STORYLINES TO WATCH
1. Can the Giants’ passing game survive without wideout Steve Smith, who is shelved for the year with an injured knee?
Eli Manning was already a walking turnover with the reliable Smith in the lineup but over the last month without him, Manning struggled to find the right guy on critical plays. Smith was always Manning’s security blanket and was the type of receiver who’d get Manning eight yards when the Giants needed seven on third down. The new guys trying to replace Smith — Derek Hagan, Michael Clayton, and Devin Thomas – have yet to gain Manning’s trust. It’ll be up to Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham to pick up the slack.
2. How will the Giants’ defense corral all of the Philadelphia Eagles’ weapons?
Michael Vick isn’t the only reason why Giants coach Tom Coughlin has had indigestion watching the Philly tapes. Vick’s weapons include wideouts DeSean Jackson, who’s coming off a performance against the Dallas Cowboys last week, and Jeremy Maclin. Jackson has been a thorn in the Giants’ side since coming into the league, as he’s averaged 20.4 yards per reception against Big Blue. Jackson’s last venture to the Giants’ domain featured a then-career-high 178 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a back-breaking punt return for a touchdown. Meanwhile, Maclin had nine catches for 120 yards in the last meeting. All those weapons in the passing game and running back LeSean McCoy hasn’t even been mentioned. McCoy rushed for 111 yards in the last meeting, including the go-ahead 50-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
3. Are the Eagles in the Giants’ heads?
Philadelphia has won five straight in this rivalry in all types of ways.
During this stretch, the Eagles have blown out the Giants [40-17 in January, 2009], won close games [20-14 in December ‘08], won shootouts [45-38 in December ‘09], and even witnessed the Giants give away the game – most recently the Nov. 21 loss in Philly when Manning fumbled away the game late in the fourth quarter without getting touched.
Eli Manning and Receivers vs. Eagles Secondary – Eli Manning has thrown 19 interceptions while the Eagles’ secondary has registered a league-best 22 interceptions, led by Asante Samuel’s seven. That’s not a good sign for Manning, who will be without wideout Steve Smith for the remainder of the season. That leaves just Hakeem Nicks, who’s recovering from an injury, and the inconsistent Mario Manningham as Manning’s top outside receiving threats.
Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Eagles Front Seven – The best 1-2 punch in the league were shut down in the last meeting, as Bradshaw was the leading Giant rusher with 29 yards. But since that loss in late November, Jacobs and Bradshaw have found their grooves and been dominant, including garnering 200 combined rushing yards last week against the vaunted Vikings front seven. Philadelphia shutdown Jacobs and Bradshaw last time but it’s hard to think they can do it again, especially with a newfound commitment to the run.
Giants O-Line vs. Eagles D-Line – New York’s line is finally getting healthy, as left tackle David Diehl has returned and Shawn Andrews is working his way back into the lineup. Center Shaun O’Hara is still out but Rich Seubert has made the seamless transition from guard to center. New York’s line is also amongst the deepest in the league with Kevin Boothe and Will Beatty being two of the best backups in the league. The Eagles are an aggressive and quick front but undersized and may have trouble penetrating the best-coached unit in the league.
Michael Vick and Receivers vs. Giants Secondary – Vick is the greatest equalizer in the league, as even when a play breaks down, there’s no guarantee that he still won’t make a highlight play. His reckless days of just taking off at the first sign of danger are behind him, as he’s become an efficient passer [104.3 quarterback rating]. When he surveys the field, he has arguably the most exciting wideout in the league in DeSean Jackson [42 catches, 972 yards, six touchdowns, 23. 1 yards per catch, including a long of 91 yards] and the speedy Jeremy Maclin [57 receptions, 831 yards, eight touchdowns] to scare opposing defenses. It’s almost unfair the riches that Vick has at his disposal.
LeSean McCoy vs. Eagles Front Seven – McCoy went over 100 yards in their last meeting but that comes with an asterisk. Without two long runs of 40 and 50 yards, respectively, Big Blue’s front seven held McCoy in check. If the all-world Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings could be held to 26 yards on 14 carries, as the Giants did Monday night, they are confident they can do the same to McCoy.
Eagles O-Line vs. Giants D-Line – Even though Vick has been sacked 25 times, it’s come mostly on him freelancing and trying to make a play. Otherwise, the offensive line has done its job admirably, as it’s paved the way for McCoy to average 5.3 yards per carry. New York’s defense has barely allowed opponents to average four yards per carry, so something has to give. The real test, however, will be when Vick drops back, as Big Blue gets after the quarterback better than any team in the league, as its 39 sacks will attest. Bookend defensive ends Osi Umenyiora [10 sacks] and Justin Tuck [8.5] thrive on third-and-long situations.
Special Teams – Jackson only has an 8.7 yards per punt return average but when he gets into the open field, he strikes fear in opponents. Their kick return specialists, Ellis Hobbs [21.6] and Jorrick Calvin [22.6], are more than capable of breaking long returns. The Giants, who have an anemic return game, have struggled with inconsistencies all season covering kicks, so this could be the determining factor in field position swings and momentum.
Coaching – Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has the hardware [2007 Super Bowl] but Andy Reid has the unofficial paperwork for Big Blue ownership, as he’s beaten Coughlin five straight times and seven of the last 10 meetings, including twice in the playoffs. Sometimes no matter how good a coach like Coughlin is, someone just has their number.