Eagles vs. Giants, round three. I've been thinking about the different angles of the game. You can easily fall into the trap of paralysis by analysis when you start trying to figure out what will happen. These teams, coaches and quarterbacks all know each other. This should be one of those games where execution absolutely trumps strategy.
The Giants come into the meeting on a cold streak. They've lost three of their last four games. They did rest some players in the regular season finale so that isn't a loss in the same sense as the other games.
New York lost back-to-back games to the Eagles and Cowboys before beating the Panthers to secure homefield advantage. Do we focus on the losses to tough division rivals or give the Giants credit for beating the Panthers in a must-win game? Tricky question.
I really don't know which Giants team will show up on Sunday. They were the best team in the league for most of the year, but we really haven't seen that group play since November. Will they magically re-appear because the playoffs rolled around? Not likely.
Don't take this as an insult to the Giants. They still have a very good football team with a lot of talent and a lot of character. I think they wore down as the season went along because of the pressure of being the team to beat, as well as dealing with outside distractions. Plaxico Burress went from playmaking wide receiver to trouble-making distraction. Injuries didn't help matters. Brandon Jacobs hasn't been at full health in a while. The last time he ran for more than 100 yards was when the Giants beat us in week 10.
Everything that was so right early in the year has pulled apart at this point. The last really impressive win they had was in Week 11 when they beat the Ravens 30-10. New York ran for more than 200 yards in the game. They built a lead early and controlled the entire game. Since that time they have been very up and down, but haven't played a game where you thought you were seeing the best team in the league.
The upside for them is that despite all these troubles, they finished 12-4 which was the best record in the NFC. They finished in the top ten in both offense and defense. They are well-rested after the bye week and they'll be at home on Sunday. Anyone who expects the Giants not to be tough is way off-base.
The last game played between the Eagles and Giants was a defensive battle. Gang Green proved to be stouter than the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. The Giants didn't score an offensive touchdown until there were just 15 seconds left in the game. I think Sunday will once again be a defensive struggle. That bodes well for the Eagles.
The Giants defense hasn't held any team under 20 points since November. The Eagles defense hasn't allowed a team to score 20 points since November. The Giants defense hasn't been getting torched, but they aren't shutting teams down. The Eagles defense is shutting people down. They are also making plays. The Eagles defense has allowed four touchdowns in the last five games. They have also scored four touchdowns in that period. Not too shabby.
I think both teams will go into the game focusing on ball-control offense. The goal will be to have long drives that keep the opposing offense on the sidelines. Those kinds of games really hinge on turnovers and third downs. Neither the Eagles nor the Giants is a generous team when it comes to turnovers. New York finished tied with Miami for having the fewest turnovers ever in a 16-game season. Let's hope Eli Manning turns into Chad Pennington and becomes an interception machine in the postseason.
Third downs were a huge part of the Eagles win in New York last month. The Eagles were an amazing 12-of-18 on third down conversions. The Giants were only 3-of-11. That had as much to do with the win as anything. Both teams have the personnel to play small ball. It really comes down to execution. The Giants receivers dropped some critical passes in the loss. The Eagles skill players caught the ball well and made plays after the catch. That was a big advantage.
RAC (run after catch) yards could be a critical factor in which team is able to move the ball successfully and score. You need players to be able to catch a short pass and get some RAC yards. L.J. Smith caught a dump-off pass on a third-down play in the last meeting and eluded a tackler. He then fought his way down the sideline to get the first down. Huge play. Brian Westbrook caught a short pass over the middle and turned that into a touchdown. The Giants lacked those kinds of plays in the last game.
The Eagles have a fast defense. Last week, defensive end Chris Clemons ran down receiver Bernard Berrian and tackled him after a 27-yard gain. Think about that. An Eagles defensive end ran down the Vikings deep threat from behind. Now think back to the last Giants game. Linebacker Antonio Pierce couldn't keep up with Westbrook on that short pass over the middle. The Eagles' team speed will make it tough for the Giants to turn short plays into nice gains.
That will put a lot of pressure on the Giants to run the ball well. The Eagles had no answer for the Giants run game back in the first meeting. Madison Hedgecock plowed over tacklers and all three runners were able to come up with big plays. That didn't happen in the rematch. Linebacker Akeem Jordan took over the weakside spot and played the run well. The whole defense played much better. Jacobs did bust one nice run off the right side, but overall the Giants didn't run well in that game.
I fully expect Jacobs and his blockers to play better this time. This is a big game and those guys are all rested. A week off can make a big difference at this time of the year. On the other hand, Jacobs isn't a lock to even play in the game at this point, but I will be shocked if he misses it. He's dinged up, but I can't see him sitting out a playoff game.
The Eagles controlled the Vikings rushing attack last week. They gave up some yards and the one long touchdown run, but for the most part Minnesota had a hard time moving the ball up and down the field with any consistency. The Eagles defense must play like that again (or better) to advance this week.
Getting pressure on Manning will be a major factor in winning. You cannot let him drop back and have time to find receivers. The Giants may lack playmakers, but they have guys who will get the job done. Trent Cole, Darren Howard and Clemons have got to hit Manning and get him moving around. The blitz package needs to get pressure when they are sent on the attack. Brian Dawkins hasn't forced a fumble since Sunday. I'm sure he's itching to hit Manning and deliver a big play for the defense.
It will be interesting to see what the Giants do in regard to shutting down the Eagles offense. I think they will focus on taking out Westbrook. They've tried that this year, but the Eagles scored 31 and 20 points in the two games. That's pretty good success against a very good defense.
Playoff football is different. Defenses tend to play a little better. Offenses tend to tighten up. You saw a pair of marginal defenses last week, San Diego and Arizona, that rose to the occasion and played pretty well. If those guys could do that, the Giants could easily come out and play a great game on defense.
Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg must stick with what has been working. That means mixing in run and pass. That means throwing the ball to the middle of the field. That means playing safe, smart, ball-control offense. Mix in the occasional end around to DeSean Jackson or deep ball to Kevin Curtis, but don't put pressure on the offense to play a great game. Move the chains and take points when you can get them.
I hope Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter get a lot of touches. Those guys are the real key to our offense. Buckhalter delivered a 59-yard pass play against Dallas that led to a touchdown. He then caught a touchdown pass. He had a 27-yard run last week that set up a field goal. I don't even need to chart the exploits of Mr. Westbrook. Get the ball to those guys and they will deliver.
The offensive line didn't play a strong game last week. Those guys will be thrilled to be playing at the Meadowlands. It might be loud and cold, but anything is better than playing inside a dome. The Vikings defense had a significant advantage because of the noise. The line has a tough task in trying to slow down Justin Tuck and his teammates, but anything has to be better than last week. My biggest concern is injuries. The Eagles are down to a couple of backups. Let's hope the starters stay upright.
In the end, this game boils down to which team is better on third down and which team is able to get into the end zone. The Eagles have executed better than the Giants of late, but that's no guarantee of success on Sunday. When you peel everything away and look at it all as basically as possible, you see the best unit in the game is the Eagles defense. I expect them to play big and help the Eagles to advance another step on the journey to Tampa.