The Vikings may be out of the playoff hunt, but they will be running a gauntlet between now and the end of the year that features three teams that are currently at least tied for first place in their respective divisions – the 8-4 Giants, the 9-3 Bears and the 8-4 Eagles. First in line are the Giants, who at times have been the most dominating team in the NFC.
The Giants have won seven of their last nine games and are on a roll, which has been credited in large part to the play of Eli Manning. Manning has put together another strong season, throwing for 2,982 yards with 23 touchdowns. But, as has been his history, when threatened and pressured, he will thrown interceptions. His 17 picks are among the most in the league and the Vikings have forced him into a pair of four-interception games during his career. Manning is 0-4 as a starter against the Vikings and putting pressure on him will be key to extending that record to 0-5. Former Viking Sage Rosenfels is the only other quarterback on the roster.
The running game is perhaps the best tandem in the league, combining the speed of Ahmad Bradshaw and the power of Brandon Jacobs. Bradshaw leads the team with 219 carries for 1,013 yards and seven touchdowns, as well as catching 33 passes for 239 yards. Jacobs has just 100 carries through 12 games, but has gained 577 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Between the two of them, the Giants are capable of controlling games on the ground. Backups D.J. Ware and former Viking Darius Reynaud round out the backfield, but this is a two-man show with Bradshaw and Jacobs. Bradshaw is expected to carry the load, but, with five lost fumbles this season, the Vikings may be looking for turnovers when he has the ball.
Injuries have taken a toll on the receiver corps, but the Giants appear to be getting healthy at the wrong time for Vikings fans. Starters Hakeem Nicks (ankle) and Steve Smith (pectoral), the team's two leading receiviers, have missed time due to injuries and, while both are listed as questionable on the injury report, the team is optimistic that one or both will be able to play. The Giants have been pulling players off the scrap heap for the last month, including journeyman Derek Hagan and Mike Clayton and former Redskin Devin Thomas. While they are likely to see playing time, ideally the Giants will be throwing to Smith, Nicks and Mario Manningham. Nicks is a big, physical target who is dangerous in the red zone and, despite missing time, leads the team with 62 catches for 800 yards and nine touchdowns. Manningham is the home run threat with 43 catches for 597 yards and five TDs. Smith is a possession receiver who set a franchise record with 107 catches last year. He currently has 47 catches for 517 yards and three TDs. If there is a surprise in this group, it is tight end Kevin Boss. He hasn't been a regularly used target, catching just 26 passes, but he has a gaudy 16.2-yard reception average, which is more than two yards higher than anyone else on the team and almost five yards better than the team average. The other tight ends – second-year pros Travis Beckum and Bear Pascoe – are used more as blockers than receivers and, given the current state of the Giants offensive line, they can use all the blocking help they can get.
Injuries have set back the offensive line, testing the depth at all three positions. At tackle, Shawn Andrews has been ruled out with a back injury, but the Giants have veteran leaders in eight-year veteran David Diehl on the left side and 10-year vet Kareem McKenzie on the right side. Both are technically sound and, seeing as the Giants have allowed just 12 sacks of Manning, they are more than doing their job. At center, the team put backup Adam Koets on injured reserve earlier in the year and starter Shaun O'Hara is listed as doubtful with a foot injury. The Giants may have to slide guard Kevin Boothe or Mitch Petrus inside if O'Hara can't go. Given the crowd noise anticipated in the Metrodome, this could be a big matchup with the potential for a bad exchange that could lead to a turnover. The guard position is rock solid, with 10-year man Rich Seubert and seven-year vet Chris Snee manning the starting spots. This is a veteran, experienced offensive line that has worked together for most of the last four years. It is the engine that helps both the pass offense and run offense work. The Vikings' front four will have difficulty creating pressure alone against this group, so they may have to dial up some blitzes to create the pressure they need to make Manning uncomfortable.
While the Giants offense has shown significant improvement this season, defense remains New York's calling card. Up front, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are as impressive a DE tandem as there is in the league. They have combined for 17.5 sacks and, with pass-rushing rookie Jason Pierre-Paul waiting in the wings, the Giants have depth as well as top-end talent. On the inside, massive 6-7 tackle Chris Canty and fifth-year tackle Barry Cofield are solid run stuffers. With the Vikings potentially starting two backups at guard (Ryan Cook and rookie Chris DeGeare), they will certainly have their hands full tying to contain Canty, Cofield and nine-year veteran Rocky Bernard. They average more than 310 pounds across the middle of the defensive front and it will be their responsibility to limit the effectiveness of Adrian Peterson. If they can do that consistently, it will be a long afternoon for the Vikings offense.
The Giants linebackers aren't flashy, but they are effective despite the loss of veteran Antonio Pierce. In the middle, third-year pro Jonathan Goff is a big, physical tackler who fills gaps and delivers highlight-film hits. He is surrounded by sixth-year vet Michael Boley and second-year man Clint Sintim. The team has veteran depth with 11-year vet Keith Bulluck, as well as former part-time starters Zak DeOssie and Gerris Wilkerson. The Giants make up for the lack of top-end talent with depth and role players. This is a young group among the starters that is improving markedly as a unit. They can be taken advantage of because of their youth and a veteran like Favre can look them off to create throwing lanes, but this group is growing by leaps and bounds and, in the years to come, may again make linebacker the centerpiece of the defense.
Like the linebacker corps, the secondary isn't jump-off-the-page outstanding, but the Giants have players who are adept at their roles. At cornerback, fifth-year man Terrell Thomas has been picked on and has responded, leading the team with five interceptions. Corey Webster starts at the other cornerback spot and he has three picks of his own. Will Blackmon brings versatility as a nickel back and return man on special teams, and fourth-year man Aaron Ross supplies depth. The Giants use their safeties much like the Vikings and use a solid three-man rotation. Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle are the starters and both are adept at reading the field and providing help over the top. Nine-year veteran Deon Grant is the third safety on the depth chart, but leads the group with three interceptions. They can make plays as well as help in run support. The Giants viewed safety as one of their biggest weaknesses a year ago and not only brought in Rolle and Grant via free agency, but used their third-round draft pick on Chad Jones from LSU. They have vastly improved what was the weakest link of the defense, giving the them very few glaring needs on defense.
The Giants are looking to return to the glory that gave them a Super Bowl win following the 2007 season and have the horses to get back to the dance again. The Vikings are playing for pride and would like nothing more than to stick a dagger in the Giants division title chances. It will be a tall order, but a win over the 8-4 Giants would be a big step in Leslie Frazier keeping the head-coaching job for another year.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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