GIANTS (5-2) vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4-2)
THE TEAMS: The Giants come off two straight losses, the last to an eminently beatable Cardinals team, and are now encountering questions as to their true nature and potential as a playoff contender. Their 24-17 loss to the Cardinals last week was fueled by three interceptions by Eli Manning and a disturbing lack of offensive rhythm. A trip into Philadelphia might be just the medicine the Giants need, however, as this stands as an important division contest against a hated rival. The Eagles come off a potentially expensive Monday night victory over the Redskins, during which do-it-all RB Brian Westbrook sustained a severe concussion. The week before, however, the Eagles lost 13-9 at Oakland, an almost inexplicable misstep. The Giants remained a half-game ahead of Philadephia in the NFC East race. But only one loss separates them from a couple of blips and a full-fledged slump. This is a big one, by any measure.
THE HISTORY: The Giants lost two meetings in the Meadowlands last year, one in the regular season and their only playoff game in the conference semifinal. They'll take the memories of that 23-11 semifinal setback into Philadelphia with them Sunday, especially the one where Donovan McNabb picked up one of the Giants' sideline phones and faked a call to the coaching booth after being run out of bounds on an eight-yard scramble. McNabb picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the stunt, but was unrepentant and remained so when he addressed the media Wednesday. "No, I don’t have any regrets for doing it," McNabb said. The Giants have won their last four games at The Linc, including last year's 36-31 Game 9 victory.
THE INJURIES: Giants -- DT Chris Canty (calf), LB Michael Boley (knee), and CB Aaron Ross (hamstring) are out. WR Mario Manningham (back) is questionable. RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot and ankle), LB Antonio Pierce (ankle), and T Kareem McKenzie (groin) are probable.
Eagles -- DE Victor Abiarmiri (knee), WR Kevin Curtis (knee), LB Omar Gaither (foot), and CB Dimitri Patterson (quad and hand) are out. DE Chris Clemons (elbow), S Macho Harris (ankle), and RB Brian Westbrook (concussion and knee) are questionable. C Nick Cole (knee), G Todd Herremans (foot), DE Darren Howard (calf and ankle), WR DeSean Jackson (foot), WR Jeremy Maclin (foot), T Jason Peters (ankle and knee), and P Sav Rocca (back) are probable.
WATCH THIS: Luckily for the Giants, they always seem to play well in Philadelphia despite the ultra-hostile crowd. Those Birds should be chirping away, too, as they'll be scurrying out of the stadium after the clock runs out to either attend or watch the Yanks-Phils World Series matchup across the street. Oh, it'll be a fun-filled day in the City of Brotherly Love, with enough swearing to pollute a shipping dock.
"It's always a tough, physical game with them, with guys chirping at each other," Brandon Jacobs said. "I can't wait."
None of that has to do with on-field activity, of which there will be plenty. Start with the Eagles' defense against the Giants' offense. The Eagles were always known for the blitz under the late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Now, they do it just as much. But they don't play zone behind it anymore. Asante Samuels and Sheldon Brown, who still hasn't wiped away images of Plaxico Burress tormenting him on the deep post, are often left on islands in man coverage. They, along with nickelback Joselio Hanson, will try to physically beat the daylights out of Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Hakeem Nicks as they jam at the line. But if the young receivers can find their way around a secondary that ranks ninth in passing defense (190.2 yards), they should be open for some deep throws.
Then, it will be up to Eli Manning to make those connections. He's been inaccurate the last two games, as his failed bomb out of bounds to Manningham last week showed. The coaches may rein him in as far as audibling out of runs, the better to establish the ground game behind Jacobs after a breakout game average-wise last week. But when he does take a deep shot, preferably not on third-and-2 in the second half of a tight game, he'll have to convert. It's probably better he look short this week, perhaps to tight end Kevin Boss. He could see more business than he has in a 14-catch, 196-yard season, simply because Manning may have to get rid of the ball quicker as the Eagles rush the extra man or three. Ditto for Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw coming out of the backfield. In this game, it may be better to try for the smaller chunks than the whole enchilada.
When they're not blitzing with middle linebacker Will Witherspoon, strongside linebacker Chris Gocong, or safety Quintin Mikell, the Giants' still sore offensive line will have to fend off front-four pressure from DEs Trent Cole (6 1/2 sacks) and Juqua Parker (three sacks), and Darren Howard (two sacks). They move Cole around a lot, which may be the reason left tackle David Diehl had headshots of both Cole and Howard hanging in his locker all week. He'll probably face them both.
Whether through blitz or regular pressure, the Eagles have forced quarterbacks to throw 12 interceptions so far, with Samuels leading with four. Considering Manning has thrown four in the last two games, he'll have to be more careful about trying to stick the ball into tight spots. Again, establishing the run behind Jacobs (120 carries, 464 yards, two touchdowns) and Bradshaw (80-455-3) would make the all-important play-action that much more effective.
While the Giants' top-ranked overall defense may not have to worry about concussed RB Westbrook, there are plenty of other weapons to consider. DeSean Jackson is one of the most versatile wide receivers in the league. He took an end-around last week against the Redskins 67 yards for a touchdown. His three receiving touchdowns this year went for 71, 64, and 62 yards. "He's quite a weapon," coach Tom Coughlin said.
LeSean McCoy would start in Westbrook's place. The second-rounder out of Pittsburgh ranks second among rookie running backs with 212 yards, and now leads the Eagles. He can catch the ball, too, as 19 grabs for 92 yards shows.
Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek round out a fleet receiving corps with four touchdowns between them. "They have always been really explosive on offense. Obviously adding Maclin added to the equation," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "It gives you a treat both to the X and the Z. Everybody knows how explosive DeSean can be, plus they have other good receivers. When you have a good X and a Z it makes it more difficult for your coverage." Look for a lot of nickel and dime, since they'll probably have to dedicate a cornerback and a safety on over-under double-coverage on Jackson.
It will be encumbent on the front four to put pressure on quarterback Donovan McNabb, whose sore ribs could hurt his vaunted mobility. The good news there is that DE Justin Tuck will go against right tackle Winston Justice in the Eagles' reshuffled line. If that's not a familiar name, go back to 2007 when Osi Umenyiora treated the then-rookie fill-in like a subway turnstile. Umenyiora, who gets a more accomplished left tackle in Jason Peters, ripped Justice apart for six sacks.
After last week's punting disaster, Jeff Feagles spent the whole week refining his sideline work, and for good reason. Jackson is a great punt returner, and already has run one back 85 yards for a touchdown. Jackson has an NFC high 14.5-yard return average. David Akers is one of the most accurate placekickers in the league, but the Giants' Lawrence Tynes remains the league's leading scorer with 69 points. Domenik Hixon needs to recover from a decidedly mediocre game returning kickoffs and punts. Field position will be huge in this potential all-day brawl.
PREDICTION: Look, you didn't really think this team wouldn't lose two games this year, did you? The fact that they came in consecutive setbacks is a bit surprising, but the Giants are still a pretty decent team. Probably the best in the NFC East. The Eagles? They lost to Oakland. I'm thinking the offense is going to kick into gear again against the Eagles' blitzing defense. Giants 27-21.
GUEST PREDICTION: Mike Garafolo of the Newark Star-Ledger is a good guy and one of my favorite foils in the newsroom. Tough guy from Philly, but a real sweetheart with an appetite for a good steak and good Italian food. But really, he'll eat anything, as the baby picture on the left shows. At the moment, he's still trying to digest just how in the heck the Giants lost to Arizona. He thinks they'll rebound this week, however, 24-21, because "they've played well down there the last four seasons, often as they were going through some less-than-perfect times. To that we say, Buona Salud!!!!