KICKOFF: Sunday, 12:00 CT
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 8th meeting. The Cowboys lead the series 5-2. Dallas has won three
of the last four, though the Chargers won the last meeting in 2001, 32-21.
The Cowboys are 3-1 in games played in San Diego.
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).
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.
PERSONNEL NEWS: Cowboys:
--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
--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.
--FS Bhawoh Jue will start over Jerry Wilson at free safety. Jue made a
late push for Wilson's job, and gets the nod for the opener.
--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
--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
--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.
--LT Leander Jordan remains a backup to Roman Oben, but the coaches have
been pleased with Jordan's play of late.
INSIDE THE CAMPS: Cowboys:
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.
First round draft picks Marcus Spears and Demarcus Ware were given a
combined $17 million in guaranteed money.
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
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.
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