TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
*2004 rankings: Cowboys: offense 14th (20th rush, 15th pass); defense 16th (10th rush, 21st pass). Chargers: offense 10th (6th rush, 16th pass); defense 18th (3rd rush, 31st pass)
PREDICTION: Chargers 17-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: RB Julius Jones is the focal point of the Cowboys' offense, but new QB Drew Bledsoe is going to have to make some plays downfield. San Diego allowed just 81.7 rushing yards per game last season, and their 3-4 defense is anchored by NT Jamal Williams. The Chargers' soft spot is their secondary, but can aging Cowboys WRs Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson take advantage of it? The Chargers' offense is hurt by the absence of TE Antonio Gates, who will serve the final of a three-game suspension for not signing by a team-imposed deadline. However, RB LaDainian Tomlinson enters the season healthy, unlike in 2004, and he will hammer away at the Cowboys' new 3-4 defense. If NT Jason Ferguson can't shake an ankle injury to clog the middle, the Cowboys could have trouble getting off the field.
FAST FACTS: Cowboys: NFC-best 30-14-1 (.682) record in season openers, but have lost their past five. ... Won three of the previous four meetings in San Diego. Chargers: Tomlinson has a rushing touchdown in 12 consecutive games, one shy of the NFL record held by John Riggins and George Rogers. ... Went 1-5 against playoff teams last season. ... Marty Schottenheimer has 11 season-opening victories, most among active coaches.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Having spent more than $50 million in guaranteed money to upgrade his roster, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said quarterback Drew Bledsoe is the key to the Cowboys season.
Jones gave more than $34 million in signing bonuses alone to sign a host of free agents, including Bledsoe, defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, guard Marco Rivera, running back Anthony Thomas, receiver Peerless Price and cornerbacks Anthony Henry and Aaron Glenn.
But as has always been the case in Dallas, the play at quarterback will be the deciding factor on the season.
"I am very optimistic about our season or I wouldn't have done it," Jones said. "But getting good quarterbacking is going to make the difference. Give us good quarterbacking, top-eighth-of-the-league quarterbacking, and we've got a chance to compete and can think as big as we want."
Coach Bill Parcells' list of priorities is somewhat different, but quarterback is still No. 1.
"I think we have to get good quarterback play," Parcells said. "There's no doubt about that. I think the defense is going to have to grow up quickly. Certainly we have a degree of uncertainty about the field-goal kicker situation, a little bit. I'm a little worried about a spot or two in the secondary. We are improved at corner. There's not any doubt about that. I'm just being candid about that. Hey, I've got a rookie right tackle. Those are all things that you hope six weeks from now look a little bit different than they look right now."
When rookie linebacker Shawne Merriman hurt his knee on Aug. 26 in a game against the Vikings, the team's medical staff said he would be out 2-4 weeks.
Make that not quite two weeks.
Merriman continues his rise back to 100 percent, as he worked for the third consecutive day on Thursday and has been elevated from questionable to probable for Sunday's opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
"He's making very good progress," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "I still don't know whether we will have him active this week."
Merriman sprained his knee when falling down on the opening kickoff against the Vikings. He tried to talk his way back into the game in the second half, but was advised he would be out that night, and much longer.
Merriman, the draft's 12th overall selection, doubted the timetable from the onset. While he respected what the coaches and medical personnel were saying, he was confident he would be ready for Dallas.
It appears so, and the Chargers now have to decide if they want to rush him back onto the field or give him another week. Merriman is revved to play Sunday, and not only because it's his first NFL game.
It was Sunday's opponent, the Cowboys, who Merriman said told him they would draft him at the 12th spot. Instead, the Cowboys went with defensive end Demarcus Ware.
Strangely, Merriman's availability might come down to how much he can contribute on special teams. If he's not able to sprint down and cover kicks, the Chargers will be tempted to make him inactive.
LB Kevin Burnett suffered a knee injury in practice Wednesday and now is facing arthroscopic surgery, sidelining him for one to three weeks.
DE/LB Eric Ogbogu was signed to fill Burnett's duties on special teams and as a backup to linebacker Demarcus Ware.
CB Bruce Thornton was released to make room for defensive end Eric Ogbogu.
RB Julius Jones is expected to get 20-25 carries a game. Coach Bill Parcells is making a conscious effort not to overload him. He would like to develop a 1-2 punch with Tyson Thompson, Anthony Thomas or Marion Barber.
WR Vincent Jackson (Achilles' tendon) worked for the second day in a row and has been elevated to probable from questionable. But considering his lack of playing time on special teams, the Chargers will likely sit him Sunday.
OLB Steve Foley is wearing a protective visor after being poked in the eye in the preseason finale. He practiced and will play on Sunday.
DE Luis Castillo continues to make strides and could be a starter in the not-so-distant future. If the first-round pick didn't have his training camp interrupted with an ankle injury, he might be trotting out with the first-teamers on Sunday. Nonetheless, he will see plenty of action at left end.
Rookie Darren Sproles will return kicks and punts on Sunday. He's looked much more comfortable fielding kickoffs. If he should have difficulty with punts on Sunday, the Chargers would insert WR Eric Parker.