SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (4-3) vs. GIANTS (5-3)
THE TEAMS: The Giants are trying to snap a three-game losing streak heading into next week's bye. The last time they lost that many straight came in 2006. But this year is different because they started 5-0, and a fourth straight loss could have a debilitating effect on the team's collective psyche. The teams are close statistically, with the Giants standing ninth in the league in scoring and the Chargers 10th. The Giants are also ranked 22nd in points allowed, while the Chargers are ranked 21st. The Chargers come off a 24-16 victory over Oakland and have won two straight as Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips sacked JaMarcus Russell twice each. An interesting sidelight is the fact that this matches up for the second time the two franchise quarterbacks who were traded for each other on draft day 2004, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers.
THE HISTORY: The Giants lead the series 5-4, and are 1-2 against the Chargers in Giants Stadium. The last matchup in the Meadowlands came on a cold Dec. 23 afternoon, the infamous "Snowball Game" where fans pelted the field with snowballs as the Giants lost 27-17. The Chargers secured an AFC Wildcard spot with that victory. The Giants hold a 3-2 advantage in total games played in New York.
THE INJURIES: Giants -- CB Aaron Ross (hamstring) is out. LB Michael Boley (knee) and DT Chris Canty (calf) are questionable. TE Kevin Boss (ankle), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (ankle and foot), QB Eli Manning (foot), WR Sinorice Moss (foot) and WR Mario Manningham (shoulder) are probable.
Chargers -- C Nick Hardwick (ankle) is out. LB Tim Dobbins (knee) is doubtful. LB Kevin Burnett (ankle) and DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo (ankle) are questionable. TE Antonio Gates (foot), S Steve Gregory (ankle), DE Travis Johnson (groin), LB Shawne Merriman (foot) and P Mike Scifres (groin) are probable.
WATCH THIS: Eli Manning says his heel isn't bothering him and won't use it as an excuse for his current spate of inaccuracy that has seen him decline from elite stats to 53-of-107 for 643 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions over the losing streak. Well, whatever's causing his problems, he needs to get it straightened out quickly. Part of the solution may be to commit to the run game and a shorter passing game featuring tight end Kevin Boss, who grabbed three passes for 70 yards, including one where he made a tremendous end zone adjustment for a touchdown last week. Boss is a tough player with good hands, and he's fast enough to get past a set of linebackers who have broken up just two passes this year. Boss would probably see a lot of safeties Eric Weddle and Kevin Ellison. Weddle has the only interception between them, along with the only three pass breakups.
The Chargers have the sixth-best pass defense in the league, thanks to a pressure package led by 3-4 linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, who have six of the team's 17 sacks. That makes experienced cornerbacks Quentin Jammer, Antonio Cromartie, and nickelback Antoine Cason, with a team-leading two interceptions, more effective.
The key to neutralizing all of this would be a bigger comittment to the run. Brandon Jacobs, still looking for his first 100-yard effort of the season, carried 20 times for 86 yards last week and continued to show signs of turning the corner from his early-season problems. The Giants need to continue to run him to open up the play-action pass to Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks in the medium routes, and to Boss in the middle seams. If the line, intact again now that Kareem McKenzie is back from his groing injury, can seal off Merriman and Phillips on the outside, that would allow the Giants can run Jacobs off-tackle. That's where the 264-pound running back can make some violent contact with the 200-pound Cromartie and Jammer. A 25-carry, 100-yard effort would provide a huge mental lift to a struggling line and go a long way in breaking this losing streak. Also, Ahmad Bradshaw will likely see an additional 10 or so carries to give his usual change of pace.
Getting Jacobs off to a faster start is what offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is hoping for. "We haven’t run the ball very well in the beginning," Gilbride said. "We have run the ball after we have started throwing it. That is really what has helped him. He has been a beneficiary of the throwing. What we would like to see is us to start off the game running the ball better and I think that would allow, again, it is hard to be too critical because we are second in the league in time of possession, it is not like we aren’t doing our fair share. But if we can do more, we are willing to do whatever it takes to get a ‘w’ so if that is a more effective component of what we are doing, I think it will enhance our chances of winning the game."
Jacobs expects the Chargers to stack the box, just as the rest of the Giants' opponents have done this year. But that, he said, can't dissuade them from running the ball. "The Chargers are going to look at what Philadelphia did, look at what New Orleans did," Jacobs said. "They are going to look at what the Cardinals did and they are going to try to get their own version of what they did against us to try to make it work. That is what this league is all about. And that is why if you don’t come out and hit somebody in the mouth when they are blitzing real quick and discourage them from doing it, they are going to keep doing it. So we are just looking forward to a lot of pressure and we are going to block it up and get the ball down the field."
The re-emergence of Canty and Boley, at least situationally, should help a defense that has allowed 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns the last three games. If Boley can move like the free agent the Giants lured from Atlanta this offseason, he'll add to both a blitz that has had trouble getting home and a pass coverage that has had major problems keeping up with tight ends. Philip Rivers has been sacked 16 times this year, so he's definitely hittable. But he's been very careful with the ball, having thrown just four interceptions. Before Oakland picked him last week, he hadn't thrown one since Sept. 20, a span of 143 passes.
The quarterback may be the least of the Giants' problems, however. They haven't covered tight ends very well this year, and the Chargers have one of the best in the league in Antonio Gates. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Gates has 37 catches for 523 yards and two touchdowns this year. Football Outsiders, a stats service, ranks him fourth among NFL tight ends, much because he has caught 66 percent of the 56 passes thrown his way. He's tough to bring down, and his 14.1-yard average ranks third in the league behind Oakland's Zack Miller and Washington's Chris Cooley.
Cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster will have their hands full with the Chargers' big-play offense, especially wide receiver Vincent Jackson. The good news here is that Aaron Rouse, and not C.C. Brown, will now start at strong safety. Rouse has his own issues, too, like missed tackles. But if he can at least get his assignments down -- something Brown couldn't manage -- the corners may get some needed cover help against the fast, 6-foot-5 Jackson, whose 37 catches for 664 yards and five touchdowns include six catches of 25 yards or more. Jackson is Rivers' go-to guy on third down, ranking second in the league with 518 receiving yards on third down. Just last week he caught a touchdown pass on third-and-4, and picked up two other first downs on third-and-7 and third-and-9. Rivers also has another big target in Malcolm Floyd, who has a 22.8-yard average on 11 catches. "I am hoping that they don’t throw the ball down the field at all," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "No, it will be very critical for us. As much as anybody we have played, they really, really throw the ball down the field. Their numbers are astronomical as far as volume of big throws that they have had."
When Rivers isn't throwing the ball, he's handing it off to one of the faster running backs around in Darren Sproles. Now that LaDainian Tomlinson is definitely on the downside of his career, Sproles has stepped up as a big-play guy with six plays this year of 50-plus yards. He catches the ball out of the backfield and has touchdown catches of 58 and 81 yards. But Tomlinson, with a team-leading 79 carries for 267 yards and three TDs, has improved since the opening games. It all presents a challenge for a run defense that has had its problems. Justin Tuck will have to play off blocks better, and Osi Umenyiora, all but invisible against the run this year, needs to become more of a presence on the weak side.
Mostly, the Giants need to cut down on turnovers and allowing big plays. They've committed nine the past three weeks, and already have 14 on the season just one year after setting a league record for fewest turnovers in a season with 13. They've also allowed 45 big plays this year, which is not good news as they face a decidedly big-play offense.
Despite San Diego's quick-strike ability, field position will play a huge part in this game. Domenik Hixon, back from the hip injury that knocked him out of last week's game, will have to look more like the player who recorded 300 yards of kick returns against the Saints than the plodder of the last couple of games. He'll have to be mindful of Jacob Hester, a turnover-maker who knocked the ball from Pittsburgh returner Stefan Logan's hands and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. He also blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown two weeks ago against Kansas City. Sproles will present a huge challenge for the kickoff and punt returns, as he's already returned kickoff returns for 66 and 59 yards, and taking a punt back 77 yards for a touchdown.
PREDICTION: This season has turned quite interesting, and will remain that way. For now, I can't pick the Giants again until they show some tangible signs of curing the many ills that affect all three phases of their game. Chargers 30-21. If his team doesn't prove me wrong, Tom Coughlin is going to have a major job during the bye week putting his team's psyche back together.
GUEST PREDICTION: That's Paul Dottino over there. You guys may not recognize him because he's more of a radio guy, but I'm sure you've heard his Giants updates on WFAN. A good friend for many years, Paul Dot's one of the most enthusiastic guys in the press room. That said, we've taken away all sharp objects around his desk during this losing streak for fear he might hurt himself or, worse, one of us. But that's another story. This ever-present voice of hope among us curmudgeons is picking the Giants 27-20, noting that this will be Brandon Jacobs' first 100-yard rushing game of the season. Maybe Paul's got a pipeline into Kevin Gilbride's headset.