NFL Preview - N.Y. Giants (6-4) at New Orleans (7-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There's not a team in the NFL that holds any compassion for the New York Giants and their arduous schedule ahead. New York's playoff destiny is still in its own hands, however, and the grind begins Monday night against the high-powered and well-rested New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.
The Giants arguably have the toughest schedule in the league over the remaining six games, with the games against the Saints, Green Bay, Dallas twice, Washington and the city-rival Jets on the horizon. They could have remained in sole possession of first place in the NFC East entering this contest, but instead dropped a 17-10 decision at home to division-rival Philadelphia and are now a half-game behind Dallas in the standings. The Cowboys squeezed out a win over Miami on Thanksgiving.
One major area of concern for the Giants last Sunday was their running game, which was suffocated by the Eagles to the tune of 29 yards in a second straight loss. They fell to 31st in the league in rushing (83.2 ypg) and played a third straight game without Ahmad Bradshaw, who is nursing a foot injury and leads the team with 440 yards on the ground. Brandon Jacobs, D.J. Ware and Da'Rel Scott each had their chances to set the offense in motion last week, and head coach Tom Coughlin was straightforward with his assessment after the game.
"I didn't like the way we played," Coughlin said following his team's second straight loss since a three-game winning streak. "I know our offensive line was completely outplayed by the front eight of Philadelphia."
Giants Pro Bowl guard Chris Snee was bothered by an illness and did his best to stem the Eagles' tide, but eventually New York finished with its lowest rushing total since Nov. 20, 2006, when they ran for 25 yards in a loss at Jacksonville. Kevin Boothe briefly replaced Snee in the lineup when he needed an IV in the training room and Ware exited with a concussion to make personnel matters even worse.
Quarterback Eli Manning said the offense just couldn't get anything going despite the fact he passed for 264 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Manning continued to build a solid rapport with wideout Victor Cruz, who is on pace to eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving mark, though.
Manning has been carrying New York's offense all season and is living up to his own preseason billing as an elite quarterback. The Giants will once again have to turn to their Super Bowl-winning signal-caller for substance against a tough New Orleans team at home, since it could be difficult for the defense to simmer the Saints' red-hot offense.
Saints head coach Sean Payton said he was concerned with New York's pass rushers and feels the one-on-one battles will be key in this test.
The Saints come into Monday's matchup with the Giants fresh off their bye week and have won two straight and three of four games to maintain a slim one-game edge over Atlanta for the NFC South lead. They have been clicking on all cylinders offensively, ranking first in both passing yards per game (319.4) and total yards (436.9) and standing second in points scored (31.3).
New York may have trouble slowing down quarterback Drew Brees, who can be rattled with pressure up front. The Saints' offensive line hasn't permitted a sack in back-to-back games since a season-worst six-sack performance by the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 30, however, while Brees has been taken down a total of 19 times this season.
Brees has been sacked only five times this season at the Superdome, where the Saints are 4-0 this season and he has thrown for 1,223 yards with 13 touchdown passes to just three interceptions.
Brees was excited about the primetime matchup coming up with New York.
"We're all excited to get back because we're excited for the opportunity that we have going into the second half of the season," Brees said. "The Giants are coming to town, so that's a huge game Monday night. This is our opportunity to try to separate ourselves and really establish our position both in our conference and our division."
New Orleans is hoping there will be no bye-week lull when action resumes and face a tough schedule of their own ahead with the Giants, Detroit, Tennessee, Minnesota, Atlanta and Carolina on the docket. Though games against the Titans, Vikings and Panthers look like easy wins, the rest could make it tough for the Saints in their quest for a second division title in three years.
Four of their next six games are at the Superdome, however, and that could be the perfect scenario to run away with the NFC South.
Though the Giants hold a 14-11 edge in their all-time series with New Orleans, they've been ambushed by the Saints in each of the last two encounters between the clubs. In addition to a 30-7 road rout back in 2006, the Saints came through with a 48-27 victory over New York at the Superdome during the 2009 season behind a 369-yard, four-touchdown performance out of Brees. The Giants last bested New Orleans in 2005, a 27-10 decision at the Meadowlands that was designated as a Saints' home game which had to be moved by the impact of Hurricane Katrina. New York hasn't won at the Superdome since a 24-14 triumph on Dec. 20, 1993, having gone 0-3 in its last three visits to the Big Easy.
Coughlin owns a 2-3 career record against the Saints, including a 1-1 mark during his tenure in charge of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-2002. Payton, who served four seasons as New York's offensive coordinator from 1999-2002, has won both of his lifetime matchups with both the Giants and Coughlin as a head coach.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The Giants are known to pound the football, but didn't live up to those standards in a tough loss versus the Eagles. With a season-low 29 yards rushing and 278 total yards of offense, it appears the G-Men could be headed towards another second-half collapse. Bradshaw (440 rushing yards, 5 TD) would give the Giants a boost if he's able to return from a broken bone in his right foot, and his teammates have missed him the past three games. Jacobs (274 rushing yards, 3 TD) got his old starting job back in his backfield mate's absence, but the results were varied. It won't help that left tackle Will Beatty is expected to miss the game due to surgery to repair a detached retina in his right eye. Not only are the Giants near the bottom in rushing yards, but they are last with an average of 3.16 yards per carry. The Giants haven't averaged so few rushing yards per game over a full season since 1945 (76.9 ypg). Manning (2,952 passing yards, 18 TD, 9 INT) has kept the offense afloat this season and leads the NFL with a 120.5 rating in the fourth quarter. He will be headed to the city where he grew up and where his father, Archie, played, and has seven touchdown passes in his last four games. Cruz (46 receptions, 800 yards, 5 TD) has been enjoying a breakout season and aims to keep that going this week.
New Orleans can see that the Giants have struggled running the football, but that doesn't mean it should focus most of its attention to Manning. New York played poorly against the Eagles, but that was last week and the pressure's on for both teams in the Superdome. Atlanta managed 138 rushing yards against the Saints, who are 19th in the league with 121.5 rushing yards allowed per game, in their last outing prior to the bye. It doesn't say much for a defense when a safety leads the team in sacks, as Roman Harper (69 tackles) owns seven so far in 2011. Defensive tackles Aubrayo Franklin (14 tackles) and Sedrick Ellis (17 tackles, sack) could take a page out of Philadelphia's playbook to figure out New York's blocking scheme, but then again that was last week and the Giants may have added a few more wrinkles to prevent the type of pressure the Eagles applied. Veteran defensive end Will Smith (20 tackles, 5 sacks) and rookie linemate Cameron Jordan (25 tackles) may find success now that Beatty is out with an eye problem. Manning is having a Pro Bowl season and can pick apart any defense when he's on his game. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins (50 tackles) and Harper are the last line of defense and cornerbacks Jabari Greer (41 tackles, INT) and Tracy Porter (26 tackles) have to play better than what the Saints' 19th-ranked pass defense represents.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees (3,326 passing yards, 23 TD, 11 INT) is aware the Giants were able to pick off the Eagles' Vince Young three times last week, so protecting the football and studying the defense will be key in this matchup. Brees, also a Super Bowl champion, has been intercepted three times in the last four weeks and has thrown 10 touchdown passes in that stretch for a New Orleans offense rated first with an average of 319.4 passing yards and 436.9 total yards per game. The Saints will be in trouble if New York finds a way to knock Brees off his game or out of it completely, but the former Purdue star has thrown a touchdown pass in 37 straight games, the second-longest streak in NFL history. Johnny Unitas holds the record with 47. Brees extended his own NFL record by completing 20 or more passes for the 30th consecutive game against Atlanta and owns 51 career 300-yard passing games, tying Hall of Famer Dan Fouts for fifth- most all-time. New Orleans has given Brees plenty of weapons to work with in tight end Jimmy Graham (62 receptions, 873 yards, 6 TD), wide receiver Marques Colston (42 receptions, 589 yards, 3 TD) and newcomer Darren Sproles (60 receptions, 3 TD). Sproles also leads the Saints with 348 rushing yards and shares carries with rookie Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. The Saints are 13th in rushing with 117.5 yards per game and can throw a major wrench in the Giants' game plan by running.
New York has to keep pressure up front on Brees if it has any intentions on leaving the bayou with a victory. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (44 tackles) added to his team-leading 11 sacks against the Eagles and has been the Giants' top pass rusher all season. He has picked up the slack for opposite end Justin Tuck (15 tackles, 2 sacks), who's posted two sacks while battling injuries all season and just a half-sack over his previous five games. Tuck missed four games earlier in the season with groin and neck problems. Fellow end Osi Umenyiora (22 tackles, 7 sacks) has turned it on since missing the first three games of the season with a knee injury and will also be relied on to stir havoc up front. Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (59 tackles) has posted four sacks this season for New York, which is 18th against the pass, 20th in points allowed and 21st in both yards permitted and run defense. The Saints' run game can be stopped, but their passing attack could give any team nightmares. New York is prepared for that with cornerbacks Aaron Ross (35 tackles) and Corey Webster (34 tackles), as the duo is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four apiece. Safety Kenny Phillips (60 tackles) is second on the team with two picks. Phillips, Ross and rookie corner Prince Amukamara (5 tackles) each had an interception versus Philly.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Saints have won 10 straight November games and could see another offensive weapon besides Brees step into the limelight Monday. Sproles may just be that guy and has been enjoying a Pro-Bowl type campaign with his ability to multi- task. Expect a few dump-offs and runs up the gut for the mighty-mite Monday night as New Orleans tries to mix things up to keep the Giants guessing.
New York hopes it has patched up its running woes for this matchup, otherwise Manning could have a long day. Beatty is not slated to play Monday, with David Diehl or Boothe to be moved around up front to fill the gap. The offensive line and Bradshaw's injury have hurt the team's ground attack, and the Giants will need better balance to keep up with the high-scoring Saints.
Brees must be prepared for a New York defense that is ranked high in the NFL with 31 sacks this season. Brees can make all the throws on any given day, but when 275-pound defensive ends are breathing down his back, it makes it a bit more difficult. New Orleans' offensive line has been stout the past two weeks, but may be facing its toughest challenge yet.
The Giants are no strangers to high-powered offenses and have shut down both Philadelphia and New England already this season. Coughlin knows how to get his players prepared on a week-to-week basis, but this is no normal week with a visit to New Orleans. Coughlin said the Giants must "poise the noise" and stay consistent at the Superdome by playing within their limits and not trying to do too much. Manning understands that concept, but will need the ground game to start working in order to mix it up with different formations, personnel and alignments to succeed. The Giants are in the thick of a playoff push and Monday's showdown will be another major hurdle, while the Saints can afford to lose and still have a shot at winning the NFC South. New York has been stingy on defense, and that will be key in escaping the Big Easy with an even larger win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 24, Saints 17
11/25 20:33:51 ET