It's Football Time in America

The Giants start their title defense on Wednesday night against the Cowboys

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    The NFL regular season begins with the New York Giants hosting the Dallas Cowboys.

    It's time to stop hibernating, boys and girls, because the NFL is finally ready to resume its place at the forefront of every waking thought.

    The Giants kick off their title defense on at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday night (airing on NBC) against the Cowboys, a game we've been waiting for with baited breath since about 15 minutes after the Giants beat the Patriots in Indianapolis. How did we ever make it seven months without this?

    It's a question we can thankfully shelve until February and occupy our thoughts with more interesting queries. No better place to start with ones having to do with Wednesday night's game.

    The Cowboys spent the offseason making moves that seemed to indicate their sole agenda was beating the Giants. That's not surprising, since they lost twice to New York in the final four games last season to blow both the division title and a seat at the playoff banquet.

    Last season, Dallas couldn't deal with receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, or quarterback Eli Manning. So the Cowboys got two new cornerbacks, signing Brandon Carr and drafting Morris Claiborne. They also signed two offensive linemen and moved impressive rookie Tyron Smith to left tackle for his second season in hopes of keeping Tony Romo upright long enough to expose a suspect Giants secondary.

    Their chances of doing it will take a hit if tight end Jason Witten isn't able to play after lacerating his spleen in the preseason. Witten's doubtful, but nose tackle Jay Ratliff is out with a high ankle sprain, and that will make it easier for the shaky Giants offensive line to keep DeMarcus Ware from wreaking too much havoc.

    The Giants had a quieter offseason, and this season will use the same blueprint that's won them two of the last five Super Bowls: Let Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck rush the passer often enough to keep the game close in the fourth quarter, and then let Manning win it.

    Manning was so good in the fourth quarter last season that you almost have to expect some regression this season, although his brother never really seemed to lose the knack with the Colts.

    Peyton Manning, Eli's older brother, should provide another key storyline this season. He hasn't played in over a year, he's had multiple neck surgeries and he's moved from Indianapolis to Denver. Whether or not Peyton still has it is something we'll start finding out on Sunday night, when the Broncos face  the Steelers on NBC's Sunday Night Football.

    The elder Manning isn't the only big player returning from injury this year. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is coming off a torn ACL and MCL suffered last Christmas Eve, the Bears went into the tank when quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte were hurt last year and the Panthers' chances of making good on their staus as a trendy playoff pick are reliant on linebacker Jon Beason boosting the defense to a more credible level.

    For balance, the Ravens will have to try to win this year without 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. Suggs tore his Achilles during the offseason and hopes to return before the end of the year, which is causing the Ravens to put more pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco to prove he's worthy of a big new contract this season to survive until/if Suggs makes it back.

    One big theme of Wednesday night's game will be the performance of the officials. The NFL has locked out the regular officials, leaving the game in the hands of replacements from the nether regions of the football universe.

    They were not good in the preseason, something that was played down because it was the preseason and because the regular refs were no picnic. It won't be so easy for the NFL to take a hard line if they should make a mess of one of the league's marquee games, something that feels like a distinct possibility given the difficulty of their task.

    Let's hope that doesn't happen because the return of football should be about football. The Cowboys and Giants have played some exciting games in recent years, the Giants winning seven of the last nine. Ideally we'll get another great game, so that 2012 gets off with the proper bang.

    See Giants vs. Cowboys at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.