GIANTS (7-6) vs. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (4-9)
THE TEAMS: Must-must-win right here, thanks to the Cowboys' victory over the Saints last night. The Giants come off a 45-38 loss to Philadelphia that they could have won if not for their continually leaky defense and horrible kickoff coverage. Six big passing plays and three big runs, plus a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown proved enough to overcome a strong passing performance from Eli Manning, who threw for a career-high 391 yards and three touchdowns. The Giants have now lost six of eight, but are still in the hunt for the sixth playoff seed. The Redskins fell out of the playoff hunt long ago, but that has allowed them to play a lot looser, with predictable results. They're still losing games, but they're playing top teams tough. They've lost seven of nine games, but the last three to Denver, Philly, and New Orleans came at a total margin of seven points. And then they put up 34 points in a win over Oakland. All this despite a slew of high-quality players who hit the injured reserve list after the opener, including running back Clinton Portis, tight end Chris Cooley, left tackle Chris Samuels and guard Randy Thomas. They are joined by the top reserve running back, Ladell Betts, and Chad Rinehart, who started four games at right guard after Thomas went down. Portis, a six-time 1,200-yard rusher, Cooley and Samuels have been selected to a combined 10 Pro Bowls. Washington opened its season with five recent Pro Bowlers on offense. Only Santana Moss and fullback Mike Sellers remain, and the latter didn’t play last week because of a groin injury.
THE HISTORY: The teams will meet for the 154th time in one of the NFL's oldest rivalries, with the Giants leading 88-61-4. The teams met in the opener, the Giants winning 23-17. The Giants have won the last three meetings and seven of the last eight, the last Redskins win coming in 2007. The Giants are 6-5-1 at FedEx Field. But Monday Night Football has always held a certain drama for the Giants, having compiled an 18-31-1 record there. They did beat the Redskins in the teams' last Monday Night meeting in 1989, however.
INJURIES: Giants -- CB Corey Webster (knee) and T Kareem McKenzie (knee) are doubtful. CB Aaron Ross (hamstring) is questionable. RB Ahmad Bradshaw (ankles and foot) and QB Eli Manning (foot) are probable.
Redskins -- T Stephon Heyer (knee) is doubtful. DT Cornelius Griffin (shoulder), CB DeAngelo Hall (knee), DT Albert Haynesworth (ankle), S Kareem Moore (ankle), and FB Mike Sellers (quad) are questionable. K Graham Gano (foot) is probable.
WATCH THIS: Manning will have to duplicate, or at least come close, to his performance of last week to give the Giants a chance to win in the final quarter. An early touchdown, something that hasn't happened the last eight games, would certainly help. But so would a great effort from the offensive front to keep pass rushers Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo off the quarterback. For all of Manning's passing stats last week, the blockers didn't do that great a job as Manning was sacked three times and hit eight other times. Washington's pass rush, the third-best in the league with 36 sacks, will look to punish him even more. Manning is tough, but the constant pressure the Redskins have exerted the past few games may make him throw early and force him into mistakes.
If Manning can keep his passes straight, however, he'll have the opportunity to get into scoring position. The Redskins are vulnerable to the big play, so folks like Steve Smith (85 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns), Hakeem Nicks (38-685-6) and Mario Manningham (48-691-4) should see some openings in a physical secondary led by safety LeRon Landry and cornerback Carlos Rogers. The Redskins only have nine interceptions on the year, and injured cornerback DeAngelo Hall has four of those. The defense has given up 32 passes of 20 yards or better, which ranks as the league's 24th fewest.
The Redskins' Red Zone defense is even better. They're tops in the league in preventing touchdowns, as teams have scored just nine touchdowns in 31 trips there. Considering the Giants rank 25th in the league in Red Zone offense (22 TDs in 48 trips), they'd be better off sending one or two big plays directly to the house. The Giants did convert three of their four chances last week into touchdowns.
The weather is expected to be cold, so the running game will once again come into major play. This would be an ideal time for Brandon Jacobs to get his first 100-yard game of the season, if only to keep a rejuvenated Redskins offense off the field. Ahmad Bradshaw will back him up, as usual. But both backs, who have had fumble problems this year, must keep ball security in their minds first and foremost. The Giants were minus-3 after four fumbles, one by Jacobs, last week, and they won't beat the Redskins with similar numbers.
The Redskins' two-pronged pass rush of Orakpo and Carter will probably force Manning into a quick-trigger mode, which means a lot of throws underneath to tight end Kevin Boss, the running backs, and perhaps even H-back Travis Beckum. Both David Diehl and rookie Will Beatty, filling in for McKenzie, will see plenty of both, as they flip sides on obvious passing downs. Orakpo and Carter are both fast, and the combination of the two will stand as the biggest test yet for a rookie Beatty making his second career start. Bradshaw and Jacobs will have to be aware of Landry and linebacker London Fletcher on the blitz. The middle of the line will have to handle big Albert Haynesworth, whose three sacks rank third behind the two star pass-rushers.
The Giants would like nothing more than to mirror the Redskins' pass-rush potential, especially against an offensive line that has undergone seven changes, and may have an eighth this week if tackle Stephon Heyer can't make it. Five different players have started at right guard. If Heyer is out, Will Robinson, who spent most of the season on the practice squad and has never played an NFL down, will replace him. Still, that line has played amazingly well considering the circumstances, and the offensive production has risen, surprisingly, despite the varied injuries. "It’s a little unusual (to improve after losing so many good players), but a situation like that brings a team together," linebacker Michael Boley said. "It helps develop a stronger bond. They always say what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger."
Quarterback Jason Campbell can certainly kill the Giants. Once an inaccurate, mistake-prone mess, Campbell pulled his act together after his benching in the second half against Kansas City in Game 6. Since then, he's completed 153 of 235 passes (65.1 percent) for 1,749 yards and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions. His 18 completions of 25 yards or more over the past eight weeks ranks third-highest in the league over that span. "Campbell is playing as well as I have ever seen him," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "His completion percentage has just gone up so much; he is very patient in the pocket. He is still athletic and can move and can run for first downs, which he does regularly. They have always had a quality receiving corps and still do and he has done a good job of taking the easy throws, making them and getting first downs. And he is such a scramble threat that he can run for a first down just as well." Campbell has thrown seven of his season's 17 touchdown passes in the last three games.
Antwan Randle El is Campbell's go-to guy on third down, having caught 18 throws for 200 yards in that situation. But Santana Moss is the downfield threat with a moderate 13.2-yard average on 53 catches. He has just three touchdowns. He does have the NFL's third-highest single-season performance this year, however, in a 178-yard outing against Detroit in Week 3. He's only had one touchdown in the last nine games, however.
The Giants did a decent job of stopping Philadelphia's ground game. Now, they'll face Quinton Ganther, whose starting job was sealed when Portis went to the IR last week. He wasn't even on the roster for good until the Nov. 15 game against Denver, and has only rushed for a high of 50 yards on 14 carries in his five appearances. Make no mistake, the Redskins are a passing offense now, one that looks downfield for the big play.
Hunter Smith punts at a 43.3-yard average and proved he can throw the ball with his 35-yard touchdown pass to fullback Mike Sellers against Denver. The punt return team is only average, however, as is the kickoff return game. Graham Gano, signed Dec. 8 after a season with Las Vegas of the UFL, has gone 2-for-2 in field goals after Scott Suisham's surprising release. The Giants counter with Lawrence Tynes, who hasn't missed a field goal in three games.
PREDICTION: No more time for such luxuries as throwaway games. They're all must-win now, so the Giants are going to have to shoo away the MNF hobgoblins and win this one if they expect to have any reasonable shot at the playoffs. That means the defense is going to have to do a 180-degree turnabout against an improved Jason Campbell, and the offense is going to have to stop the Redskins' pass rush to give Manning time to throw downfield. This has all the potential to be an ugly game, but they give no points for style in the NFL. Just win, baby. Giants 17-14.