December 7, 2007 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version
BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 7, 2007
Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb is expected to return to the lineup this weekend after spending the last two weeks resting his sprained ankle. The Eagles lost both of those games and have fallen out of the playoff chase. Backup A.J. Feeley threw seven interceptions in his two starts, each time dooming the Eagles to defeat in a game they could otherwise have won.
That's a problem that Giants fans are all too familiar with. Their franchise quarterback, Eli Manning, has also turned the ball over seven times in his last two games. He'll have to step up if his team has any chance to win games in the post-season.
The best antidote for a struggling quarterback is a strong running game, and both teams have had success on the ground this year. The Giants and Eagles will both be looking to grind it out when they face off in Philadelphia on Sunday. Here's a closer look at how the two teams match up.
GIANTS (8–4) at EAGLES (9–7)
Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL Manning continues to be frustratingly enigmatic. His fourth-quarter rally in Chicago couldn't erase the concern over how poorly he had played in the previous seven quarters. Most of the problems are of his own making — bad decisions under pressure, sloppy footwork, errant throws — but he's not getting much help from his receiving corps. His timing with Plaxico Burress has been off all season. A lingering ankle injury is causing Burress to round off his routes, and he has lost the breakaway speed that had made him a deep threat.
While the concerns over Manning seem to be causing the most angst among fans, the running game should be the bigger worry. Derrick Ward broke his leg last week in the midst of rushing for a career-high 154 yards. Brandon Jacobs has been inactive for the past two weeks with a strained hamstring. Head coach Tom Coughlin said yesterday that he hopes Jacobs can start Sunday, but he added that they intended to be cautious with the injury. If Jacobs doesn't play, the starting nod would go to backup Ruben Droughns. While he has contributed in short-yardage situations, Droughns has been largely ineffective when asked to play a more significant role this season.
The Eagles' biggest strength on defense is their secondary, and they like to bring safety Brian Dawkins up into the box to attack the run. One of the ways the Giants can counter this is by utilizing their fullback, Madison Hedgecock. In recent weeks, he has done a phenomenal job of leading out against linebackers and safeties and clearing the running lane for the ball carrier.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL The Giants' defense completely dominated the Eagles when the two teams met in September, but there will be two key differences in the rematch. Eagles' left tackle, William Thomas, missed that game because of a sprained medial collateral ligament, and the Giants' Osi Umenyiora manhandled his replacement in a six-sack performance. Since Thomas has returned, the Eagles' pass protection has been consistently solid, never giving up more than three sacks in a game.
The Eagles were missing another key player in that first game, the man around whom their entire offensive attack is based: Brian Westbrook averages 145 yards of total offense per game, scorching defenses both on the ground and as a receiver. With Westbrook sidelined, the Giants held Philadelphia to just three points.
As a runner, Westbrook's elusiveness is his most dangerous weapon. He has a remarkable ability to see the field while he's running and change direction to take advantage of an opening. In the passing game, Westbrook creates matchup nightmares. Most linebackers aren't quick enough to cover him, and when opposing teams bring safeties or corners over, they leave outside receivers in single coverage. That's one of the elements that has helped Eagles receiver Kevin Curtis have such a breakout season.
While there's been a lot of attention paid to the Giants' swarming pass rush, there hasn't been as much said about their dominating run defense. Over the last six weeks, the Giants have allowed just one rushing touchdown, and they have held three of their last four opponents to less than 80 yards on the ground.
The success starts with the strong play of the defensive line and their ability to occupy blockers. This has left the Giants' linebackers free to move to the ball and keep opposing backs from getting into open space. That's exactly what the Giants will need to do to contain Westbrook on Sunday.
KEY TO THE GAME Obviously, neither team can afford to turn the ball over four times. Both the Giants and the Eagles have starting quarterbacks that are under pressure to improve their performance. But the team that can run the ball more effectively is going to win. Big Blue's physicality up front gives them the edge.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 24–21
Clemens Needs More Help From His Supporting Cast
It has been a surprising season for both the Browns and Jets, albeit in very different ways. Just about everyone expected this to be a rebuilding season in Cleveland. Back in September, it looked like head coach Romeo Crennel was on his way out and rookie quarterback Brady Quinn was poised to start a new era for the Browns. Instead, Crennel is being touted as Coach of the Year and another young passer, Derek Anderson, is leading the team toward the playoffs.
The Jets' season has been essentially the opposite, with preseason expectations of a playoff run yielding to the realization that they're one of the league's worst teams. The two teams will face off in the Meadowlands on Sunday afternoon.
BROWNS (7–5) at JETS (3–9)
Sunday, 4:15 p.m., CBS
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL Kellen Clemens had his best game as a pro last week, throwing for 236 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins. He'll get a chance to better those numbers against a Browns defense that has struggled against the pass. Cleveland ranks 30th in passing yards allowed per game, and they haven't been able to generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Clemens could get a big boost if leading receivers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery are healthy enough to play. The Browns' run defense has also struggled, but it's becoming increasingly clear that Jets' running back Thomas Jones can't be an impact player. New York simply can't move the ball on the ground, and that's one of the biggest reasons for its poor showing this year.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL The Browns' passing attack features two of the NFL's most exciting receivers. Braylon Edwards is among the league leaders, with 12 touchdown catches and 1,043 yards. Tight end Kellen Winslow is also a dangerous playmaker, leading the team with 65 catches.
Blessed with such an array of weapons, Anderson has thrown 24 touchdown passes — which puts him ahead of Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Carson Palmer. He has only been sacked 11 times, which ties him with Drew Brees for the fewest sacks among starting quarterbacks this season. Anderson isn't particularly mobile, but Cleveland's offensive line has done a great job of protecting him.
The left side of Cleveland's line is dominating. Guard Eric Steinbach and rookie tackle Joe Thomas are both likely headed to the Pro Bowl. Solid run blocking has helped the Browns develop a consistent ground game, with Jamal Lewis keying the attack.
KEY TO THE GAME The Jets' pass rush has improved over the last three weeks, but they'll have a hard time getting to Anderson. In order to win, the Jets need to make some big plays with their passing game and keep the Browns from doing the same. Odds are that they'll be outgunned.
Lahman's Pick: Browns 31–21
December 7, 2007 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version