The New York Giants are looking to rebound from a disappointing 2012 that saw them miss the playoffs.
Three straight such years - and a big contract extension for Tony Romo - have the Dallas Cowboys feeling increasing pressure to return to the postseason.
If either of these archrivals are lacking that sense of urgency to start the season, the sight of each other should provide plenty of motivation Sunday night as the Giants try to remain unbeaten at AT&T Stadium.
New York (9-7) failed to follow up its improbable 2011 Super Bowl title, losing five of its final eight games last year. The Giants were particularly bad in lopsided losses to Atlanta and Baltimore on Dec. 16 and 23, falling by a combined 67-14 to effectively seal their fate.
The performances were indicative of defensive problems that plagued the team all season, as New York finished 31st in the NFL with 383.4 yards allowed per game. The Giants' usually powerful pass rush managed only 33 sacks, 22nd in the league.
Coach Tom Coughlin's team took steps to correct its problems against the run in the offseason, remaking the interior line, but New York's defensive success may hinge greatly on whether it can rediscover its trademark ability to get to the quarterback.
"For us it is all about staying healthy," said end Justin Tuck, one of numerous Giants defensive players looking to bounce back from subpar seasons. "We obviously know what it takes to get to the top of that mountain."
The biggest health issue facing New York on defense is Jason Pierre-Paul's back, which he had surgery on during the offseason. He's listed as questionable, with the team saying it needs a little more time to decide his status.
"It's something you just can't rush into and it's for your health," Pierre-Paul, who managed 6 1/2 sacks last season after piling up 16 1/2 in 2011, said Monday. "Right now I'm doing the smart thing and just taking it day by day.
"When I come back, I'll be fully ready to play. We have our rotations, but I'll be ready to play. It's all on the coaches, too, how they want to play me."
The Giants also lost safety Stevie Brown, tied for second in the league with eight interceptions last year, for the season with a torn ACL.
New York doesn't usually have concerns about an offense led by quarterback Eli Manning and receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, but the trio appears to have work to do to regain its 2011 form. Nicks struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness throughout last season and had trouble getting in sync with Manning during the preseason.
Cruz, coming off another 1,000-yard season and having recently signed a long-term contract, suffered a bruised heel in preseason. He's expected to be ready for Sunday.
"I think it's good to have that first game against our rival, a division game," Manning said. "It's a big game on a lot of counts. Not just because it's the first one but because it's in the division and it's Dallas and we know them well. I think it's good to kick off the season with a big game."
The Giants' running game will be led by dynamic second-year back David Wilson after the departure of veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, but the team suffered another injury blow when key backup Andre Brown broke his leg in the preseason and will miss at least the first eight games, leaving a very thin backfield.
Dallas also faces plenty of questions after a second straight 8-8 season, its third in a row in which it didn't make the postseason. The Cowboys made a major change to their coaching staff, replacing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with Monte Kiffin, and with it came a switch from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3.
That means bigger contributions are needed from the line, but a key member of that unit is a question mark for this game. Leading 2012 tackler Anthony Spencer, who also had 11 sacks, is trying to overcome knee surgery and other injuries. He's uncertain to play Sunday.
"Conditioning certainly is a factor," said coach Jason Garrett, who could be coaching to keep his job this season. "I would say particularly for Spence, just because he really hasn't done much during training camp and hasn't played in the preseason games."
The club will likely need a healthy Spencer and strong seasons from DeMarcus Ware - who had 11 1/2 sacks last year but is moving from linebacker to end - linebacker Sean Lee and cornerback Morris Claiborne if it wants to improve after finishing 19th in total defense with 355.4 yards a game in 2012.
No Cowboy will face more scrutiny than Romo, who signed a six-year, $108 million extension in the offseason and has been given a bigger stake in the offense. Despite throwing a career high-tying 19 interceptions last season and posting a career-low 90.5 passer rating, he'll be expected to lead Dallas back to the playoffs.
Romo will be receiving calls from offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. Garrett had called the plays since he joined the team's staff in 2007.
"There's just a way to play winning football and there's a way not to," Romo said. "And we're going to make sure we play winning football, that's everybody included. When we're not, it needs to be extremely important and I think it is."
Romo and the Cowboys need another typically strong season from tight end Jason Witten (110 catches, 1,039 yards) as well as receiver Dez Bryant, whose breakout year saw him catch 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Cowboys, though, were the third-most penalized team in the league last season and were eighth in turnovers with 29.
New York won for the fourth time in as many visits to Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 28 - a game in which Romo threw four interceptions and was sacked four times - since the facility opened in 2009, giving it a split of the season series. The Giants have won six of the last eight matchups overall.
The Associated Press News Service
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