If you're going to contend for a playoff spot in the NFL, you have to be able to beat the teams in your own division. Both New York teams will be put to that test early, as the Giants and the Jets both spend three of their first four weeks facing division rivals. For the Jets, the battle begins against their fiercest foe, the New England Patriots. It seems that all of the preseason pundits have crowned the Pats as the favorites heading into the 2007 season, not just to win the AFC East crown, but also to win their fourth Super Bowl in a seven-year span. Fortunately for the Jets, this matchup comes at a time when New England is missing several key players.
The Giants kick their season off Sunday night with a game against the new-look Dallas Cowboys. New head coach Wade Phillips has retooled the defense, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has built what looks to be one of the league's most potent offenses. Big Blue was buoyed by the return of defensive end Michael Strahan this week, but a rash of injuries has left them with more questions at the end of training camp than when they started. There's no time to coast for either team. These games will have a significant impact on the playoff chase, and if the Jets and Giants want to contend in 2007, they must start strong.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS at JETS
Sunday 1 p.m., CBS
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Last year, the Patriots set a franchise record for the fewest points allowed. This weekend, however, they'll be without their two biggest playmakers. Safety Rodney Harrison has been suspended for four weeks for violating the league's drug policy. Also missing will be defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who is out for at least six games while recovering from knee surgery. Neither of these absences suggests that the Patriots are on the verge of falling apart — but it does mean they're vulnerable, and the Jets' game plan has to take this into account.
The Jets will start by attacking the Patriots on the ground. Running back Thomas Jones sat out all of the preseason games after coming over in a trade from the Bears. He rushed for 1,210 yards last year while helping to lead Chicago to the Super Bowl. The Jets are hoping he can make the same kind of impact for them.
Questions continue to swirl around quarterback Chad Pennington, who played poorly during the postseason. Those questions gained intensity because of the strong showing of his backup, second year man Kellen Clemens. The conventional wisdom says that a strong running game will make Pennington's job easier, but the Patriots will bring pressure at him from all angles in an effort to force turnovers.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL New England's biggest weakness last year was their thin receiving corps, and they addressed that in a big way during the off-season. The addition of Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth gives quarterback Tom Brady a variety of dangerous options in the passing game. The departure of veteran back Corey Dillon leaves Laurence Maroney as the featured runner. He showed flashes of brilliance last year, but scouts question whether he can carry a full-time load.
The Jets defense struggled against the run last year, and the main reason seemed to be that defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were ill suited to the new 3–4 scheme. The Patriots will test them early and keep running until the Jets stop them. Cornerback Andre Dyson has been slowed by a foot injury, which makes it more likely that firstround pick Darrelle Revis will see extended playing time and maybe even start the game.
KEY TO THE GAME The Jets' offensive line has to play better, particularly on the left side. If they can open some holes for Jones, the Jets can control the game.
Lahman's Pick: Jets 20–14
GIANTS at DALLAS COWBOYS
Sunday 8:15 p.m., NBC
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL If the preseason is any indication, the Giants could have their most explosive offense in years. The new system installed by offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is designed around Eli Manning's strengths, and the Giants quarterback looked outstanding in the preseason. They ran more plays out of the shotgun and with an empty backfield to give Manning better protection. He also threw more quick short passes, which boosted his completion percentage significantly. The Giants will have to adjust to life without Tiki Barber, but the early indications are that they'll be just fine with Brandon Jacobs carrying the ball.
Defensive guru Phillips has taken over as the Cowboys' head coach, and he'll bring his aggressive style of play to a unit already blessed with great talent. Linebacker De-Marcus Ware is an emerging young star, and strong safety Roy Williams is disruptive in all phases of the game. Dallas will be without another playmaker, cornerback Terrence Newman, who is sidelined with a foot injury.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL Quarterback Tony Romo made the Pro Bowl in his first year as the Cowboys' starter, and he has a strong supporting cast around him. Tight end Jason Witten and veteran receivers Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn give Romo a trio of reliable targets. The backfield features a formidable one-two punch, with the explosive Julius Jones and inside runner Marion Barber — and both can also catch the ball.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo brings his system over from Philadelphia, giving the Giants a much different look despite returning most of the same players. He'll have the cornerbacks playing a lot of press coverage. This will put a lot of pressure on Big Blue's linebackers to react more quickly and make plays.
KEY TO THE GAME Romo will challenge the Giants' secondary, which was one of their biggest weaknesses last year. Corners Sam Madison and Corey Webster will have their hands full.
Lahman's Pick: Cowboys 24–17