The New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles were preseason co-favorites to emerge with the championship of the NFC East Division when the season ended, and along with such as Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Minnesota were considered capable of moving on to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
So this Sunday in Giants Stadium, it might seem a bit out of place or out of synch or out of something to realize that the Giants and Eagles are staging a battle for last place in the division.
Both are 2-3, both have been flawed in all three phases of the game and yet both coaches feel that such momentary problems are just that, temporary. In fact, Giants' head coach Jim Fassel noted the expectations surrounding this game and said: "It might still matter at the end of the season as to which teams wins on Sunday."
At least the Eagles have had the excuse of a series of injuries that has drained them of several starters, including safety Brian Dawkins and cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. The Giants have had no such crutch to lean on; they have simply played badly, or inefficiently, in their last four games. Winning against the Washington Redskins was as much good luck as it was good play.
So what happens to these teams now? "One of us is going to be 2-4," says Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, "and even then there is still going to be a lot of season left to play."
The Giants have had a fearful time with turnovers. They currently rank next to last in the NFC with a minus-8 in the giveaway/takeaway ratio. The Eagles are not much better, with a minus-6. Quarterback Kerry Collins has thrown seven interceptions in the last two games, including four last week in the 17-6 loss to New England, which was the first time since Oct. 28, 2002 that they didn't score a touchdown (that was a 17-3 loss to, ironically, Philadelphia). Running back Tiki Barber has fumbled four times and lost three of them, more than even he normally does, and he has had a reputation as a "loose carrier" of the football.
"We cannot continue to commit this amount of turnovers and expect to win games," Fassel says. "It isn't possible. It's a proven fact that the more you turn it over, the fewer chances you have to win."
He pointed out the Patriots' game last weekend as a classic example. "We had 13 possessions," he said. "We lost the ball five times. We missed two field goals. We punted three times. That gives you only three opportunities to score. When you have 13 possessions, you should get a lot more out of them than two field goals."
SERIES HISTORY: This will be the 137th meeting between the teams, dating back to 1933. The Giants hold a 73-61-2 lead in the series, and have won 10 of the last 13. Historically, the Giants won the first three ever played and 20 of the first 23. Perhaps the most memorable meeting was the 2000 playoff game, won by the Giants, 20-10, which propelled them into the NFC Championship game (they beat Minnesota, 41-0, to advance to Super Bowl XXXV). That victory accomplished a difficult three-game sweep for the season.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Starting RG rookie David Diehl, a Chicago native, was implored by a wandering reporter: "Go Cubs!" ... He grimaced. "Oh, no," he said. "I'm from the South side of Chicago. That's White Sox territory." The reporter offered condolences; Diehl smiled.
--RB Ron Dayne, the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner and the Giants' first round draft pick (and 11th overall choice) hasn't seen the light of (game) day yet this season. "Hey, if I could do something about it I would," he said, affably. "But I can't. I can only practice all week and try to get my teammates to play better by acting as the other team's running back on the scout team. I know I'll get my chance, and if it isn't here, it will be somewhere else. I don't hold any grudge against the Giants. This is their decision."
It was mentioned that more and more the feeling is that the Giants are at least partially to blame, drafting a running back diametrically opposite in style to the starter, Tiki Barber. "Yeah, I have heard that," he said, "and maybe it's true. But again, there was nothing I could do about that either."
Head coach Jim Fassel, however, says he has "a feeling" that Dayne will help the Giants yet this season, although he wouldn't say whether he'd activate him (and play him) against the Eagles on Sunday. "You know I'm not going to give away any information."
Fassel said he had his video department piece together a tape of Tiki's fumbles, and has seen a tendency to carry the ball differently. "He's holding it farther back to his side, which makes his elbow jut out, and that makes it easier for a defensive player to hit his elbow and pop the ball loose," he said. "But I am not reminding him about it constantly. That can only make him phobic. He is going to carry the ball a lot for us, and so I talked to him about that little technique thing and we worked at it in practice today. I had the defensive guys trying really hard to knock it loose. I think he got the point."
Both the Giants and Eagles are studies in contract. The Giants are fifth overall in offense in the entire league, and 24th in total defense; the Eagles are 30th overall in total offense and 12th in overall defense (first vs. the rush).
The Giants' defense ranks first in the NFC in stinginess inside the red zone.
Teams have had 17 such possessions (inside the 20) and scored 66 points -- five TDs and 10 field goals. That's a 29.4 TD-allowed percentage.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- The number of sacks the Giants have produced in their five games; they had 37 all of last season and at this rate they could top that figure by the 11th game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Am I happy that our record is 2-3? Did I plan on us being 2-3? Would I change it if I could? There might have been some things that we could have done differently and maybe we wouldn't be 2-3 now. But we are. All we can do is fight our way through this and keep in mind that there is still a lot left in this season." -- Giants' head coach Jim Fassel.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb has always been dangerous against the Giants, especially when the defense fails to contain him in the pocket and thus delivers the change for him to become a double-threat by running and/or passing.
"I don't want to give him the chance to tuck the ball away and take off," said head coach Jim Fassel. "But we don't want him to get too comfortable in the pocket, either."
This indicates that the defensive coordinator, Johnnie Lynn, has been instructed to plan more unexpected blitz techniques to unnerve McNabb and take the offensive line, which has had problems, by surprise.
--CB Will Peterson was taken for an MRI to see about his back, as to whether it is simply a pulled muscle or something more serious. He is listed as probable.
--TE Jeremy Shockey (foot) is listed as probable despite not practicing Wednesday. He is not scheduled to practice Thursday, either, but Fassel said he might work him on Friday. Shockey is almost certainly going to play.
--Rookie WR Willie Ponder (hip) is listed as questionable, but Fassel nevertheless indicated that he has very little chance, if any, to see action Sunday.
--QB Kerry Collins, who has thrown seven interceptions the last two games (and nine for the season), makes no excuses and takes the blame. But Fassel says that he had the video department cut a tape of just the interceptions and says that of the nine, "I can definitely say two of them were Kerry's fault." Other reasons include wrong patterns run by receivers, passes being deflected at the line and "just bad luck on a few others."
GAME PLAN: The Giants want to attack the weakened Eagles' secondary, but in order to do that they'll have to find a way to keep the sound D-line from exploiting their still-a-work-in-progress O-line. "We need to protect Kerry better," Fassel says. "He is maybe the best passer in this league when he has the time, but he needs more protection.
We have to work on a few techniques that will protect him better."
Since there are so few O-linemen to choose from, subbing players is not an option. Using a second TE as a blocker might work, as would keeping FB Jimmy Finn in the backfield as an emergency blocker.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Giants' RG David Diehl, a rookie starter, will have his hands full vs. Eagles' LDT Corey Simon, quickly becoming one of the top tackles in the league. Diehl is big (6-5, 320) and strong, but might not have the quickness to contend with the 6-2, 295-pound Simon, a four-year veteran.
Giants' WRs Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard will get to run deep patterns (for a change) against veteran corners Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, assuming they are ready to play. Vincent (hamstring) is listed as probable but Taylor (foot) is still questionable.
Giants' TE Jeremy Shockey (29 receptions, 299 yards) will run his deep midfield patterns vs. Eagles' MLB Mark Simoneau and SS Michael Lewis. If he catches enough passes, the Eagles will have to adjust and that might free up Toomer and Hilliard, both of whom usually do well against Philadelphia anyway.
INJURY IMPACT: The Giants list only K Matt Bryant (hamstring) as out, with rookie WR Willie Ponder (hip) as their only doubtful player. IN fact, there are only two even thought to be probable -- Shockey (foot) and CB Will Peterson (back). Any injury impact in this game, at least going into the game, should benefit the Giants.