A month ago, if people talked about the Vikings-Giants game with overtones of serious playoff implications, many fans would have dismissed that rhetoric as nuts. But, considering the recent history, it shouldn't come as any surprise. The Giants have been a thorn in the Vikings' side — not only did they kick the Vikings 41-0 in 2000 to go to the Super Bowl, their 29-17 win at the Metrodome last year sent the Vikings into a downward spiral that eventually knocked them out of the playoffs.
Many thought this would be a transition year for the Giants. Eli Manning was traded for and the future seemed to be distant. Kurt Warner changed that. Warner, who was left for dead by the Rams, has been a steady performer this year. While he doesn't put up the eye-popping numbers he did in St. Louis, he isn't making mistakes and is finding ways to win games. Warner has torched the Vikings before, so don't expect Ted Cottrell to fall into the has-been comparisons when he speaks of Warner.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the offense this season has been the play of Tiki Barber. Once thought too small to be an every-down back and always seen as a fumbler, Barber has changed his running style — or least how he protects the ball — and he has taken on a new life as one of the NFL's leading rushers. He has the speed to take any run the distance — ask the Packers about that — and is a very good receiver. He's backed up by former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne, but this is Barber's shop and the Vikings will need to focus on stopping him at all costs.
While the Giants haven't been lighting up the scoreboard with TD passes, they do have an impressive front line of players in wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer and tight end Jeremy Shockey. Toomer is one of the most consistent deep-threat receivers in the league, but his status is questionable after he pulled a hamstring in Wednesday's practice. Hilliard is fearless over the middle and Shockey is a brash youngster who demands double coverage. Beyond them, depth is thin, which makes keeping the three of them healthy — no small feat — required. If they're all good to go, they will give the secondary problems.
The offensive front of the Giants was the most maligned unit on the team last year but has come together nicely this season. Left tackle Luke Petitgout is the only star of the group, but tackle David Diehl, guards Jason Whittle and Chris Snee and center Shaun O'Hara have grown together as a unit. They're not flashy. They're far from dominant. But they get the job done, and the running game, which was non-existent last year, is back with a vengeance.
Defensively, the Giants are extremely strong and deep up front. At the ends, Michael Strahan is one of the top pass rushers in the league, and Keith Washington and Osi Umenyiora provide a solid tandem at the right end position. In the middle, the G-Men have veterans Norman Hand and former Viking Fred Robbins, as well as former first-round draft choice William Joseph. The line is capable of stuffing the run and providing pass-rush pressure from the outside. The Vikings, who pride themselves on their ability to run and pass, will find this matchup to be a difficult one.
The linebackers for the Giants have always been a hallmark of the team, from Lawrence Taylor on down. That isn't the case right now. While adequate, they're not very deep. Carlos Emmons, a free-agent signee, is the playmaker of the group, but middle linebackers Kevin Lewis and Nick Greisen and outside linebackers Barrett Green and Reggie Torbor are pretty pedestrian. Attacking the short middle zones will likely be a priority, because this group of 'backers has been prone to getting burned — something that can't be said for the rest of the defense.
The secondary has been ravaged with injuries but has somehow found a way to stay together. The starting corners of William Peterson and Will Allen are both solid, as the Giants built their defense around the pattern set years earlier by the Eagles. With veteran Terry Cousin as the nickel back, the corner situation is solid and settled. The same can't be said for safety. Both projected starters — Shaun Williams and Omar Stoutmire — have been lost for the season with injuries. That has forced fifth-round rookie Gibril Wilson and 11-year veteran Brent Alexander into the starting lineup, with the top backup help being provided by former Viking Jack Brewer.
The Giants have been a sharp thorn in the side of the Vikings for some time now. They robbed them of a chance to go to the Super Bowl, and their win last year contributed to the Vikings being knocked out of the playoffs. Some may view the Giants as an early-season fluke, but you can bet the Vikings won't underestimate the Giants. They have before and they've been burned.
DAUNTE CULPEPPER vs. GIBRIL WILSON AND BRENT ALEXANDER — Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL, but we don't need to explain that to Vikings fans this year. When they occur, other teams will pounce upon the unexpected deficiency and attack it — that's the nature of the NFL. The Giants have a huge vulnerability on defense, and the Vikings have the weapons to attack it, making Daunte Culpepper vs. the new-look Giants safeties as this week's matchup to watch.
The Giants thought they were set at safety with Shaun Williams and Omar Stoutmire, but both of them have been placed on injured reserve and have forced an already thin safety group into desperation mode. Gibril Wilson is a fifth-round rookie that was being groomed to challenge Stoutmire next year at free safety, while taking reps this year behind Williams at strong safety. That changed, and now Wilson is the starting strong safety. With Stoutmire gone, 11-year veteran Brent Alexander, who has bounced around the NFL for the past few years, has been pushed into a starting role too. This isn't good news when the Giants are playing the Redskins. It's awful news for them when they're playing Culpepper.
One of the keys to the Vikings passing game is to get the safeties out of deep cover position. That means mixing in short passes, confusing the formations and flooding zones to get the safeties thinking twice about what's coming next. Culpepper has developed an excellent feel for when to attack safeties — even good ones. This time, it could be cherry-picking time.
Wilson is a rookie still acclimating himself to the speed of the NFL game on the fly. While he's represented himself fine, he also has been burned. Alexander is an 11-year vet who can still deliver a hit but has clearly lost a step.
The extent to which Culpepper can confuse the safeties or get them out of position with play-fakes and disguised deep throws will go a long way to determining whether the Vikings blow out the Giants or the game comes down to the final minutes.
Weaknesses Exist In Giants For Vikings To Attack
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