It doesn't get much bigger than this for the Vikings. While some might draw comparisons to last year's game with the Redskins, where the Vikings knew if they won at home that would clinch a wild card spot, Sunday's game with the New York Giants has much more significance. A win would not only guarantee the Vikings their first division title since they won the defunct NFC Central Division crown in 2000, but it would assure them a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
The buzz all week surrounding this game has been to what extent the Giants will play their top stars. Players like Brandon Jacobs and Justin Tuck will be necessary for New York in its attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champions, so the conventional wisdom is that the Giants may treat this game like the third preseason game of each year – put the starters in for about a half and start pulling them in favor of backups in the second half. While that would be good news for Vikings fans, one has to wonder if head coach Tom Coughlin will take that approach. Last year, when the Giants had assured themselves a wild card playoff spot and knew they were going to be playing the following week, Coughlin refused to "give" the Patriots a perfect regular season and played his starters throughout. In a subsequent book published after the Super Bowl victory, Coughlin reiterated his belief that starters shouldn't be rested at the end of the regular season and gave reasons – momentum, continuity, too much down time, etc. So will he go against his own philosophy and bench some of his key players? That is the big question that has yet to be resolved.
What we do know is that the Giants' defense of their title has been nothing short of impressive. They have allowed more than 20 points just five times this season and have won four of those games. Eleven of their 15 opponents have scored two touchdowns or less and the Giants have a balanced offensive attack that can beat you through the air or on the ground. In short, they have the look of a champion and that all starts at quarterback.
Eli Manning spent the first three years of his pro career living in the shadow of his brother Peyton, whom many believe has revolutionized the way the quarterback position is played in the NFL. Given the latitude to change plays at the line of scrimmage based on what the defensive look is, his machinations at the line have been copied by many QBs around the league, including Eli. No longer the "aw, shucks" quiet quarterback, Eli Manning has become a leader on the team and is having his finest season to date. He has completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 3,119 yards with 21 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 86.9. He has done it with an offense that has been missing his two favorite targets for all or part of the season. The Giants traded tight end Jeremy Shockey during the summer and Plaxico Burress had just 35 catches before being suspended for bringing a loaded handgun into a nightclub. Manning has been forced to use all his receivers and his numbers haven't shown a drop-off of any kind. He has become more efficient in the way he spreads the ball around and, in many ways, has become a more complete quarterback because of this adversity. It should be noted that the Vikings have enjoyed as much success against Manning as any team in the league. In two career starts, he has thrown just two touchdowns and eight interceptions – one TD and four picks in each game, including three interceptions returned for touchdowns by the Vikings last year. It has been rumored that Manning might get pulled in the second half to give backup David Carr some work. He will need it. The former No. 1 overall pick of the Texans has thrown just one pass all season and some additional work might do him some good. But, with Coughlin, one never knows if Carr will see action or remain wearing a baseball cap on the sidelines.
The running game has been the bread and butter of the Giants offensive attack all season. The G-Men have the chance to be just the fourth team in league history to have two running backs that top 1,000 yards rushing in a season. As a team, the Giants are the No. 1 rushing offense in the league, averaging five yards a carry and even more from their primary running backs. Brandon Jacobs, who may sit out Sunday's game with a knee injury, leads the team with 219 carries for 1,089 yards (a 5.0-yard average) and 15 touchdowns. But he is far from the only show in town. Derrick Ward has 167 carries for 948 yards (a 5.7-yard average) and third RB Ahmad Bradshaw has 57 carries for 327 yards (a 5.7-yard average). Even if Jacobs were to sit, which is not assured, the Giants don't have a drop-off when it comes to the backup positions. Plowing the road for the Giants RBs is fullback Madison Hedgecock, but his contribution is almost exclusively as a blocker – he has just one rushing attempt and six receptions. The Giants have a three-pronged running attack that can kill teams at any time. This will have to be the top priority for the Vikings run defense, which will face the league's top statistical rushing team for the second time in as many weeks (the Vikings helped knock Atlanta out of that spot last week).
The Giants have patched together a solid receiver corps without Burress or Shockey and have elevated players from backup status to front-line star players. Second-year man Steve Smith had a minimal contribution as a first-round rookie in 2007, but leads the team this season with 55 receptions for 554 yards. He has only one touchdown, so he hasn't been a threat in the red zone, but has been adept at keeping drives alive with key receptions to move the chains. Not far behind is 13-year pro Amani Toomer, who has been a go-to receiver for the Giants for the last decade. He has 46 catches for 564 yards and four touchdowns. No longer a consistent 1,000-yard receiver, he still has big-play ability. Super Bowl hero Domenik Hixon has stepped up his play as well, catching 39 passes for 534 yards and leading the Giants receivers with a 13.7-yard average. Also in the mix are rookie Mario Manningham of Michigan and waiver wire pickup Derek Hagan. Neither has made a big contribution to the offense, but Manningham's combination of size of speed could make him a potential star of the future, especially if the Giants to part ways with Burress following his recent arrest.
The tight end position has taken a hit with injuries to starter Kevin Boss. Boss has caught 33 passes and leads all Giants receivers with six touchdowns. But he is expected to miss Sunday's game with a variety of injuries that include a concussion sustained last week. In his place, the Giants will use second-year men Michael Matthews and Darcy Johnson, a pair of tight ends that have combined to catch four passes for 28 yards, but both of Johnson's catches have been 1-yard touchdowns – making him someone to watch near the goal line.
The unsung key to the Giants' offensive success has been a strong offensive line that has been able to hold up the entire season and serve as a fortress to protect Manning while being attackers in opening holes for Jacobs, Ward and Bradshaw in the running game. You can tell when an offensive line is among the best in the league when you recognize their names. The great Cowboys, Packers and 49ers teams of the last decade-plus all had familiar names up front and the Giants are working their way to that level. At the tackles, they have six-year pro David Diehl on the left side and eight-year vet Kareem McKenzie on the right side. Both are effective at sealing off pass rushers and keeping them from pressuring Manning in the pocket. In the middle of the line, they have eight-year veteran Chris Seubert and fifth-year man Chris Snee at guard, and nine-year veteran Shaun O'Hara at center. This is a veteran unit that has grown together and spent all of the last two seasons as the starting unit. While not individually dominant like Steve Hutchinson has been for the Vikings, they are a group that is solid throughout and the whole has proved to be stronger than the sum of its parts. If the Vikings want a chance to beat the Giants, the defensive front will have to bring its "A" game, because this may be the best five-man offensive front in the NFC.
It is clear that the Giants can beat teams with their offense, but it is their defense that has made them the top seed in the upcoming NFC playoffs. Despite losing Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Strahan to retirement and Osi Umenyiora to injury, the Giants have still posted 40 sacks and have one of the top defensive fronts in the league. The team raised some eyebrows when it gave third DE Justin Tuck a huge contract extension late in the 2007 season, but nobody is questioning that decision with Strahan gone and Umenyiora on the shelf. Tuck has transitioned into a full-time player who leads the team with 12 sacks from the left side of the defensive formation. There is some question as to whether he will play Sunday because of a knee injury that could use some rest, but, if he does play, Vikings ORT Ryan Cook is going to have his hands full. On the left side, third-year man Mathias Kiwanuka has blossomed since being pressed into full-time duty. He has posted eight sacks and is a relentless pass rusher who never gives up on plays and tracks down quarterbacks from behind on the other side of the field. In the event the starters get pulled or need a breather, second-year man David Tollefson, who has 3.5 sacks in spot duty, and 12-year veteran Renaldo Wynn provide backup help. If Tuck is limited, expect to see a lot of Wynn in today's game. In the middle, former Viking Fred Robbins has more than found a home in New York. Known as a run-stuffing defensive tackle, Robbins has made a name for himself for collapsing the pocket as well, sitting third on the team with 5.5 sacks. He's flanked by nose tackle Barry Cofield, who, while far from dominant, doesn't have any glaring weaknesses in his game and gives maximum effort on every play. Cofield is a question mark for today's game, which could open some playing time for second-year man Jay Alford or possibly former Viking Leger Douzable, who was activated from the practice squad to replace Burress – which many believe was a reaction to the simultaneous announcement that Pat Williams and Kevin Williams had been suspended for four games earlier this month. This is a group that many thought would be crippled without Strahan and Umenyiora, but it would seem as though they haven't missed a beat.
One of the hallmarks of the Giants defense over the years has been their linebacker corps. From Lawrence Taylor on down, there hasn't been a time in the last 20 years that New York hasn't had a strong group of linebackers and this year is no different. However, injuries have greatly affected how the unit has been run. Kiwanuka was shifted from linebacker to defensive end and Gerris Wilkerson has been injured much of the season. The rock in the middle of the defense is eight-year veteran Antonio Pierce. A tackling machine, Pierce is adept at shooting gaps and blowing up plays before they can begin. Tarvaris Jackson is going to have to know where he is on every snap and don't be surprised to see Pierce and Adrian Peterson meeting in the running lanes often and with some pretty extreme violence. On the outside, nine-year veteran Danny Clark has been a role player for most of his career, but has been fairly solid stepping into a starting role. He will likely be locked on Visanthe Shiancoe for much of the game in hopes of keeping the former Giant from burning his old teammates. On the weakside, fourth-year man Chase Blackburn is getting his first chance at being a full-time starter and has taken advantage of the opportunity. He is likely going to be in charge of containing Peterson from getting the outside, which may be one of the bigger challenges he has faced in his first full year as a starter.
If the Giants have a weakness on defense, it is in the secondary. They have solid players, but not a great unit that can routinely take away an opponent's top receiving threats. Their mettle will be tested with the loss of starting cornerback Aaron Ross, who will miss the game with a concussion. The starters will be fourth-year man Corey Webster and 12-year veteran Sam Madison. Webster is physical at 6-0, 202, but doesn't have great deep coverage speed. Madison, who in his time was one of the best cover corners in the league, has lost a step with age and can be beaten deep. The Giants have another aging vet in 11-year man R.W. McQuarters, who makes up for a lack of top-end speed with excellent technique and veteran savvy learned over a decade of playing in the league. At safety, the Giants only have three on the active roster – starters James Butler and Michael Johnson and backup Kenny Phillips. This is a very young group with Butler in his fourth season, Johnson in his second year and Phillips as a first-round rookie. Phillips has star potential written all over him and will get his chances to play, but the trio has a tendency of biting on play action and getting directed out of position to create one-on-one matchups on the outside. Whether Jackson can exploit that or not is yet to be seen, but, if the Giants are to get knocked off their perch in the playoffs, it may well be the result of mistakes made in the deep secondary.
The Giants aren't a flashy team like the Cowboys with all its offensive weapons or a defensive juggernaut like the Titans or Steelers, but the one thing they have that perhaps no other team in 2008 has is the ability to beat an opponent in an offensive shootout or a low-scoring defensive struggle. They are 12-3 for a reason, no small feat since many consider the NFC East to be the toughest division in the NFL. This is a team that hasn't experienced a Super Bowl hangover despite adversity and losing four of its top stars from that championship team – Burress and Shockey on offense and Strahan and Umenyiora on defense. Even if they don't come out full strength, beating the Giants is going to be a tall order for the Vikings, who will have their hands full in the biggest game of their 2008 season. When the schedule came out, many Vikings fans were concerned what would happen if a playoff berth was on the line and getting there would require beating the defending champs. That time has come. Now it's up to the Vikings to make the most of this opportunity.
Preview: Giants still strong
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