Well, most people pick the Giants to be in the cellar. I don't think so, unless the team is decimated by injuries. For the should the 2002 Giants remain healthy, and should the team jell into a finely tuned machine, they could boast a double digit figure in the W column, and return to the playoffs.
The first steps will be challenging to say the least. This week the 49ers, next week the Rams. No Giant team since the mid-40s has ever lost two games and made it to the conference finals. This is not a time to beat the historical trend, this team is too young and too green. Any and all victories are needed to boost its confidence. It is necessary for the Giants to win one or both of these games should they seek to move forward. With the realignment, 2 division games against the Arizona Cardinals, is not 1 game against a NFC West opponent. With division games only against the Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins, every victory—especially against a NFC team will be a step closer to post season eligibility.
Let's start by looking at a few news and notes and how they'll affect the team, because there is a lot to cover. Strahan is finally re-signed, for seven years, which means he's likely retiring as a Giant. No more pouting, no more press questions, no more distractions for Tiki, or Keith Hamilton, or anybody, Michael can just go out there and man handle offensive tackle's. As for Tiki, he is questionable for the game with a tight hamstring. He had a few solid preseason showings but we'll see if that hamstring hobbles him too much. Now, because Tiki might lag, Kerry Collins recovering from his shoulder troubles is going to be huge.
Focusing on the Quarterback battle we see that a fumble happy Collins from a year ago is now struggling with a nagging shoulder injury which can only hurt him in this game. Andre Carter and Chike Okeafor are swift pass rushers that could stifle the Giants young offensive line and put Collins on his back a whole lot come Thursday night. For Collins to succeed he will have to get rid of the ball quickly and under the Niners physical secondary. This should be a tone setter for Collins' season, if he can make it out of this game healthy and with a rating over 85 it should give him the confidence to carry the Giants offense through a difficult three game stretch to start the season. On the other sideline the Niners have Jeff Garcia whose numbers speak for themselves. With an even better offense around him, Garcia should only improve, and challenge Kurt Warner for the NFL's best.
As to the keys to this game, it's very simple. It boils down to whether the Giants rebuilt offensive line can maintain not only the defensive front four of the 49ers, but can they also pick up the blitz long enough for Kerry Collins to get a pass off for positive yardage.
Last season the Giants OL was old, tired and injured (and not specifically in that order). They had outplayed their usefulness and the teams needed to obtain larger, faster, more athletic type players so to compete in the NFL. Team speed is just as important as strength and flexibility. The Giants addressed these needs through working with former draft choices, free agents and rookies. The result is an offensive line that only boasts the return of Luke Petitgout, but to a new position (LT). The LG is FA Rich Seubert (replacing the retired Glenn Parker), Dusty Ziegler the regular center injured his knee last season and has had experimental surgery to make his knee heal faster. Well, suffice it to say it didn't work as quickly for him as it did for Jason Sehorn, but then again, Jason's a tad more "in shape" than Dusty.
Behind Strahan and the D line is an odd looking linebacking corps. Why odd? Because Jessie Armstead is not going to be seen back there. Instead the Giants two holdovers Mike Barrow and Brandon Short will have to hope Dhani Jones can pickup the slack leftover. Nobody expects the kid to be the next Jessie, but Giants fans will see what he has going up against this high-octane offense. Kevan Barlow, and Garrison Hearst are going to put up statistics that will outshine Thunder & Lightning's 2000 season. Watch for the youngster Barlow to get the ball in goal line situations. Both players possess a lot of speed and could combine for well over a hundred yards, so the Giants linebackers need to be ready.
Now let's focus on the keys on Defense and on Offense for the Giants. On defense it all boils down to whether or not they can contain the Niners receivers, more specifically Terrell Owens. This guy is a flat out monster. He is 225 pounds of athlete. A guy that can outrun a cornerback, run over a linebacker, and out jump a safety. In 2001 he had 16 touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl, again. The Giants will counter with the Will's, Will Peterson, and Will Allen. Allen is slated as the number one corner this year, but Peterson is much more physical and will have to slow up Owens a bit, to give Strahan time to get to Garcia. Allen will likely match up against a lackluster JJ Stokes on the other side, who will likely be relegated to being the fourth option in the passing game, behind Owens, TE Johnson, and Garrison Hearst. With Johnson having to help double up on Strahan however, Stokes might become important after all. Sehorn will play in the nickel package for most of the night, and should pickup Tai Streets, but again the focus should be on Owens all night. New free safety starter Omar Stoutmire should do better at picking up the deep balls, unlike strong safety Shaun Williams who was beat many times at that same position over the past few years. Now at strong safety Williams will have fun planting guys over the middle. This should be a good forum for him to show his prowess as well.
On offense the Giants have all kinds of questions and keys we can look at, but the main one is whether or not Shockey is going to be as effective as everyone thinks. He has shown sparks of brilliance, and given Giants fans that cringe in the stomach that comes whenever someone with potential gets hurt. The Giants offense has always, and likely for all times will only succeed with a great tight end to bring the ball down and take pressure off the quarterback by giving him an option over the middle. Pete Mitchell did a great job two years ago, and the Giants went to the Pro Bowl, throughout the ‘80's the Giants had Bavaro, and they were great. Seems like over the years the Giants success comes and goes only as their TE's do. Maybe that's putting too much focus on this youngster, but everyone knows how important Shockey will be to the Giants' success. This game Shockey will be able to be extremely physical with a young linebacking group.
1) Giants revamped OL vs. 49ers front seven: I took the liberty of considering the fact that the 49ers are likely to blitz the heck out of Kerry Collins. It's a given that if KC gets rattled, he's not mobile and based on last year, he has a tendency to cough up the ball. The flip side is if KC can get the ball off, the receivers will be in one-on-one coverage. It could mean that Jeremy Shockey will have a "field" day!
2) Giants receivers vs. 49ers DBs: The 49ers have a group of talented DBs. They play the Rams twice each year based on their sharing the same division. In the NFL you either get better or are left behind. The 49ers have gotten better.
3) Giant DL (sans Kenny Holmes?) vs. 49ers OL: This is a VERY key match-up. Should Strahan (and either Keith Hamilton or Cornelius Griffith) be able to push the right side of the 49ers OL (currently occupied by former Giants Ron Stone and Scott Gragg), the 49ers West Coast Offense is going to be in trouble. The timing between QB and WRs, which is key to their passing success, will be rattled to the point of rendering the 49ers beatable.
4) Giant DB vs. 49ers WR corps: The 49ers with Terrell Owens have a great group of WRs. Jason Sehorn, will likely play nickel or dime packages only today, as this is his first real test on his knee. Look for the two Wills to be tested early and often by 49ers QB Jeff Garcia. If the Giants front 4 cannot create sufficient pressure, the staff that created the West Coast Offense might have a field day.
5) Giants ST, period: The Giants enter the 2002 season with an array of new ST players, the most critical being the Center on Punts and Field Goals (Bob Jones); the Punter and Holder on Field Goals (Matt Allen) and the Place-kicker (Matt Bryant). Last week in the final pre-season game, the Giants ST looked like a Bruce Read coached unit. The areas of concern are going to be the Punt Returner, since with Tiki Barber's hamstring status not known, the alternatives are untested but eager rookie Daryl Jones, or staring WR Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard. The FG team looked shaky, but then again, nobody knew of the extent of the Owen Pochman knee injury. With Pochman on IR and being done for the season, the Giants will give Matt Bryant a shot this week. If he succeeds, he keeps his job. If not, they have PK Danny Boyd on the practice squad just waiting for Bryant to blow his golden opportunity. Hopefully the Giants can score enough on offense to make the game's outcome not based on a field goal! Hopefully.
6) Injuries: Going into this contest, the Giants are going to be without Dusty Ziegler (knee rehab: likely to return by Game 3 or 4) and rookie WR Tim Carter (broken ribs: likely to return by Game 3 or 4). LB Brandon Short is playing through a hip flexor, but will play tonight. The status of Tiki Barber's hamstring will be determined at game time. Part of me hopes Coach Fassel will not be tempted to use Tiki tonight, since Ron Dayne could do a more than adequate job, especially with the addition of Sean Bennett. If the power running game can muster a few first downs, the KC play-action school of passing will be utilized to its full extent! Bottom-line: The Giants can ill-afford ANY injuries tonight or throughout the season.
I think the Giants can win this one. They are at home, with everyone in the country thinking they're a garbage team. Strahan has a new contract, Ferrara gets to play in front of his family, and Kenny Holmes knows that if he's to recoup his pay cut, it has to come in the form of "incentives", like QB sacks. I believe it's time for guys like Chris Bober and Mike Rosenthal to step up and play ball. They appear to have the right stuff, they just need a few games under their collective belts to prove it. If Jeremy Shockey's going to be the real deal, and if he's going to shoot off his mouth, he better prove it and tonight's the real night to do so.
I think the smack to the area sports people can be best served cold, Giants 24, 49ers 17.
Alright, we've been seeing the commercials, you've heard all the cliché's, now let's just all smile, dance, giggle, or whatever it is to celebrate that the season has finally started. Giants v. Niners is here. On national TV (so that Giants fans can unite all over) we'll see exactly what the Giants revamped O line and pretty much entire defense has to show us. Not to mention a rookie player Giants fans can finally get excited about.