Ravens - Giants: Team notes (Thurs.)

For the New York Giants, going hand-in-glove with losing is a slump in team morale, and with the Giants mired in a five-game skid (and six of their last seven), the focus is on offense.<br><br>Suffice to say, then, that the play-calling has been called to task, and that has resulted in rumors that offensive coordinator John Hufnagel will either be dismissed or demoted with quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride taking over the play-calling.

This is all pointless, of course, since head coach Tom Coughlin rules his coaching staff the same way he rules his team -- with an iron hand and rigid control. Hufnagel, lured away from New England, where he was quarterbacks coach under Bill Belichick, does call all the plays, but they all go through the headset attached to Coughlin's ears, so he can overrule (and has) any play called.

No one in any official capacity would comment on the rumor, and Coughlin's practice of making the assistant coaches "off limits" to all interviews during the season -- with a 15-minute exception one day during the bye week -- has made it impossible to ask him directly.

But some of the players have expressed displeasure with the choice of plays being called, and when this was mentioned to Coughlin, he passed it off by saying: "There are lots of reasons for why certain plays are called and other are not."

Nevertheless, when the Washington Redskins overloaded the box with eight and sometimes nine players and the Giants continued to force RB Tiki Barber up the middle -- where he met with little or no success -- there is an obvious problem somewhere.

If Gilbride does take over, the assumption is that he'll pass more frequently. But that gives credence to Coughlin's statement, as in who, exactly, will do the pass blocking? The O-line has been the most flagrant of the violators in terms of lackadaisical play, if not downright incompetence, and it would appear a safe bet to assume several changes both in personnel and positions will take place during the offseason.

Barber, TE Jeremy Shockey and WR Amani Toomer, among others, have expressed dissatisfaction with the play-calling, wondering aloud why more creativity hasn't been employed and why there have been little or no downfield pass patterns.

"Of course they're all down," Coughlin has said. "When you lose five in a row, you can't expect the players to be happy or satisfied. I'd wonder about them if they were."

Turning ever so briefly to Sunday's embarrassment, the 31-7 loss in Washington, Coughlin noted: "The way we played against the Redskins was totally unacceptable."

Like the play-calling, coach?

SERIES HISTORY: This is only the second regular-season meeting between the teams, although the Giants had a long history with the Baltimore Colts (now Indianapolis) and the Cleveland Browns (the franchise that was moved to Baltimore). The Ravens hold a 1-0 lead, having defeated the Giants in 1997, 24-23. They also hold a 34-7 victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

NOTES, QUOTES
--RB Tiki Barber trails Seattle's Shaun Alexander by seven yards (1,190 to 1,183) for NFC rushing supremacy, although he is fifth in the NFL behind three AFC runners -- the Jets' Curtis Martin, the Colts' Edgerrin James and the Patriots' Corey Dillon. Barber does, however, lead the entire league in total yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) with 1,679. James is second with 1,656.

--QB Kurt Warner, removed as the starter on Nov. 21, has been "rare and unusual" in his attempt to help the team and contribute on the sidelines, according to head coach Tom Coughlin. "I don't think I have ever seen or heard of anyone being more helpful," he said. "He is always, in some way, trying to be supportive of Eli (Manning, his rookie replacement) and helpful in terms of strategy."

As for Warner, who is clearly hopeful of a new team next season where he can start, insists he is no different from the quarterback who won two NFL MVP honors as well as a Super Bowl MVP award. "I'm the same quarterback, I'm just as good as I was," he says. "You can't measure everything by wins and losses."

--P Jeff Feagles went 16 seasons having just nine punts blocked, and now he has had one blocked in each of the last two games. "The scary thing about that," he said, "is that special-teams coaches studying us week after week are going to spend extra time working on a punt-block technique. You know, 'If so-and-so can do it, then so can we,' and that only creates more problems for us."

--K Steve Christie has made 16 of 22 FGs while his counterpart Sunday, one-time Giant draft choice Matt Stover, has only one missed FG in 23 tries -- a 50-yarder. He has made two other 50-yarders, incidentally, in his 22 successful tries.

--SLB Reggie Torbor, an Auburn graduate, was moaning at the BCS system that put Oklahoma and USC into the national championship game and relegated the equally 12-0 Auburn team to also-ran. "If we played either one, we'd win," he said in an obvious parochial sense, to which a nearby teammate, DT William Joseph, barked: "You guys are lucky to be playing Virginia Tech; those two big guys would kill you."

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Where the Giants rank in total team defense and passing defense in the NFC despite their 5-7 record and five-game losing streak.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Young players can use this time as a great opportunity -- the guy who can see this opportunity for what it is can take advantage later on." -- Giants head coach Tom Coughlin on the need for players to "step up and perform."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL: There cannot be too many roster changes for the Giants since with their clear lack of depth, there just aren't many players to whom head coach Tom Coughlin and his staff can turn. The Giants are 5-7 with four games to go, and it is entirely likely that they are in danger of losing all four to end their season on a nine-game skid with a final record of 5-11.

Through it all, however, the misfortune has at least managed to crystallize the weaknesses and deficiencies that exist and have existed most of the season. That includes the O-line, the D-line, lack of depth at RB and poor special-teams coverage.

There will have to be a few changes in the punt-blocking unit since Jeff Feagles has had kicks blocked in each of the last two games. Look for reserve TE Marcellus Rivers to be relieved of those duties.

The O-line doesn't have anywhere to turn, and if rookie G Chris Snee (swollen gland) can't play again this week, the position would be filled by Wayne Lucier, who also doubles as the backup C behind Shaun O'Hara.

With the expected absence of run-stopping DT Norman Hand (strained groin muscle) and the previous loss of both starting DEs (Michael Strahan and Keith Washington), one might expect the Giants to play more 3-4 and to use the LBs to create pass-rushing opportunities.

--G Chris Snee missed Sunday's game vs. Washington when he came up with a severely swollen gland under his jaw, swollen so much that he couldn't get his helmet on. Snee has been taking medication, and the swelling had gone down enough by Wednesday that he was able to practice. If he can't play, Wayne Lucier will start.

--SS Gibril Wilson (neck burner) stands to miss yet another game, which would be his fourth straight. "I can't say it's next week that he'll play, either," Coughlin said. "I am concerned in that every week I basically get the same story from the medical people. There is progress, they say, but it isn't fast enough to put him back on the field."

Wilson, when questioned, expressed great frustration. "I want to play and I think I could," he said, "but I don't want this to get worse, and right now I wouldn't feel comfortable taking on the fullback."

--WR Jamaar Taylor (strained quadriceps) might not make it to the field in Baltimore. "I guess he got it during last week's game," Coughlin said. "He is sore and won't practice today (Wednesday). But he didn't miss any time last Sunday and came in on Monday with this as an issue."

--WLB Nick Greisen, when asked what happened to the team from the first five games (the Giants were 4-1) to now: "Tough question, can't answer it. Sometimes you play and don't make mistakes, other times you make a ton of them."

GAME PLAN: The Giants are almost out of bullets, so putting together a game plan against the defensively ferocious Ravens is a problem doubly difficult because their offense has struggled so in recent weeks. In the three games that rookie QB Eli Manning has started, the team has scored a total of 23 points, which includes a 92-yard KO return for a TD and just one offensive TD.

So to stymie the Ravens defense, short passes will have to be attempted, which means the paper-thin O-line is going to have to hold its blocks longer.

On defense, the Giants don't know for sure if Baltimore is going to be able to use superstar RB Jamal Lewis (he's listed as questionable now), but, according to one of the players, (backup) Chester Taylor is playing just fine.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Giants WRs Amani Toomer and Ike Hillard, both veterans with 78 receptions between them -- and not a single TD catch -- will have to find a way despite diminished speed to find holes in a crack secondary featuring CB Chris McAlister and SS Ed Reed, who leads the team with seven interceptions.

Ravens O-line featuring LT Jonathan Ogden and LG Edwin Mulitalo figure to get rushing yardage for Jamal Lewis or Chester Taylor by blocking RDE Osi Umenyiora and RDT Fred Robbins.

Giants RB Tiki Barber and the middle of the O-line (LG Jason Whittle, C Shaun O'Hara and RG Chris Snee) will have to find a way through the MLB wall named Ray Lewis and his three LB friends (Baltimore employs a 3-4 defense) and NT Kelly Gregg.

INJURY IMPACT: The Giants are almost beyond injuries hurting them any further. Latest to be lost appears to be DT Norman Hand, the anchor against the run, and rookie SS Gibril Wilson. There is also some doubt as to the availability (or full health) of WLB Barrett Green, rookie WR Jamaar Taylor and rookie RG Chris Snee. If Taylor can't play, the Giants will be down to their third choice for the third WR, either Willie Ponder (likely) or special-teams star David Tyree.

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BALTIMORE RAVENS
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The Ravens can only hope they fare better in the final quarter of the season than they have in the fourth quarter the past two weeks.

During their two-game skid, the Ravens have been outscored 39-6 in the fourth quarter.

Their defense seemingly can't stop teams out of the end zone, and their offense can't seem to reach it.

As a result, the Ravens are on the playoff bubble when they face the struggling New York Giants at M&T Bank Stadium. If the Giants thought the Ravens would be looking ahead to road games at Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, they were wrong about Baltimore.

At 7-5, the Ravens are tied with the Denver Broncos for the sixth and final spot in the AFC wild-card race. If they want to reach the playoffs, they believe they can't afford to look past New York despite being heavy favorites.

"We're not in a position to overlook anybody by a long stretch," coach Brian Billick said. "The Giants are physical, they play hard and they're going to come in here and give us a hell of a game. We've got to be ready for that. I couldn't even begin to imagine that letting up would be in their consciousness one little bit."

The Ravens are all-too-familiar about what happens when a team lets up.

On Sunday, they failed to hold a 20-3 lead over the Cincinnati Bengals entering the fourth quarter. The usually stout Ravens defense gave up scores on all four drives that quarter, including three touchdowns.

Still, the Ravens are fifth in the NFL in fewest points allowed and eighth in yards given up.

"To win in this league, you have to have a great defense," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Coming down the stretch, if we need to win, I would put money on my defense every time."

That defense can right its course Sunday against Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning.

Manning said he would likely see a heavy blitz until he proves he can beat it. He has led just one touchdown drive in his first three NFL starts.

Asked about Manning's assessment about the blitzing, Billick said, "He's right. He's absolutely right."

SERIES HISTORY -- Third meeting. The Ravens have won the only regular-season meeting, edging the New York Giants, 24-23, in 1997 at Giants Stadium. Matt Stover kicked a 37-yard field goal with 34 seconds left to win the game. The Ravens also routed the Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV. Ray Lewis was named the Most Valuable Player as the Ravens defense did not allow a point.

NOTES, QUOTES
--The Ravens have scored just one touchdown on their past five red-zone trips. They rank 24th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency.

"I think a lot of it is confidence and believing that you don't want to leave yourself just three points," quarterback Kyle Boller said. "It's taking it to the next step where we're going to get seven points."

--Tight end Todd Heap will have no limitations on his playing time Sunday. He played just 25 snaps Sunday when he caught three passes for 22 yards in his first game since spraining his ankle in Week 2.

"I'm looking to being a bigger part of the offense," said Heap, the Ravens' leading receiver the past two seasons. "Now is not the time to debate whether you're hurt or you're injured."

--Sunday's game will reunite Ravens consultant Jim Fassel with his former team, the New York Giants. Fassel coached the Giants from 1997 to 2003.

Asked how Fassel could help the Ravens, coach Brian Billick said, "His insight as to some of the players and what their strength and weaknesses are. That has value. Beyond that, there's too much water under the bridge to be too much more than that."

Ravens secondary coach Johnnie Lynn was the Giants' defensive coordinator last season.

--Rookie receiver Clarence Moore admitted that he has worn down over the past month.

His receiving yards have decreased in each of the past three games. He had two catches for nine yards Sunday.

"I want to take a nap so bad it's ridiculous," Moore said.

"It's at that point where your body wants to shut down."
--The Ravens are 2-1 against the NFC this season.
--The Ravens are looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2000.
--When the Ravens score 21 points or more, they are 34-9 since 1999.
--The Ravens are 6-1 when Terrell Suggs records a sack.
--Only two quarterbacks have thrown for 300 yards against the Ravens in their past 17 games.

BY THE NUMBERS: Six -- Ravens starters from Super Bowl XXXV on their active roster.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've put ourselves in a tough position but we have to fight our way out of it. We'll have to deal with all the things that come with losing back-to-back games -- the doubts, the second-guessing, the criticisms. It won't be easy. We know we can play better in every part of the game, and we will have to do that to stay in the hunt." -- Coach Brian Billick on the Ravens entering the final quarter of the season on a two-game losing skid.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL: Deion Sanders is expected to return as the Ravens' nickel back, which means less time for backup Corey Fuller. The Ravens start Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter at cornerback, moving Baxter to cover the slot receiver and Sanders to cover the outside one in nickel situations.

The Ravens have continued the rotation of Mike Flynn and Bennie Anderson at right guard but they have been increasing Flynn's time over Anderson there in recent weeks.

Punter Dave Zastudil returns after missing three games with a separated shoulder.

--QB Kyle Boller has been picked off just twice in his past five games.
--RB Chester Taylor has 11 catches for 67 yards in his past three games.
--K Matt Stover has a field goal in all 12 games this season.
--LB Ray Lewis has recorded 10 or more tackles in 21 straight games.
--LB Terrell Suggs has 2 1/2 sacks over his last six games.
--SS Ed Reed has scored six touchdowns in 44 career games.

GAME PLAN: The Ravens will look to establish the run early even if they are without Jamal Lewis. Their confidence grew substantially when Chester Taylor gained 139 yards on 23 carries. They also like the burst from backup running back Jamel White. Their goal is to wear down the Giants' run defense, which ranks 26th in the NFL.

Defensively, the Ravens have made no secret of their desire to pressure rookie quarterback Eli Manning and to blitz at will. They have not been hesitant in sending either safety, Ed Reed or Will Demps, and blitzing cornerback Gary Baxter and dime back Chad Williams. They want to force him into quick decisions and costly mistakes. Reed, in particular, is one of the best at baiting young quarterbacks.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Ravens secondary vs. Giants quarterback Eli Manning: The Ravens have held quarterbacks to a rating of 68.4, the lowest in the NFL. Manning has struggled in first three NFL starts, with a 41.3 completion percentage and a 44.2 rating.

Ravens running back Chester Taylor vs. Giants run defense: Taylor averaged 91 yards in his four starts this season. Cincinnati is giving up 134.8 yards a game rushing, the seventh-worst in the NFL.

Ravens tight end Todd Heap vs. Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey: Heap had three catches for 22 yards in his first game back since spraining his ankle in Week 2. He remains the Ravens' top target in the passing game. Shockey leads the Giants with 47 receptions and has five of the team's seven touchdowns through the air.

INJURY IMPACT:
--P Dave Zastudil (separated shoulder) is expected to return after missing three straight games. He could have played last week but was held out for precautionary reasons.
--RB Jamal Lewis (ankle) is questionable but practiced for the first time in a week. He ran at half speed and did not participate in all drills. He would be limited if he did play. The Ravens, though, might decide to keep him out to play it safe.
--OT Orlando Brown (knee) was limited in practice and probably won't play. He is listed as questionable. He would be replaced by Ethan Brooks.
--CB Deion Sanders (toe) is expected to return after missing four games. He will play in nickel situations.
--CB Gary Baxter (shoulder) was limited in practice but should be able to start. His shoulder sprain could hurt his tackling.
--WR Travis Taylor (back) did not participate in all drills but is expected to start.

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