What really separates the Giants and the Eagles? Certainly, the Giants were more consistent in the regular season and their ability to win close games earned them a division title and the home-field advantage in the playoffs. But when you look at the Eagles-Giants games, with one win by each team, there is hardly any difference.
In New York's 36-31 win on November 9 at Lincoln Financial Field, the Giants ran for 219 yards, converted 7 of 15 third downs, forced two Eagles turnovers and controlled the football for an obscene 39 minutes, 10 seconds.
In Philadelphia's 20-14 win on December 7 at Giants Stadium, the Eagles ran the ball for 140 yards (on 42 carries), converted 12 of 18 third downs, controlled the clock for 34 minutes, 54 seconds and limited New York's offense to a 3-of-11 performance on third downs.
New York won the first game by five points. Philadelphia won the second game by six points.
Round 3 comes Sunday, with the edge going to ... either team? Neither team?
"It's two good teams playing each other," said head coach Andy Reid. "We know them and they know us."
I had a long talk with Reid about his preparation for the Giants, and I wondered just how much he and the coaches can learn from watching a team they have already studied twice this season and twice a year -- and then some -- during the last decade. Certainly, the coaches study the games New York played since the December 7 meeting, so there is that. They go back and look at notes from what they saw in previous meetings against the Giants. They look at situations and tendencies and the different philosophies from all three phases of the Giants through this season and in years past.
At the end of the day, though, it's going to come down to the players and how they execute, and it's going to come down to the in-game adjustments made by the coaches.
"It's football, when it comes right down to it," said tight end Brent Celek. "We have to go out and make plays. That's our job in every game. It doesn't change here."
I don't have any real insight at this point. Tuesday was a players' day off, but a bunch of the players were at the NovaCare Complex working out and watching film. The Eagles are keeping their schedule the same as in the past two weeks, with a full practice on Wednesday, a 10-10-10 practice on Thursday and then their normal routine on Friday before the bus leaves for Northern New Jersey on Saturday afternoon.
My biggest key is starting strong. Opening in a hole during the 2000 NFC Divisional Playoff game at Giants Stadium still sticks in Reid's memory -- "I haven't forgotten that play," he says -- and it reminds those who were here then how difficult it is to play from behind on the road.
"We always want to start strong," said quarterback Donovan McNabb. "It is always important. We're going to go out and try to get into our game right away. I'm sure they want to do the same thing."
A misconception from the Eagles' win in December is that they started out running the football with authority and that blew the doors off the Giants from the very start of the game. Not true. The Eagles gained two first downs in the first quarter of that game, and led 3-0 because Donovan McNabb found Kevin Curtis for a 32-yard gain to set up David Akers' long field goal at the end of the period.
Not until midway through the second quarter did the offense start to roll, and then the Eagles were difficult to stop: The Eagles put together four drives of 10-plus plays, with three of those drives consuming more than six minutes off the clock.
It was a methodical, powerful approach. It was smash-mouth football?
Can the Eagles do it again? Will they take that approach again?
Look, the offense wasn't great by any means in Minnesota, but McNabb and Co. got the job done by being patient, taking what the Vikings gave them and striking when the opportunity was there. It is crazy to think that the Eagles will march up and down the field on Sunday. The Giants are too good for that.
Still, the thinking here is that the Eagles must start quickly and gain an early advantage to win this game. As loud as it was in Minnesota, the crowd at Giants Stadium can be even worse. The best way to quiet them is to score early and keep the momentum.
* A LITTLE BIT OF THIS AND A LITTLE BIT OF THAT *
- As you see above, DeSean Jackson is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, one of three NFL-related regional covers this week for the sports magazine. Pretty cool for the rookie, who had two big punt returns and a down-the-field catch Sunday in the win over the Vikings in his playoff debut.
- No word from the Eagles on Shawn Andrews, but we should know something on Wednesday. He was scheduled to visit back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins in California this week, and head coach Andy Reid was hopeful that maybe, possibly, Andrews could be cleared to practice right now.
- McNabb is 8-7 against the Giants with 21 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
- Based on Nielsen's Preliminary Ratings, the Eagles-Vikings game earned a 43.1 rating and a 62 share, which is absolutely huge. This Sunday, with a 1 p.m. start against the Giants, will probably be even larger. Since 2000, the team's playoff ratings have averaged a 44.9 rating and have reached an average of 1.3 million households in this region.
- The Eagles, Giants and Patriots were the only teams in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both total offense and total defense.
- Mark this down and hope it happens again on Sunday: The Eagles have 8 returns for touchdowns this season, including kickoffs (1), punts (1), interceptions (3) and fumbles (3). Another one or two on Sunday would be sweet.
- The most critical part of this game? It could be the final two minutes of the first half. New York led the league with 52 points in the final two minutes of the first half and the Eagles finished second, with 50 points.