Following a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2, the Eagles return to Philadelphia for their home opener this week against a team with which they're quite familiar – the New York Giants. Recently, that familiarity has bred not only contempt between the two sides, but one-sided dominance. The Eagles have won six straight games against their NFC East rivals, including the playoffs, with the most recent victory coming in the now infamous Miracle at the New Meadowlands, a game that saw the Eagles rally from 21 points down and win the game on the first walkoff punt return in NFL history. That loss, combined with an ensuing defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, effectively eliminated the Giants' hopes of making the playoffs in 2010, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the "G-Men." That bitter taste would grow in the offseason as Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who has never lost to the Giants, and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora traded barbs over Twitter. The rivalry further manifested when the Eagles swooped in under the Giants' noses and signed wide receiver Steve Smith, a Pro Bowl wide receiver whom the Giants insisted would not be healthy enough to play until mid-season. Smith, of course, has played in the first two games of the season for the Eagles.
As for the elements surrounding the impending Week 3 clash, the Eagles face a week ahead that will be dominated by speculation about the quarterback position. Having suffered a concussion that kept him out of the end of the loss to the Falcons, Michael Vick must pass several rounds of tests in order to be cleared to play this Sunday afternoon, though he has not been ruled out. Vince Young, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Tennessee Titans, was signed by the Eagles to be Vick's primary backup, but he missed the first two games of the season with a hamstring strain. Second-year quarterback Mike Kafka, for his part, was very impressive in relief of Vick in what was his first regular season game action. Kafka completed his first seven passes Sunday night before a Jeremy Maclin drop on fourth down ended the team's chances. Head coach Andy Reid later lamented a conservative offensive approach once Kafka was inserted into the game, signaling that, if Kafka were under center for the Eagles this week, that the offense should remain explosive. The Eagles have no place to bemoan an injury though, knowing what has befallen the Giants thus far – the Giants already have five players on injured reserve and a slew of others who won't be able to play this week. Still, the Giants found a way to win on Monday Night Football against the St. Louis Rams, bringing their record to 1-1. That means one team will leave Lincoln Financial Field Sunday afternoon with a winning record, while the other will be left licking their wounds as a sub-.500 team.
Last Time They Met
December 19, 2010: Eagles 38, Giants 31
Every Eagles fans, and Giants fans for that matter, remembers exactly where they were last December 19. It all began when the Eagles got the ball down 31-10 with just over eight minutes remaining in the game. Michael Vick began the proceedings by connecting with a streaking Brent Celek over the middle of the field for a 65-yard touchdown. The Eagles then converted a surprise onside kick and Vick led the team down the field for another touchdown on the ensuing possession, bringing the score to 31-24. After a defensive stand, the Eagles got the ball back on their own 12-yard-line with 3:01 remaining and no timeouts. On a third-and-10, Vick escaped the pocket and ran for 33 yards. A few plays later, Vick delivered a 13-yard strike to Jeremy Maclin, who shrugged off a would-be tackler and ran into endzone to tie the game with 1:16 remaining. After the Giants received the ensuing kickoff, the Eagles defense forced a three-and-out with 14 seconds remaining in regulation. With return man DeSean Jackson at midfield to receive, rookie punter Matt Dodge received a high snap and proceeded to kick a line drive right to Jackson, who initially muffed the punt before picking it up, back-peddling, and finally running it back for a 65-yard touchdown as time expired, providing a new, exhilarating chapter in the Giants-Eagles rivalry.
When The Eagles Have The Ball:
While the offense will certainly depend on which of the three Eagles quarterbacks lines up under center Sunday (we'll discount emergency quarterback Jason Avant for now), whoever is charged with running the offense will be armed with plenty of offensive weapons. Each of the two Eagles' starting receivers, Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, have had big games this season and together they form perhaps the league's best 1-2 tandem at the position. Avant provides a reliable hand on third down, as does Steve Smith, who surely will be motivated to make an impact going up against his former team, a team that spurned him in the offseason. And, of course, there's LeSean McCoy, the third-year running back who is establishing himself as one of the best in the game. Through two games, McCoy leads the league with three rushing touchdowns, and has run for 217 yards (fifth in the league) on 6.6 yards per carry (fourth among running backs). A new-look offensive line, meanwhile, has been solid early, as they prevented the Falcons from notching a single sack last week.
While they still sport a mostly formidable front four, the Giants defense has serious question marks on the other two levels. At linebacker, the team lost both Jonathan Goff and Clint Sintim for the season, forcing them to start rookie Greg Jones in the middle. The picture is even more barren in the secondary, where first-round pick Prince Amukamara is on the mend until midseason and the trusty Terrell Thomas is out for the year. That leaves Aaron Ross and Corey Webster at cornerback, with Michael Coe and Brian Williams as reserves, and Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle at safety. In what is probably an ill-advised move, Rolle bragged to a New York radio station early this week that he's "shut down DeSean Jackson one-on-one before … I don't know why I wouldn't be able to do it again." It may not necessarily be a wise move to provoke Jackson, the league's preeminent home run threat, especially for a defense that has allowed 11 pass plays of over 20 yards thus far in 2011.
When The Giants Have The Ball:
The Giants' biggest problem, at least on offense, last season was turnovers. The team's 42 giveaways in 2010 led the NFL, as did Eli Manning's 25 interceptions. Thus far in 2011, the Giants only have two giveaways, both interceptions, but, lining up against a defense with an impressive pass rush and strong secondary, the Giants will need to take good care of the football if they're to come out with a win on Sunday. Manning still has capable running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to hand the ball to and third-year receiver Hakeem Nicks is one of the best young wideouts in the game. After years of stability on the offensive line, there are some new pieces up front that have allowed Manning to be sacked seven times thus far, tied for the fifth-most in the league so far. That's not good news for Manning as he lines up opposite a defense that is second in the league with 9.0 sacks, eight of which have come from a four-man rush.
Under the guidance and tutelage of Jim Washburn, the Eagles defensive line has been re-made both in personnel and philosophy. A rotating corps of linemen attack upfield relentlessly, providing what has been an impressive pass rush, but leaving the defense vulnerable, at times, to the running game. Though a two-game sample size is certainly too small, the Eagles have allowed over 10 yards per rush on runs up the middle by the opposition, a mark that ranks them 31st in the league. After a disappointing fourth-quarter letdown in Atlanta, figure the defense to be ramped up for a bounceback performance, particularly the linebackers, who have heard some consternation about their performance thus far. Finally, it's important to note that the Giants lack a high-quality option at tight end, a position that has given the Eagles fits in recent years, including last week.
LT William Beatty vs. RDE Trent Cole
Cole is coming off one of the most impressive performances of his career, and that's obviously saying something for the two-time Pro Bowlers, last week against the Falcons. Cole was dominant not only as a pass rusher, where he recorded his second sack of the season, but also as a force against the run. Cole, however, has not had much success against the Giants recently. In fact, the last time Cole sacked a Giant quarterback was actually the same game in which the Giants recorded their most recent win over the Eagles, seven meetings ago in November of 2008. So Cole figures to be plenty motivated, giving a tough assignment to William Beatty. Despite the Giants' offensive line allowing 7.0 sacks of Manning in 2011, Beatty, for his part, has yet to allow a sack this season according to ProFootballFocus.
P Steve Weatherford vs. WR DeSean Jackson
If Sunday's contest comes down to a tight fourth-quarter affair, let's just say it would be a surprise if Weatherford, the new Giants punter, were to kick the ball to Jackson. Weatherford, a former Jet, and the Giants punt coverage team have been mediocre through two games, allowing 11.7 yards per return, 25th in the league. While Jackson and the Eagles are averaging only 2.0 yards per return thus far, 31st in the league, it's fair to say that we've learned not to underestimate Jackson's ability to make something special happen with the ball in his hands.
Players To Watch
WR Hakeem Nicks
A third-year pass-catcher out of North Carolina, Nicks has been a huge addition to the Giants offense. As a rookie, he caught six touchdown passes in as many starts and racked up 790 yards receiving. As a full-time starter in 2010, Nicks caught 79 balls for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns in just 13 games. The rangy receiver is off to a quick start in 2011, with 10 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. In a division filled with top-notch receivers, Nicks will make his case to stand out Sunday, though he's only topped 70 yards receiving once in four career games against the Eagles.
The team's first-round pick in 2010 failed to notch a sack last year through the first 10 games of the season, despite being active for each of them. That changed when the Jacksonville Jaguars came to town on November 28. The 6-5 end notched eight tackles and two sacks en route to a Giants victory. The next week against Washington, he posted another two sacks. Pierre-Paul is an elite athlete who can rush the edge like few in the league and he's already off to a fast start this season, racking up 2.5 sacks in only two games. With Osi Umenyiora likely out this week, Pierre-Paul could be in for a matchup that sounds like the plot of a new Halloween movie. In a battle of namesakes, he's likely to be tested by Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters.