The 2012 NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will likely be determined by four key duels, including the head-to-head between two star quarterbacks and two of the game's premier pass-rushers attempting to outdo one another.
Here is a prediction of the winners of the game's key duels and how they will determine the outcome of the 2012 NFL season opener:
DeMarcus Ware vs. Jason Pierre-Paul
On the face of it, Jason Pierre-Paul has the advantage over DeMarcus Ware and should be able to outperform the Cowboys' ace. Pierre-Paul has a stronger supporting cast up front, with the likes of Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora able to share the pass-rush burden.
Ware, meanwhile, cannot rely on a bookend pass-rush partner and will miss the interior pressure generated by Jay Ratliff. However, Ware could have the decisive advantage once the game begins.
According to NFL.com, the Giants will be starting Sean Locklear at left tackle. Pitting a journeyman who has spent most of his playing days on the right side against the most dynamic pass-rusher of his generation looks like a recipe for disaster.
Pierre-Paul might not find things as easy against skilled youngster Tyron Smith. Both teams will likely give their left tackles help, and defensive coordinators Rob Ryan and Perry Fewell will probably respond by moving Ware and Pierre-Paul around.
Advantage: DeMarcus Ware
The Cowboys need Ware at his best and he has a good chance to dominate against Locklear.
Victor Cruz vs. Dez Bryant
Not too surprisingly, Dez Bryant's offseason has been mired in controversy. On the field, the Cowboys are still waiting for Bryant to put up the numbers to match his elite-level talent.
For the Giants, Victor Cruz is still basking in the glory of his dream 2011 campaign. The former rookie free agent will likely be Eli Manning's go-to target, with Hakeem Nicks slowly making his way back from injury.
The Cowboys couldn't stop either wideout last season, but may feel more confident with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne taking over at cornerback. However, no matter the personnel, the Giants' passing game just seems to play up against the Cowboys.
Whether Tony Romo and Bryant can do the same against Big Blue's defense will depend on their ability to take advantage of the injuries in the Giants' secondary. The G-Men will be without Prince Amukamara and Terrell Thomas, so Bryant will have the chance to shine if he's in the mood.
Advantage: Victor Cruz
It's probably safer to assume Cruz has the better of things this early in the season, as Manning just seems to have a knack for setting his receivers free against the Cowboys.
DeMarco Murray vs. David Wilson
With so much attention paid to both teams' quarterbacks and wide receivers, it could actually be the running game that determines the winner. That could lead to an interesting duel between DeMarco Murray and the Giants' top draft pick, David Wilson.
A rookie in 2011, Murray wasted no time emerging as a star in the Cowboys' backfield. He made only seven starts, but still managed to gain 897 yards rushing.
His initial burst and brute power can wear down any defense, and Murray also offers the capability to break a big run at any time. It's up to Cowboys' head coach Jason Garrett to design a game plan to increase the number of carries Murray receives.
The Giants' woes on the ground were clear for all to see last season. Former Virginia Tech standout David Wilson will be counted on to use his elite speed to provide genuine big-play potential to the running game.
That's something the Giants' rushing attack has been lacking for a while. If Kevin Gilbride can scheme ways to use Wilson's quickness, he could be too much for the Cowboys to handle.
However, that will depend on improved run-blocking from an offensive line that did little to help out 2011's 32nd-ranked ground game. It won't be easy against a powerful Dallas front that ranked seventh against the run last season.
Advantage: DeMarco Murray
If Garrett commits to running the ball, something he is not always fond of doing, Murray can be the decisive factor in this game.
Tony Romo vs. Eli Manning
Both quarterbacks love to air it out in these encounters and usually find plenty of success doing so. How each responds to the pressure they are sure to be put under will likely determine which quarterback performs better.
That gives the advantage to Manning, who is able to absorb pressure, take big hits and still somehow rebound to make a big play. Not to mention the fact that the Giants can concentrate on neutralizing Ware, while Romo is sure to be under threat from several combinations of players.
Manning has enjoyed some of his best games against Dallas, and with Romo's safety valve Jason Witten likely out, Manning will have the stronger supporting cast.
Advantage: Eli Manning
Romo is an exceptional natural athlete who played some excellent football against the Giants last season. However, Manning always seems to outdo him when it matters most and should do so again.
This encounter should certainly be closer than the last time these two NFC East rivals did battle. The Cowboys need big games from Carr, Claiborne and Ware to have a chance of slowing down Manning, Cruz and company.
If Garrett trusts his running game, the Cowboys can keep this one close for a long time. However, the Giants just have a knack for producing a decisive play somewhere against the Cowboys, and that's likely all it will take to start their title defense in winning fashion.
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