Brandon Jacobs remembers the opening night game against the Cowboys very well.
"I watched the first game at my house with my wife and I was so angry I almost broke the TV," he said of the six-turnover exhibition the Giants had in a 36-31 loss to the Cowboys. "It was a tough night. My in-laws were there, we all watched the game together. I didn't take that night [well], it didn't go over very well with me."
David Diehl was watching the game on television too.
"I was sick to my stomach," the Giants guard said of the experience.
All around the country -- from Jon Beason in Charlotte to John Conner in Cincinnati to Allen Bradford in Seattle to Will Hill in New Jersey -- football players were watching that game, the prime time nightcap to the first full day of football in 2013, with differing levels of interest and passion.
Sunday, they will not be viewers. They will be participants. All of the above mentioned players were either not on the Giants' active roster when they played the Cowboys the first time this season, or, in Diehl's case, not available to make the trip to Dallas because of injury. In all, 10 players have been swapped out from that Week 1 roster. That doesn't include Diehl, who was home recovering from thumb surgery.
Players often claim that they are a different team when they face an opponent for a second time in a season. They've grown, they've learned, they've jelled. In the Giants' case, though, they are literally a different team. Roughly 20 percent of their roster has been replaced, enough to field a complete unit.
Usually when a team goes through that kind of overhaul during a season, they're pulling washed up players in off the street and scrambling to fill holes on a week to week basis. It may have seemed that's what the Giants were doing for a while, too. Peyton Hillis and Jacobs weren't getting tryouts anywhere else and Beason seemed like damaged goods the Panthers were trying to unload for cheap. But now, nearly three full months removed from the opener, the Giants can honestly say that they have not changed for the worse.
"We're better," safety Antrel Rolle said. "We're better without a doubt."
Not enough credit has been given to general manager Jerry Reese for being able to restock the team on the fly the way he has. Tom Coughlin said he's never experienced a team making so many changes -- and improving because of it -- during the season.
Like so many others, he pointed to perhaps the biggest change.
"Beason is new and the way he's come in here has been such a plus because of his effervescent personality that is confident, that speaks with authority, and he learns things quickly," Coughlin said. "He wasn't worried if he got something wrong right away. He was going to be heard, and I thought that was a plus."
"You just try to come in and be blameless, and that's tough when you're learning on the run," Beason said. "But that's got to be the goal."
On offense, Brown and Conner have provided a new toughness to the Giants' running game that wasn't there early in the year when Henry Hynoski was at fullback playing on a bad knee and David Wilson was looking for seams that weren't there.
"I think we've grown as a team," said Conner, who was a free agent in Week 1 watching the game without rooting for any side in particular.
So what was his objective analysis at the time?
"You see that a lot of those mistakes cost them the game," he said of the six turnovers. "I think we'll have a better game this time."
The Giants also have some players who were on the field for the first game against Dallas but are playing at higher levels now. Cornerback Terrell Thomas hadn't played in two full seasons and was in his first game after back-to-back ACL reconstructions when he was a starter at nickleback on Sept. 8. Jason Pierre-Paul hadn't taken a snap in minicamp, training camp or the entire preseason because of back surgery when he lined up against Dallas (and had a sack). In the span of the last three Giants games, both have been named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Rookie right tackle Justin Pugh was making his first career start in the opener. He's improved. Linebacker Jacquian Williams played a little more than half the snaps in Week 1. Now he's a starter who hardly comes off the field. Hill, the hard-hitting safety, was serving the first game of a four-game suspension. Now he's supplanted backup safety Ryan Mundy, who made the best defensive play of the game for the Giants in Dallas.
And there is Jacobs, who was all but retired. He had the remote in his hand that night, he said, but he didn't throw it.
"The TV, it wasn't a cheap one," he said, "but I was really angry . . . I wasn't on the team but I was a fan, just as I'm a fan now and am always going to be a fan."
Oddly, because of Andre Brown's preseason injury (he was on injured reserve with a designation to return with a fracture in his leg); and Wilson's two fumbles and subsequent benching; and Da'Rel Scott's misplay on the game-changing interception that deflected off his shoulder, Jacobs' night was salvaged. Shortly after the final whistle, the Giants called Jacobs and invited him for a free agent tryout. Two days later he was a Giant again.
"That," he said, "made my night go by a little bit better."
Just like many of the Giants' moves since.