Few positions in all of sports come with more pressure than a starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. That’s the spot that Dak Prescott finds himself in as "America’s Team" begins the 2016 NFL season in one of the marquee games of Week 1.
Prescott will make his first ever regular-season start on Sunday afternoon when Dallas hosts the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. He’s taking over for Tony Romo, who’s expected to miss six-to-10 weeks with a back injury.
Romo has been much-maligned in nearly a decade as the Cowboys’ starting signal caller, but he’s been one of the NFL’s most consistent quarterbacks when he’s been able to stay on the field. Once the favorites to win the NFC East, Dallas’ Super Bowl hopes took a considerable hit when the veteran was ruled out for the start of the year.
Seven quarterbacks were selected ahead of Prescott, who was taken by the Cowboys in the fourth round of April’s NFL Draft. The rookie wasn’t expected to have much of an impact, if any, on the upcoming season, but he’ll lead Dallas for the first part of the year after having maybe the best preseason of any NFL player.
Prescott was nearly perfect in his debut, completing 10 of 12 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. In Dallas’ second exhibition game, Prescott achieved perfection—at least in terms of passer rating—posting a 158.3 rating on 12-of-15 passing for 199 yards and two scores. Prescott had his worst preseason performance when he spent much of his time on the field against the first-team defense of the Seattle Seahawks, and he still managed to go 17-of-23 for 166 yards and a score, good enough for a 99.2 passer rating.
Prescott won’t be the only offensive rookie that the Cowboys are relying on in Week 1. Ezekiel Elliot was the fourth overall pick in the draft, and big things are expected from him in 2016. He’s the favorite to be named the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he’s one of the favorites to lead the NFL in rushing.
If the Cowboys' offense is going to have any success in Week 1, it’ll have to come against a revamped Giants defense. New York had trouble stopping most of their opponents in 2015, ranking dead last in the league by allowing over 420 yards per game. But the front office spared no expense in the offseason, spending close to $105 million in guarantees to sign defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
Most of New York’s struggles during their 6-10 season were on the defensive side. The Giants finished sixth in the NFL with 26.3 points per game, and with a returning Victor Cruz joining the immensely talented Odell Beckham Jr. at wide receiver, Eli Manning has no shortage of weapons.
It’s New York’s first season playing under Ben McAdoo as the team’s head coach. McAdoo took over as the Giants’ offensive coordinator in 2014, helping Manning become more efficient than he’s ever been. Entering his third season in New York’s current offensive system, Manning might improve upon the 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions he threw last year, and it all starts on Sunday.
The recent early-season history between the Giants and Cowboys has not been kind to New York. Manning and Co. lost a heartbreaker to Dallas in Week 1 last year, marking the third time in four years that the Cowboys defeated the Giants to kick off the season.
In each of those games, however, Romo got the start and threw at least two touchdown passes. As good as Prescott has been in the preseason, exhibition games often offer very little insight into how a player will perform in the regular season.
Shortly before Romo got hurt, the Cowboys were 3.5-point favorites for the season opener. The betting line quickly moved to a pick’em at Las Vegas and online sportsbooks, per OddsShark, and the over/under has settled in at 46 points.
The oddsmakers are well aware of the impact that Romo’s absence will have, and it might be the difference between Dallas going 1-0 and the Cowboys losing a nail-biter in Week 1.
Prediction: New York over Dallas, 27-24