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NFL Preview - N.Y. Giants (7-8) at Minnesota (11-4)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New York Giants have experienced their share of turmoil during what's been a very disappointing 2009 campaign, but nothing like what the Minnesota Vikings have gone through over the past few weeks.
These two embattled teams close out their respective regular seasons in this Sunday's matchup at the Metrodome, where the playoff-bound Vikings aim once again to seize an opening-round bye that's slipping right through their fingers.
Minnesota had been assumed as a virtual lock to earn one of the top two seeds for the upcoming NFC Playoffs, which would allow the North Division champions to bypass next week's Wild Card Round, until a disastrous December that saw the club lose three times in a four-game span. The Vikings now no longer control their own fate in regards to obtaining a bye, due to back-to-back stinging defeats to also-rans Carolina and Chicago.
The Vikings were engulfed in a relentless swarm of media attention following their game with the resurgent Panthers in Week 15, with the 26-7 setback serving as the latest episode in the long-running soap opera that has been Brett Favre's career. The emotional quarterback engaged in a what he termed a "heated exchange" with head coach Brad Childress during the third quarter of that contest, after the latter unsuccessfully attempted to remove the future Hall of Famer with the intention of resting him for the stretch run.
The resulting drama seemed to take its toll on Minnesota in Monday's clash with the Bears, who roared out to a 16-point halftime lead before Favre engineered one of his trademark comebacks to send the game into overtime via a short touchdown pass to Sidney Rice in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. However, a costly fumble by running back Adrian Peterson during the extra period was later turned into a deciding touchdown that gave Chicago a thrilling 36-30 victory.
That startling outcome put 11-4 Philadelphia in the driver's seat to claim the NFC's No. 2 seed, which the Eagles can earn with a victory over Dallas on Sunday. A Cowboys win would give the Vikings a bye, but only if they're able to knock off the Giants this weekend.
That shouldn't be too tall an order for spiraling Minnesota if New York duplicates its most recent effort, a humiliating 41-9 shellacking by Carolina in the team's final game at Giants Stadium. The loss was Big Blue's seventh in 10 outings since a promising 5-0 start to the season and officially eliminated the team from making a fifth consecutive playoff trip.
The Giants were the top seed in last season's conference postseason tournament after claiming the NFC East title with a 12-4 record.
If the Eagles prevail on Sunday, Minnesota would be seeded third with a win over New York or if NFC West champ Arizona loses to Green Bay in its finale. A loss to the Giants coupled with a Cardinals' win would relegate the Vikings to the No. 4 seed.
That final scenario could also pit Minnesota against the rival Packers, the team with which Favre spent the majority of his remarkable 19-year career, in the opening round. The two divisional foes would face off if the Vikings lose and both the Eagles and Cardinals win this weekend.
Minnesota has a 12-8 edge in its all-time regular season series with the Giants, including a 20-19 home win in Week 17 of last season, a game in which New York rested many of its key starters for all or part of the game in preparation for the playoffs. That result snapped a three-game winning streak for Big Blue in Minnesota, as they won there in 2002, 2003, and 2004. The Vikings subsequently won at Giants Stadium in 2005 and 2007.
The Giants lead the postseason series, 2-1, including a 41-0 home blowout of the Vikings in the 2000 NFC Championship. New York also won an NFC First-Round playoff tilt at home in 1993, and lost a 1997 NFC First-Round Playoff to the Vikes at Giants Stadium.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is 2-4 against the Vikings during his career, including 1-3 since coming to New York in 2004. Vikings head coach Brad Childress is 2-0 against both Coughlin and the Giants as a head coach.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Look for New York to aggressively attack a Minnesota defense that's been revealed to be rather vulnerable against the pass in recent weeks, which would give quarterback Eli Manning (3880 passing yards, 27 TD, 13 INT) an excellent chance at gaining the 165 yards he needs to eclipse Phil Simms' season franchise record for that category. His preferred target, wide receiver Steve Smith (97 receptions, 1163 yards, 7 TD), already owns the team mark for receptions in a single year and is the lynchpin of an emerging corps of receivers that also contains two very talented -- albeit somewhat inconsistent -- options in second-year pro Mario Manningham (57 receptions, 5 TD) and rookie Hakeem Nicks (46 receptions, 6 TD). Tight end Kevin Boss (42 receptions, 5 TD) has averaged five catches and nearly 60 receiving yards over the past three weeks and could be in line for another productive afternoon on Sunday, especially if the Giants once again fail to get a once-potent running game untracked. Leading rusher Brandon Jacobs (835 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 6 total TD) managed a mere one yard on six carries against the Panthers before exiting with a knee problem that has rendered him out for the finale, while counterpart Ahmad Bradshaw (765 rushing yards, 7 TD, 19 receptions) has battled injuries all year long that have often curtailed his workload. New York was missing two key starters up front for last week's debacle -- left guard Rich Seubert and right tackle Kareem McKenzie -- due to knee injuries, and both appear doubtful to suit up for this week's test as well. With the line at less than full strength, the G-Men mustered a meager 60 yards on the ground versus Carolina.
The Vikings have one more week to get a defense that surrendered an average of 272 passing yards and eight touchdowns through the air during the team's three December defeats back in working order for the playoffs. Minnesota also recorded a pedestrian four sacks over the course of those losses, an astonishingly low number for a group that leads the NFL with 45 quarterback takedowns this year and possesses two Pro Bowlers, end Jared Allen (48 tackles, 13.5 sacks) and Kevin Williams (30 tackles, 6 sacks), as well as another quality rusher in end Ray Edwards (49 tackles, 7.5 sacks) along the line. It hasn't helped matters that accomplished cornerback Antoine Winfield (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), the Vikes' best cover man, still isn't all the way back from a fractured foot that forced him to miss six games earlier in the year, and it wouldn't be surprising if he's held out of this week's tilt to further heal up for the postseason. Veteran tackle Pat Williams (44 tackles, 2 sacks), one of the anchors of Minnesota's fourth-ranked run defense (90.6 ypg), was inactive for the Chicago game with an elbow issue and is also a candidate for further rest.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Minnesota also wants to use Sunday's game as an opportunity to get Peterson (1329 rushing yards, 17 TD, 42 receptions) back to his early-season form. The standout back hasn't had a 100-yard effort since mid-November and has averaged a mediocre 3.3 yards per attempt over the past six weeks, while Monday's fumble against the Bears was his seventh of 2009. Favre (3886 passing yards, 29 TD, 7 INT) has also had a few lackluster performances down the stretch, but the 40-year-old ironman was able to bounce back with a 321-yard, two-touchdown night in Monday's loss. The legendary triggerman was selected to his 11th career Pro Bowl on Tuesday, while Rice (77 receptions, 1200 yards, 6 TD) garnered his first-ever all-star nod with his breakthrough season as the club's top receiver. The third-year man heads up a receiver contingent that has speed to burn, as versatile rookie Percy Harvin (53 receptions, 8 total TD) has quickly shown to be a premier game-breaker and veteran Bernard Berrian (53 receptions, 4 TD) is a proven playmaker in his own right. Tight end and ex-Giant Visanthe Shiancoe (49 receptions, 10 TD) provides Favre with a reliable safety valve, while both Peterson and capable understudy Chester Taylor (326 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 2 total TD) are both solid receivers out of the backfield.
A Giants defense that was gashed for 247 rushing yards by the Panthers a week ago could be just what Peterson needs to break out of his late-year slump, while a secondary that didn't have top cornerback Corey Webster (51 tackles, 1 INT, 12 PD) or former first-round pick Aaron Ross (10 tackles) available due to injuries surrendered three touchdown passes in last Sunday's blowout loss. Carolina became the fourth team to put up 40 points or more on New York's ravaged stop unit, which enters this game 28th in the NFL in scoring defense (28.5 ppg) and permitted a league-worst 68.5 percent of touchdowns within the red zone. With both Webster (sprained knee) and Ross (hamstring) iffy to return for the finale, it's imperative that ends Justin Tuck (55 tackles, 6 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (27 tackles, 7 sacks), two former Pro Bowlers in the midst of down seasons, can put the heat on Favre and help out the short-handed secondary. Weakside linebacker Michael Boley (76 tackles, 1 sack), who racked up 11 tackles against Carolina, and rugged tackle Barry Cofield (31 tackles, 1 sack) will be responsible for attempting to keep Peterson under wraps, while physical corner Terrell Thomas (79 tackles, 5 INT, 13 PD) will likely spend much of his day shadowing Rice.
Those with fantasy seasons still going on have a bit of a dilemma on their hands in regards to Minnesota players. If the Giants lay down like they did last week and the Vikings are able to build a comfortable lead, there's a strong likelihood that usual stalwarts such as Peterson, Favre and Rice will be removed long before the game's final stages. There's no guarantee that will happen, though, so lean towards starting both Minnesota backs and Rice while sitting Harvin and Shiancoe, both of whom are a bit banged up and could have their snaps limited. Favre is a tough call, as he's a must-use if this game is competitive but a very risky proposition if it winds up a blowout. On the New York side, Manning and Smith owners shouldn't have any reservations about inserting either into their lineups, while Boss, Nicks and Manningham all have potential value this week as well. None of the Giants' backs are recommended plays, however, and think twice about starting Minnesota's usually attractive defense, as this one has the makings of being a shootout.
The Vikings are reeling at the most inopportune time, but they've got the perfect remedy for their problems in a Giants' squad that hasn't been able to stop anybody during the season's second half and displayed little interest in competing their most recent time out. This may not be a walkover, however. Minnesota's glaring chinks in the armor on defense were routinely exploited by the Panthers and Bears over the past two weeks, and neither of those teams have the overall ensemble of offensive talent that the Giants do. The Vikings are still the better of these two foes, though, and really need this game to gain some momentum for the playoffs. There's always plenty of excitement whenever Favre is involved, and this game figures to be no different.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 34, Giants 30
12/30 17:01:06 ET