The Giants come to town on Sunday night for a big midseason battle with the Eagles. This is the kind of game that players want to play in, coaches want to be part of and fans want to watch. You have a pair of teams playing well right now. The Giants only have one loss on the year and just whipped the Cowboys on Sunday. They are sky high. The Eagles are in the middle of a three-game winning streak. They are starting to get healthy and it shows on the field.
The matchup is also intriguing because of what the teams do well. The Giants have the number two pass defense in the league. The Eagles have the number three pass offense. That is strength against strength. The Giants love to run the ball and have the second ranked rushing offense. The Eagles run defense has been stifling at times this year. Strength against strength.
Both teams are in the top five in the league in sacks. Which offensive line will hold up better? Which defense will be able to make plays? Which quarterback will have the better day? These are all key questions that will point to which team should win the game.
This game won't decide anything. It is still just early November. The game is important, though, because it could re-shape the division. A win for the Giants keeps them out in front with only one loss. All the other NFC East teams have at least three. A win for the Eagles puts them just one game back of the division lead. It would bring the Giants back into the middle of things with still a lot of season left. As much as it pains Cowboys and Redskins fans they have to be cheering for the Eagles on Sunday night.
I do think the Giants are the best team in the NFC right now, but there are no great teams in the league this year. The Browns beat New York handily earlier in the season, 35-14. The Steelers had the Giants on the ropes before an errant snap on a punt led to Pittsburgh's implosion.
Eli Manning has established himself as a good quarterback. He showed last year that he could lead his team to postseason success. This year, he's showing that he can really get the job done in the regular season. Manning has more touchdown passes than Donovan McNabb and the Giants have scored more points than the Eagles. Their offense isn't explosive, but it is efficient and very productive.
Manning still has some bad moments. He threw three interceptions in the loss to Cleveland. He threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown last week, although I'm not totally sure that was his fault. Manning lost a couple of fumbles last week against Dallas.
The Giants offense is built around the running game. They feed the ball to three running backs. Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw all have more than 30 carries and all three average more than five yards per carry. Jacobs is the workhorse back. He is listed at 265 pounds and has run for 680 yards and seven touchdowns. Slow him down and you have a chance to beat the Giants. Let him run loose and it will be a long day. The Eagles have done a good job against Jacobs. His career totals against Philadelphia are 35 carries for 118 yards and one touchdown. That's good defense against a big, powerful runner.
In order to slow him down the Eagles must control the line of scrimmage, they must get penetration, and they must tackle well. Jacobs is like other big runners in that he needs a couple of steps to get going. He's a downhill runner. If the defense can get into the backfield and force him to run sideways, that negates his strength and power and makes him much less effective.
The defense really struggled with the power running of Frank Gore and Clinton Portis. Jim Johnson and the players figured things out after the bye and have gotten back to playing good run defense. I think the key players will be outside linebackers Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither. They have to keep Jacobs from getting outside. The linebackers need to funnel him back to the middle where backside pursuit can help. Gang tackling is essential in stopping him. Obviously Stewart Bradley will need to tackle well and be around the ball a lot.
Wide receiver Plaxico Burress has been a thorn in the side of the Eagles since coming to New York in 2005. The defensive backs will need to contain him as best as possible. It takes a group effort. The Eagles don't have a big corner who matches up well with him, so they will need good bracket coverage (corner underneath and safety over the top) to slow him down.
Burress actually isn't the leading receiver. That would be Steve Smith. He's deadly in the slot and on third downs. Sheldon Brown and Joselio Hanson are going to have their hands full with trying to cover him. Tight end Kevin Boss only has 13 catches, but he is good in the red zone. He's got three touchdowns. You can bet the Giants will go to him on play-action passes.
The blueprint for beating the Giants is what Cleveland did to them. You have to be aggressive on offense. Cleveland only completed 18 passes, but got 310 passing yards in the game. You must throw the ball downfield. The Giants don't have great cover guys. The Eagles need to throw the ball to Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson down the field. In order to do this, protection is essential. The Eagles have focused on pass protection this year. Running backs and tight ends are kept in to block more than I can ever recall.
The other part of the plan is to run the ball. Jamal Lewis had 21 carries against the Giants. That isn't a huge total, but it was enough to make the safeties want to aggressively play the run. That helped to create openings down the field. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have to run the ball with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter enough to threaten the Giants defense. The smart thing would be to come out running early and then mix in some deep throws. Reid normally likes to pass to set up the run. This week, it might be wise to run to set up the pass.
Westbrook will need to have a big game. I'm actually as interested in how many touches he gets as how many yards he gets. Westbrook needs to have at least 20 touches. The Giants will focus on stopping him. The more the Eagles get him the ball, the more effective the offense will be when they fake it to him and throw downfield. The offense will be helped out a great deal if the screen game works well. The Giants love to blitz and attack the quarterback. If Westbrook can get the ball out in space against the right defense, he could have some big plays. At the very least a good screen game could slow down the pass rush.
The offensive line has to come up big in this game. The Giants pass rush is too good to completely control, but the line has to slow them down and limit their success. McNabb can move the ball if he gets time to throw. Justin Tuck is the best defensive lineman. The problem is that he moves around quite a bit so it isn't up to just one player to battle him. The entire line has to find Tuck and keep him under control.
Chances are this game is going to be a defensive struggle. Points are likely to be at a premium. That means special teams and turnovers could be huge factors. Field position could give either team a significant advantage. The Eagles must cover well on kickoffs and punts. Conversely, they would be greatly helped by big returns from either Jackson or Quintin Demps. David Akers could also play a pivotal role. He kicked well in Seattle, but has had his share of struggles this year. It will be interesting to see what Reid does if scoring in the game is low and the Eagles get stopped around the 30-yard line. Will Reid send out Akers to kick? Will he go for it? Will he punt the ball? There could be some tough coaching choices.
This game is an opportunity for the Eagles to tighten the division race and show the NFL they are one of the best teams in the league. It is also a test. How do the Eagles stack up against the reigning Super Bowl champs and a team that is very much a contender to return to the big game? The Eagles are at home and healthy. There are no excuses. We will see how good this team is on Sunday night. I'm hoping that sometime just before midnight Al Michaels and John Madden are discussing whether to put Brian Westbrook, Kevin Curtis, Omar Gaither or Brodrick Bunkley on the side of the horse trailer.
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