Be that as it may, here they are, seeded sixth, and facing the Eagles (10-6) for the third time this season, their second at Lincoln Financial Field. That's difficult enough. But when you look back on the two games the teams have already played, it's hard to believe the Giants have much of a chance at winning this one.
They really should not have won the season's first meeting. If not for a miracle 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter and a basketball-like, low-post catch by Plaxico Burress in overtime, the Giants would have lost that game. The second game, lowlighted by two failures to score touchdowns in the red zone and two Eli Manning interceptions, was not close at 36-22.
And yet, there were elements in last week's regular-season finale that indicate the Giants indeed do have a chance. Tiki Barber, for one, showed an amazing amount of spunk in a single-game franchise record 234-yard rushing performance. He scored three touchdowns, every one of which the Giants needed in a 34-28 win in Washington, after amassing just two touchdowns in the season's first 15 games.
Eli Manning didn't throw an interception, but didn't do much else, which is just as well. At the rate he's gone the last half of the season, a well-managed game without a turnover is about the best anyone can hope out of him. He's completed just 21 passes for 175 yards over the past two games, including 12 for 101 and a touchdown in Washington.
The play-calling has improved under Kevin Gilbride, installed as the main voice over the headphones last week after Tom Coughlin jettisoned John Hufnagel. And the run blocking and pass protection has remained solid despite a line shift that has placed guard David Diehl at left tackle and installed Grey Ruegamer at left guard.
And yet, there are other, lingering issues that indicate there is no way the Giants can advance to an NFC semifinal in Chicago. Many of them lie with the defense, which at this point can neither stop the run nor the pass.
Osi Umenyiora has become a lost soul on the defensive front, ineffective against the run and invisible in the pass rush. Except for one blown sack on Jason Campbell last week, he never got into the backfield on passing downs. Mathias Kiwanuka also has been mysteriously quiet in the pass rush.
The secondary has regressed to a point where it can't stop anybody. Although the Giants held a 20-7 lead at halftime last week, the secondary allowed Jason Campbell to complete several long passes, getting the Redskins back into the game. Eagles quarterback Jeff Garcia, winner of five straight, has plenty of comeback experience, having engineered the 49ers' legendary recovery against the Giants in the 2002 playoffs.
If Garcia gets down, there is no doubt he'll be able to bring the Eagles charging back. The Giants will have to keep the mobile Garcia contained.
Garcia has thrown only two interceptions since he took over for injured Donovan McNabb, and he's made 10 touchdown tosses.
The one advantage the Giants have is that they won last week. They believe they saw rock bottom in their five-game losing streak, and they have pulled out of their tailspin. With no dominant team in the NFC, the Giants probably have as good a shot at beating the Eagles as anyone.
Whether they can prevail depends on whether they can play a clean game. Those have come few and far between in the second half of the season. But with the new season, anything is possible.
SERIES HISTORY: The Giants and Eagles have met twice in the postseason, with the Giants winning both. They beat the Eagles 27-21 in Philadelphia in 1981, and 20-10 at Giants Stadium in 2000. That 2000 game was most significant because it was the first step in the Giants reaching the Super Bowl. Ron Dixon returned the opening kickoff 97 yards, and Jason Sehorn made a tumbling, acrobatic interception off Donovan McNabb and returned it 32 yards for another touchdown. Add two Brad Daluiso field goals, and the Giants became just the fifth team to win a playoff game without an offensive touchdown since the 1970 merger. The offense compiled just 237 yards, and the Giants fumbled the ball away three times. But the defense came up big and limited the Eagles to 11 first downs and 186 total yards. The Giants also had three takeaways.
--DE Osi Umenyiora, who has been invisible much of the time since he returned from a hip flexor injury against Dallas, finished the Washington game with one tackle. Aside from a missed sack on Jason Campbell, he was nowhere to be seen in the pass rush.
--How much do fast starts mean? Not much. The Giants scored first in 13 of their games this year and were 7-6 in those games. They also did not allow their opponents an opening-possession touchdown in their last 14 games, but still finished 8-8.
--RB Tiki Barber, who rushed for a franchise-record 234 yards against Washington, became the first player in NFL history to average 10.2 yards per rush in a game with 23 or more carries. He finished the season with 1,662 yards, the second-highest total of his career next to last season's 1,860 yards.
--Expect a big day out of WR Plaxico Burress. In two games against the Eagles this year, Burress has a combined 12 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown.
--OL David Diehl, who has played right guard, right tackle, and left guard since the Giants drafted him in the fifth round of 2003, made his first career start at left tackle in place of a benched Bob Whitfield and delivered a good performance. RB Tiki Barber broke his 55-yard run over Diehl's side, and Diehl kept pressure off QB Eli Manning. Diehl last played tackle Dec. 17, 2005, against the Chiefs, when Barber ran for a then-franchise-record 220 yards.
--As badly as QB Eli Manning has played, he still finished the season with a career-high 301 completions for 3,244 yards, with 24 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. The touchdowns matched his total from last season, and he became the first Giant to throw 20 touchdown passes in consecutive seasons since Phil Simms did it from 1984-86.
--The Giants pass defense has allowed 1,027 yards and six touchdowns in the last four games. By comparison, that's nearly half of the 2,413 yards the league's top passing defense, Oakland, allowed through 16 games.
BY THE NUMBERS: 21 -- The number of passes Eli Manning has completed the past two weeks, for 174 yards. His completion percentage over that span is .412.
--525: The number of rushing yards the Giants defense has allowed in the last three games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I won't say it's all turned around, but it's going in a different direction." -- Giants MLB Antonio Pierce on whether the troubles of the 2-6 second half of the season are in the past.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Throwing quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride in there as offensive play-caller in place of the dismissed John Hufnagel turned out just fine for the Giants. Of course, the game situation made it easy. Up 20-7, just hand the ball to Tiki Barber, who responded with a single-game, franchise-record 234 yards and three touchdowns. Gilbride showed a willingness to stick to what was working, and he basically kept the struggling Eli Manning away from the low-percentage deep passes.
When a little imagination was called for, he responded on one play by sending Barber out wide, play-actioning to Brandon Jacobs, and throwing to fullback Jim Finn to catch Washington totally by surprise for a 9-yard gain and a first down.
Gilbride caught a lot of criticism for not having faith enough in Manning to let him throw on third-and-10 as the Giants tried to run down the clock when up 34-28. But they forget that on second-and-10, he called a pass and Manning threw it into double coverage, nearly getting it picked off. So Gilbride smartly decided to go with Barber on a draw that netted only seven yards, but at least it allowed the Giants to punt and change field position for the Redskins' final possession.
-- TE Jeremy Shockey (sprained ankle) practiced Thursday and head coach Tom Coughlin said he doesn't have to see much more in the way of another hard practice Friday. "No, not necessarily," he said. "Jeremy worked in when he could and the swelling is way down." You may count on Shockey as an active participant.
-- OL David Diehl is expected to play left tackle again this week. He moved from LG last Saturday night vs. the Redskins because the veteran Bob Whitfield, who had been filling in for regular starter Luke Petitgout, grew increasingly more ineffective. In his four years with the Giants as a fifth-round pick via Illinois, the 6-4, 315-pound Diehl has started every game and played every OL position except center.
--CB Corey Webster, who bruised his left hip Sunday and suffered an aggravation of the turf toe that put him out a month, was placed on injured reserve. He had been demoted to nickel back in favor of R.W. McQuarters. Webster became the fifth former starter to go on IR, joining LB LaVar Arrington, WR Amani Toomer, DE Michael Strahan, and T Luke Petitgout.
--C Rich Seubert, who missed two games with a bruised left shin, returned to practice Wednesday and worked with the starters at left guard. He appeared to move well and, though questionable, appears ready to resume action.
GAME PLAN: About the only thing the Giants can truly expect out of QB Eli Manning at this point is a mistake-free game, which is what he delivered in Washington and needs to produce in the wild-card matchup against the Eagles. Anything more than that would be gravy. Manning's confidence level appears to be at such a low point that the least amount of pressure will cause him to misfire. So it's imperative that RB Tiki Barber have a great running game and that Manning confine himself to short, high-percentage passes with limited deep shots. That doesn't mean that Plaxico Burress, the lone remaining receiving standout now that TE Jeremy Shockey is again iffy with a sprained ankle, must fall out of the game plan. He simply needs to run shorter routes along with fourth WR David Tyree, which might then open up the deeper routes for the occasional toss downfield.
The coaching staff must keep in mind that Manning has completed all of 21 passes for 175 yards with two touchdowns and an interception the past two games. And his last game against the Eagles included two interceptions that eventually cost the Giants the game.
The defense's inability to stop both the run and the pass may well haunt the Giants, as Brian Westbrook stands as a double threat. The Giants will have to play a strict contain against QB Jeff Garcia, lest he beat them on his frequent rollouts and bootlegs. But it won't be easy, considering DEs Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka have turned all but invisible the past couple of weeks. The Giants may have to take a page from the Eagles' playbook and blitz like crazy, playing a zone coverage behind it to minimize the possibility of a big play to Reggie Brown or Donte' Stallworth or, more likely, to Westbrook.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Giants RB Tiki Barber, who rushed for a franchise-record 234 yards against Washington, vs. Eagles LB Jeremiah Trotter, one of the toughest middle linebackers in the league. Trotter doled out a physical beating to Barber the first time these teams played in Game 2, holding him to 51 yards and no touchdowns on 21 carries. Barber didn't find running room until late in the game, when the Giants finally spread their formation to get Trotter off the field for the extra defensive back. The aftermath of that game proved one of the many turning points in Barber's decision to retire at the end of the season. Trotter, a linebacker who not only can stop the run but also can cover a running back out of the backfield, will be Barber's constant shadow as long as he's on the field. Barber had somewhat more success the second time around, producing 75 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Despite Trotter's ferocity, the Eagles had the league's 26th-ranked rushing defense, allowing an average of 136.4 yards per game.
Eagles RB Brian Westbrook, who rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns in the last meeting against the Giants, vs. Giants MLB Antonio Pierce, the Giants' leading tackler. Westbrook is to the Eagles what Barber is to the Giants, a double threat out of the backfield. But he's even more of a scorer, as his three rushing touchdowns against the Giants prove. Barber has only one such score. Westbrook is also a huge receiving threat, but it's the ground game that has given the Giants problems. Pierce has missed his share of tackles over the past few games, and even when he does make them, sometimes they are 5 yards downfield. As a result, the defense has allowed 525 rushing yards the past three games, much of it coming up the middle where Pierce patrols. If the Giants don't tighten that up, Westbrook could have a big, deadly day.
INJURY IMPACT: With former starter-turned-nickel back Corey Webster going on injured reserve after bruising his hip and aggravating his turf toe early in the Washington game, it will now be left to undrafted rookie Kevin Dockery to take over. That may not be a bad thing, considering his performance in extended time a month ago in Carolina. Dockery had two long passes completed against him in the first half, but he had great coverage on both. He made a key interception in the second half. It marked his second career interception, and the first since he brought back a Drew Bledsoe pass 96 yards for a touchdown in the Game 6 matchup against Dallas. Dockery has speed, and he can cover either the slot receiver or the split end. Webster had had a subpar season anyway, and he never did recover his job from R.W. McQuarters when he got back two games ago from a month's absence caused by turf toe.
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