OAKLAND RAIDERS (1-3) vs. GIANTS (4-0)
THE TEAMS: The Giants sit atop the NFC East and are coming off a perfect three-game road set, two of which were played against league cellar-dwellers. In fact, the combined won-loss total of Giants opponents this year is 4-12, and that's not counting the Raiders' 1-3 mark going in. Still, they're winning games with authority. Outside of the two-point victory in Dallas, the Giants beat the Redskins, Bucs, and Chiefs by an average of 13 points. The Raiders, meanwhile, seem to hit themselves harder than their opponents. Coach Tom Cable has a sit-down scheduled with commissioner Roger Goodell Saturday to explain whether he did or didn't break the jaw of one of his assistants. JaMarcus Russell has taken on a slacker's personality and has West Coast minds wondering when Cable will switch to Bruce Gradkowski. It's a mess.
THE HISTORY: The Raiders lead the series 7-3, and have a 3-1 mark at Giants Stadium. They won their last appearance in the Meadowlands 27-10, but that was back in 2001 when the Raiders actually had a decent team. Look, even if Eli Manning doesn't make it out of the first quarter with his inflamed right heel, the Giants should have a better-than-even shot to beat this team. This is one of those get-it-over-with games, their last shot against a softy, before the real season starts next week in New Orleans.
INJURIES: Giants -- CB Aaron Ross (hamstring), DT Chris Canty (calf), LB Bryan Kehl (finger), and LB Michael Boley (knee) are out. TE Kevin Boss (ankle) is doubtful. QB Eli Manning (heel) and RB Danny Ware (elbow) are questionable. WR Domenik Hixon (knee), LB Clint Sintim (groin), G Rich Seubert (shoulder), DE Justin Tuck (shoulder), and RB Ahmad Bradshaw (ankle/foot) are probable.
Raiders -- G Robert Gallery (fibula), T Cornell Green (calf), RB Darren McFadden (knee), RB Oren O'Neal (ankle), WR Chaz Schilens (foot), and WR Nick Miller (shin) are out. S Michael Huff (quad) and TE Zach Miller (concussion) are questionable. CB Nnamdi Asomugha (wrist), S Tyvon Branch (hip), and S Hiram Eugene (calf) are probable.
WATCH THIS: When Tom Coughlin started his rundown of the Raiders Wednesday with the special teams, particularly the kicking game, you knew he was facing a troubled opponent. He can go on and on about punter Shane Lechler's foot and field goal kicker Sebastian Janikowski's accuracy, but when your punter is one of your MVPs, you've got problems.
Fact is, though, that Lechler has a booming foot, having whacked 13 punts of more than 50 yards already. Included is a 70-yarder against Kansas City and a 66 and 67-yarder against KC and Houston, respectively. Janikowski can also hit kickoffs consistently beyond or near the goal line. But the Raiders' kickoff coverage is faulty at best, and Janikowski had one of those returned 95 yards for a touchdown.
There's not a whole lot to worry about with this team. Not even running back Darren McFadden. A knee injury last week against the Texans put him on the sidelines for this game. So the Giants' much-improved run defense will have to contend with former fourth-rounder Michael Bush, who has 30 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown, but only combined with McFadden for seven last week. Fullback Justin Fargas doesn't get the ball much, but he's a good blocker that linebackers Chase Blackburn, Danny Clark, and Antonio Pierce will have to deal with to shut down Bush. The Giants' run defense, after getting gashed for 336 yards and four touchdowns its first two games, the defense has allowed just 133 yards and no rushing touchdowns the last two. A big part of that the last game had to do with Boley running all over the backfield for four tackles for losses. He's out after knee surgery now, so Blackburn will have to pick up a lot of that slack.
The Raiders' offensive front has gone through much upheavel with injuries to G Robert Gallery and T Cornell Green, which gives Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Fred Robbins, and Barry Cofield a decided advantage. The Raiders are left with 6-foot-7, 300-pound Mario Henderson going head-up on the fast Umenyiora. Give this matchup to Umenyiora, who had one of the Giants' five sacks on Matt Cassel last week. The whole defensive line might just go to town on Russell, who has inspired neither production nor confidence from his Silver-and-Black clad teammates. He doesn't lead. He's only found first-round starting receiver Darrius Hayward-Bey twice so far. And being ranked last among NFL passers with a 42.4 rating (on a 39.8 completion percentage with one touchdown and four interceptions) hasn't helped his case. How embarrassing is it for him that it was veteran defensive end Greg Ellis trying to rally the offense on the sidelines during Houston's 29-6 whipping?
WR Louis Murphy doesn't scare folks like Terrell Thomas or Corey Webster.
Despite the Raiders' offensive disarray, the Giants will still have to find ways to score points. Steve Smith, with 11 catches last week for 134 yards and two touchdowns last week, gets to go against two fast corners in 2008 Pro Bowler Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Johnson, the latter of whom has one of the Raiders' four interceptions. Safety Michael Huff has an AFC-high three picks. Given how Smith has been able to get consistently open against lesser secondaries, it will be interesting to see if the Raiders can find a solution to him. If they do, however, look for more throws to go to Mario Manningham, who had a decidedly off game last week, and the fast-developing Hakeem Nicks, who showed no signs of lingering pain from the foot injury that cost him two games before Kansas City.
The wildcard here is Manning. David Carr is ready and willling to step in if Manning can't make it on a gametime decision. But his lack of playing time since his starting days in Houston has hurt his accuracy. A week of running with the first unit -- "You get to play with the toys, all those young receivers," Carr said -- should help in his preparation. He's more mobile than Manning, thanks to all that experience running for his life in Houston. But he's not Manning. Even if Manning can play at 75 percent, he's still a better choice than Carr given his rapport with the receiving corps in general, and specifically with Smith. But if Carr has to go in there, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said he knows enough of the offense to be productive. "I'd expect him to play well. I'd be disappointed if he doesn't play well," Gilbride said.
A nicked up offensive line will want to continue the emergence of the ground game behind Brandon Jacobs, who has 184 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries the last two games. But that won't be easy against the Raiders' second greatest strength, a defensive line that features the ex-Cowboy Ellis and ex-Patriot Richard Seymour at the ends and veterans Tommy Kelly and Gerard Warren in the middle. Still, opponents are averaging a healthy 4.0 yards per carry against them, and have scored four rushing touchdowns. Ahmad Bradshaw could see time, but the wrap on his left calf along with the boot on his right foot indicated he may be in more pain than he's letting on.
PREDICTION: Unless they utterly look past this team to New Orleans, the only question will be whether they cover the monster 15 1/2-point line.
If Manning plays and is somewhat productive, and the defense continues on an upward swing against a horrible offense, they'll have little trouble in that department. And if Carr plays, there's still a good bet he'll show enough to edge out a victory. Giants 27-10.