December 23, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Rival Redskins Stand Between Giants and NFC East Crown

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 23, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/24950

The Giants can clinch a division title this weekend, but they face a tough challenge at FedEx field in Washington. The Redskins have surged into the playoff race with a three-game winning streak, and they're looking to avenge the 36-0 drubbing the Giants gave them in Week 8.

The rejuvenated New England Patriots are also on a hot streak, winning five of six games after a 4-4 start. Head coach Bill Belichick vowed not to rest his starters as the defending champions come to New York for a Monday night contest with the Jets.

Here's a look at the matchups each local team will face during the Christmas weekend.

N.Y. GIANTS (10-4) AT WASHINGTON REDSKINS (8-6)
(Saturday, 1 p.m., FOX)

WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL

Despite some inconsistency created by injuries, the Redskins still boast what is probably the most aggressive defense in the league. Last week against the Cowboys, the Redskins D took advantage of a banged up offensive line and harassed quarterback Drew Bledsoe all day, sacking him seven times, forcing a fumble, and intercepting three passes. Veteran end Phillip Daniels had four of those sacks, but the Redskins love to blitz their linebackers, and the Giants can't focus on containing one big pass rusher.

If the Redskins' defense has a weakness, it's that their front line is built for speed, not size. That's why the Giants were able to use their power running game against the Redskins so effectively in a 36-0 rout at the Meadowlands in October. Tiki Barber rambled for 206 yards in that contest.

Quarterback Eli Manning continues to struggle, with just two touchdown passes and six interceptions in his last three games. Manning, who has been chronically overthrowing receivers, has acknowledged he is struggling with his mechanics and his footwork is off. Still, you have to wonder if the pressure is starting to get to him.

WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL

With middle linebacker Antonio Pierce sidelined last weekend, the Chiefs rushed for 188 yards against the Giants. That's troubling, considering the Redskins play the same style of smash mouth offense. Running back Clinton Portis has three straight 100-yard games, and he has flourished in the Skins' refocused offense.

Portis is seeing more running room thanks to the unforeseen success of ancient quarterback Mark Brunell, whose 20 touchdown passes already match his career best. But he has also been inconsistent from game to game. After throwing three interceptions against the Cardinals two weeks ago, he dissected the Cowboys' secondary and threw four touchdown passes last week.

KEY TO THE GAME The key to success in December is always the same: run and stop the run. The first half of the equation should be achievable for Big Blue. The expected return of tackle Luke Petitgout should reinforce the running game. The big challenge for the Giants comes on defense. Last week they held the Chiefs to 17 points despite an inability to stop the Chiefs from running the ball. They won't have that kind of luck two weeks in a row.

Lahman's Pick: Giants 24-21

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (9-5) AT N.Y. JETS (3-11)
(Monday, 9 p.m., ABC)

WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL

After some horrible outings earlier in the season, it's clear that Brooks Bollinger is gradually improving. With a better understanding of reading coverages, he has been able to cut down on turnovers and get the offense moving. Last week he threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns in the face of a relentless Miami pass rush. This improvement has come despite the fact that Bollinger is playing behind a makeshift offensive line and hasn't had much help from the ground game.

The Patriots will present the biggest challenge Bollinger has ever faced. They use a lot of different formations to disguise what they're doing, and they'll bring pressure from all directions. New England's linebacking corps - Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest on the inside and Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin outside - is arguably the league's best. The quartet has combined for 17.5 sacks and helped cover for a secondary ravaged by injuries.

The teams that have had success against the Patriots this year have run right at them. Players like Edgerrin James, Larry Johnson, and LaDainian Tomlinson just kept pounding into the middle of New England's defense, and their teams racked up decisive wins. Unfortunately, the Jets don't have a workhorse back or an overpowering offensive line. Cedric Houston rushed for 84 yards against Miami last week, but he'll have a much harder time breaking away from New England's disciplined defenders.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

Not surprisingly, the Patriots' late-season surge has coincided with the return of veteran running back Corey Dillon, who has rushed for at least 100 yards and scored a touchdown in three games since missing three weeks with ankle and calf injuries. At 31, Dillon no longer has the open-field speed that made him such an explosive runner in Cincinnati. He's more of a between-the-tackles runner now, and even when you know he's coming, he's hard to bring down.

Faced with Dillon's absence and a depleted secondary, quarterback Tom Brady has responded with his greatest season. The key to Brady's success has always been his ability to spread the ball around to second, third, and fourth options, which makes the passing attack very difficult to defend. Twelve different receivers have caught a touchdown pass this year, and Brady leads the NFL with 3,888 passing yards.

The Jets' pass defense has remained pretty solid, thanks in large part to cornerback Ty Law. The former Patriot leads the team with six interceptions and the secondary has held opponents to just 13 passing touchdowns in 14 games.

Gang Green's run defense, which has surrendered 133.9 yards per game, looks bad on paper, but it's clear the high yardage is merely a result of teams running to protect their leads in the second half. If the Jets can keep the game close into the second half, Dillon won't be able to rack up big yardage.

KEY TO THE GAME

How do you beat Brady in December? Nobody's been able to figure that one out. Including postseason games, the Patriots are 27-3 in games after December 1 since Brady took the reins. The Jets have to start by scoring points, and the best way to do that in the cold weather is to run the ball. Houston is the kind of inside runner who could have success against the New England defense, and he'll have to if the Jets are to have any chance.

Lahman's Pick: Patriots 23-14

December 23, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version