NFL Preview - San Diego (4-3) at N.Y. Giants (5-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Although the careers of Eli Manning and Philip Rivers will be forever intertwined, the two quarterbacks have never gone head-to-head on the playing field. That will change this Sunday, when Rivers brings the surging San Diego Chargers into the Meadowlands for a tussle with a reeling New York Giants team that will be out to stop a three-game losing streak.
The Chargers used the No. 1 overall selection of the 2004 draft to select Manning, despite the Ole Miss product's publicly-known intentions that he wished not to play for the franchise, and subsequently traded his rights to the Giants after New York tabbed Rivers with the fourth pick of the first round. Rivers was sent to San Diego in a deal that also landed the Bolts a pair of draft picks, including a 2005 first-rounder that was used on standout outside linebacker Shawne Merriman.
Both young field generals have been able to achieve significant success in the pros. Manning has helped the Giants reach the playoffs in each of his first four full seasons as a starter and was named MVP of Super Bowl XLII after orchestrating a late game-winning drive to defeat the then-unbeaten New England Patriots. Rivers has guided the Chargers to three straight AFC West titles upon taking over as the team's regular signal-caller in 2006 and threw for over 4,000 yards and a league-best 36 touchdowns during a stellar 2008 campaign.
While one could argue over which quarterback has had or will have the better career, there's little debate as to who's been the superior player of the two as of late.
Rivers has tossed eight touchdown passes against just one interception over his last four games, and his 249-yard effort in last Sunday's 24-16 victory over Oakland was the fiery sixth-year pro's lowest output of the season. He's on pace to throw for over 4,650 yards this year, which would be the most for a Chargers quarterback since Hall of Famer Dan Fouts put up 4,802 in 1981.
Manning, on the other hand, has struggled mightily ever since suffering a plantar fasciitis injury to his right heel during a Giants' win at Kansas City on October 4. The even-keeled 27-year-old has been intercepted six times and completed under 50 percent of his attempts over the past three weeks, with New York losing each one of those contests.
The Giants had won their first five games of 2009 prior to this slide, the team's longest since it dropped four in a row from November 12-December 3, 2006. Manning certainly had a hand in that excellent start as well, amassing 10 touchdown passes with only two picks to go along with a 64 percent completion rate.
Manning had two costly interceptions in last Sunday's loss at division-rival Philadelphia, but he wasn't the only culprit in a 40-17 thrashing that has served as the unquestioned low point of New York's season. A suddenly-slumping defense was burned for three touchdowns of 40 yards or more and surrendered 180 rushing yards to the usually pass-oriented Eagles, who moved ahead of the Giants and into a tie with Dallas for first place in the well-stocked NFC East. The G-Men enter this weekend's play a half-game behind the Eagles and Cowboys, both of whom have posted 5-2 records.
San Diego has regrouped from a 2-3 beginning to record wins over fellow AFC West members Kansas City and Oakland in their two most recent tests. The Chargers presently stand second in the division, two games back of 6-1 Denver.
Manning will actually be facing the Chargers for the second time of his career on Sunday. Amidst a persistent chorus of boos from an unforgiving Qualcomm Stadium crowd, he threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-23 setback to San Diego in Week 3 of the 2005 season. Rivers did not participate in that game while serving as the understudy to current New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees.
The Giants have a 5-4 lead in their all-time series with the Chargers, but as previously mentioned, were handled by a 45-23 count in the most recent meeting, at Qualcomm Stadium in 2005. New York won the previous meeting, taking a 34-16 decision in San Diego in 1998. The Chargers were 27-17 winners when they last faced the G-Men at Giants Stadium, in 1995, the only Big Apple confrontation between the clubs since the Giants earned a 20-7 victory versus the Bolts in 1986.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner is 6-8-1 in his career against the Giants, including 6-7-1 while at the helm of the Redskins (1994-2000). New York head coach Tom Coughlin is 0-1 all-time against the Chargers, and is 1-2 against Turner head-to-head.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego has had to rely heavily on the right arm of Rivers (2036 passing yards, 11 TD, 4 INT) as a sluggish running game continues to be a problem area. The Chargers are averaging a league-worst 3.1 yards per rush attempt and a paltry 74.7 yards per game on the ground (31st overall), and top back LaDainian Tomlinson (267 rushing yards, 3 TD, 7 receptions) is no longer the same player who won an NFL MVP in 2006 and scorched the Giants for 192 yards and three touchdowns one year earlier. Help could soon be on the way, however, as sturdy center Nick Hardwick, sidelined with an ankle problem since the season opener, practiced with the starting unit this week and has a chance to return for Sunday's game. The lack of offensive balance hasn't slowed down Rivers or wide receiver Vincent Jackson (37 receptions, 664 yards, 5 TD), who ranks second in the league in receiving yards per game right now and has caught a touchdown pass in three straight weeks. The Chargers released declining veteran Chris Chambers on Monday to open up more playing time for the explosive Malcolm Floyd (11 receptions, 1 TD), who had been averaging nearly 23 yards per catch in the No. 3 receiver role.
At the forefront of the Giants' present skid is the regression of a defense that had been overpowering against the lighter opponents on the schedule earlier in the season. The unit was shredded for 493 yards in a 48-27 loss to Brees and the high-scoring Saints back in Week 6, then gave up an alarming number of big plays in a forgettable performance versus the Eagles last Sunday. New York has had trouble generating an effective pass rush during its losing streak, and will need to get linemen Justin Tuck (25 tackles, 3.5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (17 tackles, 4 sacks) and Mathias Kiwanuka (23 tackles, 3 sacks) back on track in order to keep Rivers at bay and protect a secondary that's been shaky in recent weeks. The Giants could be getting some needed reinforcements for Sunday's game, as outside linebacker Michael Boley (14 tackles) and tackle Chris Canty (2 tackles) are close to ready to return from knee and calf injuries, respectively, that have shelved them for much of this season. Despite having dropped off in both categories as of late, New York is still third in the NFL in both total defense (278.1 ypg) and pass defense (165.0).
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
With Manning (1855 passing yards, 13 TD, 8 INT) trying to reclaim his earlier form, expect the Giants to give San Diego a heavy dose of running backs Brandon Jacobs (550 rushing yards, 2 TD, 9 receptions) and Ahmad Bradshaw (476 rushing yards, 4 TD, 7 receptions) come Sunday. The duo has averaged over 128 rushing yards per game through the season's first half, with the bruising Jacobs a force between the tackles and the smaller and shiftier Bradshaw a dangerous threat in the open field. When Manning drops back to pass, he'll first look in the direction of reliable wideout Steve Smith (53 receptions, 662 yards, 4 TD), the league's current leader in receptions who's coming off an eight-catch, 68-yard game against Philadelphia. Rookie Hakeem Nicks (20 receptions, 4 TD) added four grabs totaling 53 yards and appears on the brink of overtaking second-year pro Mario Manningham (28 receptions, 4 TD) as the No. 2 option in the passing game. Manningham sat out last week's loss with a shoulder injury, and his status for Sunday's matchup is somewhat unclear. Turnovers have been a problem for the Giants as of late, with the team having given the ball away nine times during its three-game slide.
A San Diego defense that lost three-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams to a season-ending triceps tear in Week 1 has understandably had difficulty stopping the run, having permitted an average of 132.1 yards per game (27th overall) on the ground. There's also some concern at the inside linebacker spot opposite leading tackler Stephen Cooper (53 tackles, 2 forced fumbles), as normal starter Kevin Burnett (32 tackles, 1 sack) is trying to make it back from an ankle sprain that's kept him out the past two weeks and backup Tim Dobbins (33 tackles, 1 sack) will miss Sunday's game with a knee injury. The Chargers do rank sixth in the NFL in pass defense (178.4 ypg) and have been sensational in that area lately, limiting the fractured aerial attacks of Kansas City and Oakland to a combined 163 yards in their last two victories. A big reason for that dominance has been the ability of Merriman (25 tackles, 2 sacks) and fellow outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (30 tackles, 4 sacks) to pressure the passer. Both players took down Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell twice last weekend, with Phillips also amassing two sacks in the club's Week 7 win over the Chiefs.
Rivers' consistency and proficient play on the road -- he's thrown for three touchdowns in each of San Diego's last two away games -- make him a strong choice at the quarterback position. Manning would be one as well if he can play at the same level he did during the Giants' early-season success, but the struggling triggerman's recent efforts make him hard to recommend as anything more than a bye-week substitute. The Chargers have a pair of fantasy must- plays in Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates (37 receptions, 523 yards, 2 TD), while Tomlinson's two-touchdown day against the Raiders last week was a welcome sight for his owners. As for New York's backfield situation, Jacobs has started to re-establish himself as the ball-carrier to own after a disappointing beginning to the season, leaving Bradshaw more suited as bench material. Smith is the only Giants receiver that should be used without hesitation, although Nicks has some intrigue has a sleeper pick. Manningham's stock has dropped and he isn't a recommended selection this week due to his uncertain injury situation. This game features the league's two leaders in field goals in New York's Lawrence Tynes and San Diego's Nate Kaeding, both of whom have the potential to add to those totals on Sunday.
While all the focus will be on the two quarterbacks, it will be the Giants' ability to get back to basics that will ultimately determine the outcome of this game. New York should be able to assert itself at the line of scrimmage on both fronts, taking advantage of a San Diego team that's rather suspect in defending the run and has had all sorts of trouble establishing a reliable ground attack. That should help offset Manning's recent shortcomings and allow the Giants to do what they do best on defense: turn loose their formidable arsenal of pass rushers. With a top-notch quarterback in Rivers and some outstanding playmakers on the defensive side, the Chargers are fully capable of extending New York's recent woes, but it's hard to envision a proven and experienced team like the Giants failing to rise to the occasion at home in what is close to a must-win situation.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 27, Chargers 23
11/05 17:28:52 ET