We have been kicking around ways to describe how much Sunday night's game against the Giants means, and terms like "statement game" and "litmus test" have been used and, yeah, that's all fine and dandy in the build-the-hype days before kickoff. I'm ready to dismiss the nonsense and label this game for what it really is: A game the Eagles must have if they plan to win the NFC East this season.
How they match up and where the Eagles rank in power polls and all of that gobbly-guck is for the fans. It isn't for the team. What matters for the Eagles is going out against the best team in the NFL and winning on Sunday night. The only "statement" that is important is that the Eagles play a better game and win for the fourth straight time and stay hot.
What is truly exciting to me about this game is that we are going to find out if the Eagles are as good as they believe they are. This is a confident team. The Eagles played to a 5-3 record through the first half of the season, giving away a game or two they felt they could have won, and maybe earning a victory or two that in the end had good fortune fall their way. All of those bounces generally even out at the end of the season.
What we know about the Eagles is that they are 0-2 in the NFC East and that they currently sit two games behind the Giants in the division. What we think we know is that the Eagles are capable of playing outstanding football for a full game, although we really haven't seen that yet in 2008 (I would say the defense had a 60-minute effort against Pittsburgh, while the offense has yet to play with such consistency).
As the Eagles dot the I's and cross the T's for Sunday night, here is a random blogging of what I think the Eagles must do to beat New York and climb to within a game of the top of the NFC East ...
- I know the Eagles have to slow the run, but let's be more specific. I think the Giants will come right after this defense and try to establish things between the tackles on the ground. Stewart Bradley is a huge key here. He has to stay uncovered and get to the football. He has to be a force. I'm sure Jim Johnson will try to attack the line of scrimmage in some way. Bradley, along with tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, are my trio of players who rank at the top of the importance list for this game. The Eagles cannot allow Brandon Jacobs the opportunity to run down hill. They have to penetrate at the line of scrimmage and get to him early and force Eli Manning into a lot of obvious passing situations.
- I see this as a New England kind of game in terms of the mentality the Eagles must have. They went for it last year in New England. Johnson threw the kitchen sink at Tom Brady. The defense was extremely aggressive. The offense was imaginative and also aggressive. The Eagles took chances. They had nothing to lose -- and very nearly pulled off a titanic upset. This is the same kind of deal. I don't advocate playing dumb football, but I do suggest playing it to the left of conservative.
- What to do about Plaxico Burress? I respect the guy tremendously, but I don't think the Eagles can shift their entire defensive focus to Big Plax given the other weapons the Giants have. Steve Smith is a good, second-year receiver who runs great routes and controls the middle of the field. Amani Toomer continues to play outstanding football. Kevin Boss and Brent Celek are similar tight ends who make defenses pay. This is a tall order for the Eagles' defense. I want Asante Samuel to come up big. I sense that this is the kind of game he loves.
- How do the Eagles solve their short-yardage and red-zone challenges? It isn't an easy answer. Maybe they can spread the Giants out and mix and match the run and pass, but it isn't that simple. Leaving Donovan McNabb exposed is dangerous stuff against this front. Justin Tuck is Michael Strahan of five or six years ago, and Jon Runyan is still a good player, but this isn't five or six years ago for Runyan. This is where being aggressive and being creative comes into play. The Eagles must have touchdowns in the red zone. A big game from L.J. Smith would be great.
- A prediction: Jeff Feagles won't give DeSean Jackson a chance to return a punt. Feagles is going to kick to the sidelines all game. He ain't no fool.
- Do I want the Eagles to run the ball early to get the offense into a rhythm? Yes. Will they do that? No guarantees ... It has been a topic of conversation all week, the slow starts the Eagles have had. The 15-play offensive script is designed on Saturday, so at this point we don't know what the plan is going to be. Nobody knows what the plan is going to be. And I truthfully don't care. I just want touchdowns. Get a lead on the Giants, please. Don't let New York dictate with a lead.
- The Giants play a lot of man-to-man defense in the secondary, which is another good test for the wide receivers. The offense didn't exactly click against the Redskins. It is going to be fascinating to see what the Eagles try to do with Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown now back and at full strength against New York. Can the Eagles protect McNabb long enough to allow him to throw the football down the field?
- Speaking of McNabb, I want him to run. When I watched New York against San Francisco, I saw the Giants come after quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan and leave some gaping holes for O'Sullivan to run through. He was a mess in that game and instead turned the ball over throwing the football. McNabb needs to run to shake up this defense just a little bit. Whatever the Eagles can do to keep New York off balance just a bit, hey, gotta do it. Cleveland tore the Giants apart with throws to the running back and tight end (a combined eight receptions and in New York's only loss. Quarterback Derek Anderson got the ball out of his hands as the Browns overcame nine offensive penalties to put up 454 yards of offense.
- Is there a weakness on the Giants? Sure. Of course. They aren't perfect. Get to Eli Manning, as the Cowboys did when he turned the ball over three times last week, and the defense can make things happen.
- Key stat for me: Penalties. The Eagles can't give away easy yards. Duh.
- How much will the home crowd be a factor? Well, I think the Lincoln Financial Field crowd will be full of energy, in a frenzy. But the Giants marched their way to a Super Bowl on the road last year, so I don't expect them to be too flustered. That is a grown-up, mature team coming to town on Sunday night.