide receiver.
You can bet that the Cowboys will be sending multiple defenders his way, that they will be physical with him, that they will take their shots -- legal and perhaps otherwise -- when the opportunity presents itself.
Can Beckham still be the play-making Beckham the Giants need despite all the added attention? Can he keep a level head and not get distracted by whatever extra stuff -- physical or verbal -- comes his way Sunday night? As a rookie in 2014 Beckham didn't always handle those things well. The Giants need for him to do that this year.
Can Giants win on special teams?
The Giants put a lot of effort, and expense, into improving on special teams. They moved on from punter Steve Weatherford, trading for Brad Wing. They made several roster decisions with special teams in mind. They signed Dwayne Harris, the leading tackler on special teams for Dallas last season and one of the league's best return men, to a five-year, $17.5 million contract.
Now, will all of that pay off? Will Harris' presence not only help the Giants, but hurt the Cowboys? It has been a long time since the Giants were actually dangerous on special teams, since those groups gave them an advantage. They could use one Sunday night, bringing a questionable defense ad no-yet-whole offensive line into a hostile environment.
"We need better. That's why we brought Harris in here, for that reason," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin told Giants. com. "He's the leading tackler on special teams (last season for the Cowboys). Their punt return team and their kickoff return team, I think, were 13th in the league. Well, we need a top 10."