December 15, 2006 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Two Division Rivals Are Back From the Dead
Football

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 15, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/45282

A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T

Winning last week kept their playoff hopes alive, but the Giants' work is just beginning. This weekend they'll host a rejuvenated Eagles team that is much different from the one they faced in early September. Both clubs have overcome a rocky November and are playing good football, but in all probability, only one of them will make the playoffs. Sunday's game will likely determine which one that is.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (7-6) AT GIANTS (7-6)
(Sunday, 4:15 p.m., FOX)

WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL Quarterback Eli Manning is back on track, having played what might be the best two games of his season in consecutive, must-win games. The key to his resurgence has been his ability to avoid turnovers. He's no longer trying to force passes into coverage or make throws when he's off-balance or getting hit.

Dropped passes are still a glaring problem for Giants receivers, and the team still hasn't found a good replacement for injured wideout Amani Toomer. When the Giants and Eagles met in September, Toomer had 12 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns.

Clearly, though, if this team is going to win down the stretch they'll need to do it with their running game. Tiki Barber topped the 100-yard mark last week, the first time he'd done that in a month. He seems to have recovered from the thumb injury that limited him for several weeks.

Barber will be the key player in the Giants game plan, as they look to attack Philadelphia's porous run defense. Four of the Eagles last six opponents have rushed for 200 yards. Tackles Mike Patterson and Darwin Walker haven't been able to get good penetration, and teams have had success running right at them. The Eagles rank 29th overall in run defense.

When these two teams played last September, the Eagles sacked Manning eight times. That relentless Philadelphia pass rush has all but disappeared, especially since defensive end Jevon Kearse went on injured reserve. After registering a league-leading 23 sacks in their first five games, the Eagles have managed just eight sacks in their last eight games. Second-year pro Trent Cole has filled in for Kearse, but he often appears to be overmatched. Darren Howard, a big addition through free agency during the off-season has been disappointing, as has former first round pick Jerome McDougle.

The strength of the Eagles defense is their secondary that features hardhitting free safety Brian Dawkins and a pair of good cover cornerbacks, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. They haven't created a ton of turnovers, but the team ranks seventh in overall pass defense. At times they've simply smothered opponents, holding four of the last seven teams they have faced to less than 135 yards through the air.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL It has been a tough season for the Eagles. They started off 41 before stumbling with three straight losses. Before they could get back on track, they lost quarterback Donovan McNabb for the season with a knee injury. Just when it looked like all was lost, the Eagles offense has pulled it together and helped the team jump back into the playoff race. After McNabb went down, veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia took over and looked like a superstar for the first time since he left San Francisco three years ago.

Since taking over, Garcia has thrown eight touchdown passes without an interception. He's still elusive in the pocket, able to avoid the pass rush, and willing to take off running if there are no other options. He's done a great job of getting the ball down the field to receivers Reggie Brown and Donte' Stallworth.

The central figure in Philadelphia's offense is still Brian Westbrook. He leads the team in rushing and receptions. The Eagles sometimes line him up in the slot or have him split out wide, but wherever he is, Westbrook always creates coverage problems for the defense. As a runner, his speed and quickness make him difficult to bring down in the open field. His only weakness is his lack of size. Correll Buckhalter gets the ball in short yardage situations.

For all the talk about the Giants needing Eli Manning to get back on track, their defense also needed to rebound from a series of poor performances. They did that in a big way last week, holding the Panthers to 45 rushing yards and forcing three turnovers. Most important, they played a strong second half, holding Carolina to just three points after half time.

The Giants have done a good job containing Westbrook on the ground in the past. In the last two games against Philadelphia, they've held him to 68 and 66 rushing yards. Where he can hurt them is on the quick outlet passes, catching a ball in the flat and bursting up the sideline for a quick gain. The pressure will be on outside linebackers Carlos Emmons and Brandon Short to keep Westbrook from breaking free.

KEYS TO THE GAME The Eagles have a playoff-caliber offense, capable of putting points on the scoreboard against any opponent. Their defense, on the other hand, is full of holes. For them to beat the Giants or anyone they need to get better play from their front seven. For Big Blue, the focus has to be on exploiting that weakness, establishing their running game and using Jeremy Shockey to help soften the defense with underneath routes.

Lahman's Pick: Giants 1710

December 15, 2006 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

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