Momentum Builder Or Coaching Blunder?

Momentum for the playoffs is a good thing, but playing your guts out only to lose a meaningless game and lose three starters doesn't seem worth the price. Despite the losses, the Giants feel better about their future against Tampa Bay. But, their coach may have just cost them a shot at bigger things.

Oddly satisfied with their loss to the New England Patriots, the Giants now prepare for their first playoff game. They'll play the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay next weekend, and they will arrive armed with this weird feeling of accomplishment despite losing.

It was a well-played game by both sides, and an embarrassingly officiated one by the set of striped shirts, but what the Giants proved, among other things, is that they can play at the next level.


New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) during an NFL football game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Their offense came out challenging the Patriots and the passes found their mark in most cases. Both the Giants' Eli Manning and the Patriots' Tom Brady were razor sharp; in fact, each missed only 10 attempts, Manning hitting 22 of 32, Brady clicking on 32 of 42. Combined, the two threw for six touchdowns (four by Manning) and 607 yards.

Now it's the Bucs on the horizon, a team that fits nicely in the second tier of NFL teams, which is where the Giants were positioned (and perhaps still are) until they played so heroically against the undefeated Patriots.

Head coach Tom Coughlin had insisted all week that there was no other way to prepare for a game except to prepare to win and to play all available starters. And that is what he did, even to the extent of using star wide receiver Plaxico Burress for the entire game. Burress had missed practice regularly all season with a chronically sprained ankle that will no doubt require off-season surgery, but he did practice the previous week, in anticipation of a strong effort, and he played without exhibiting much of a loss of speed.

The problem with playing the regulars prior to the start of the playoffs, of course, is the invitation to injuries, and the Giants were visited several times by those particular gremlins.

The most serious of them appears to be a knee injury suffered by starting center Shaun O'Hara, although MRI studies were not yet performed. Others included cornerback Sam Madison (abdominal strain) and two other sprained knees, to weak-side linebacker Kawika Mitchell and reserve safety Craig Dahl. O'Hara was replaced by reserve interior lineman Grey Ruegamer, who played well after a faulty center-quarterback exchange resulted in a fumble. "It happens with a new center on the first few plays," said Manning.


Center center Shaun O'Hara #60 of the New York Giants lays on the field after getting injured while playing against the New England Patriots on December 29, 2007 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He did not return. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

 

The possible upside to Mitchell's loss was the play of reserve Gerris Wilkinson, who replaced him in the first quarter and came up with seven tackles and a pass defensed. Of his tackles, three of them combined to inflict eight yards of losses to Patriots running back Laurence Maroney.

Another player who will come up with more and more time looking forward is rookie tight end Kevin Boss, who has replaced veteran Jeremy Shockey (fractured fibula) and is the starter now. The fifth-round pick from small Western Oregon University is 6-feet-6 and 265 pounds, caught four passes for 50 yards including one of Manning's four touchdowns and has improved his blocking dramatically.

"Next year we can use two tight ends a lot more often," said one of the offensive linemen after the game who did not want to be identified. "The kid is coming along quickly and he has already made some important contributions."

Boss will have to contribute against the Buccaneers, since Shockey is unavailable until next season and the other tight end, Michael Matthews (a free agent rookie), is obviously used exclusively for blocking duties.

Notes:

--RB Brandon Jacobs gained 67 yards on 15 carries, giving him 1,009 for the season despite missing five full games and more than half of a sixth. He is the first back other than the recently-retired Tiki Barber to rush for more than 1,000 since Gary Brown in 1998. He had 1,063. It is also the first 1,000-yard season for the 6-4, 265-pound Jacobs.

--Rookie CB Aaron Ross, who has played well despite his inexperience, was the obvious target for the Patriots' passing game and he did not fare well. His primary cover was wideout Wes Welker, who caught 11 passes for 122 yards. "A learning experience," he said after the game. "Definitely a learning experience."

--MLB Antonio Pierce, who had been aggressively critical of the Patriots all week, said he found out a few things about his team after the game. "I found out this team has a lot of heart and a lot of character, and a lot of great fans coming out here. Thanks to all those (fans) who kept their tickets and showed up to cheer for us. It was a great atmosphere, like playoff atmosphere."

--Rookie WR Domenic Hixon, awarded to the Giants on waivers early in the season from Denver (and the other player in the frightful collision with Buffalo TE Kevin Everett), returned a kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown. "The wedge did a heck of a job with their front line," he said. "When the guys found out I was going to return kickoffs, they said: 'just follow us, go ahead, we'll make it happen.' And they did."

--Most of the players agreed with TE Justin Tuck, who felt the game, despite a loss, was therapeutic. "It was a pretty good momentum builder for us," he said. "We are obviously disappointed because you don't want to lose, ever. But I think it gives us the gauge that we wanted. We know we can play well."

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