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NFL Preview - N.Y. Giants (5-0) at New Orleans (4-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New Orleans Saints have been the NFL's unstoppable force through the early portion of this season, while the New York Giants have played the part of the immovable object.
One of these two NFC powerhouses will reach the breaking point this Sunday, when the teams square off at the Superdome in an intriguing clash of unbeatens.
New Orleans enters this marquee matchup as the league's highest-scoring team, having averaged a potent 36 points over the course of its four-game season- opening winning streak. Record-setting quarterback Drew Brees, one year removed from becoming only the second player in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a single season, still presides over a prolific aerial attack that's been complemented nicely by a vastly improved running game that's churned out more than 166 yards per week thus far.
The Giants counter with a devastating defense that's surrendered the fewest yards in the league and has yielded a scant 104.8 yards per game through the air during the club's 5-0 start, New York's first since it won the first 10 contests of the 1990 campaign en route to a Super Bowl title.
The unit has been particularly stingy over the last three weeks, having limited the overmatched trio of Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Oakland all under 200 total yards and a combined 210 yards by the pass. In last Sunday's 44-7 dismantling of the dysfunctional Raiders, New York allowed a mere 124 yards and sacked struggling quarterback JaMarcus Russell six times, three of which caused fumbles that led to scores.
New Orleans, which is seeking its first 5-0 beginning since 1993, has shown it can play a little defense as well. The opportunistic Saints have intercepted a league-best 10 passes, with veteran safety Darren Sharper single-handedly accounting for half of that sum, and the team delivered two defensive touchdowns in a 24-10 victory over the then-undefeated New York Jets at the Superdome in Week 4.
The Saints had their bye week following that triumph, although that may not play to their advantage on Sunday if recent history is any indication. New Orleans has lost each of its games following the break in its first three seasons under current head coach Sean Payton, including two at home.
In addition to pitting two of the NFC's three remaining squads with unblemished records, Sunday's showdown also contains a couple of very interesting subplots. New York quarterback Eli Manning is a New Orleans native and will be playing for the first time in his home city as a professional, while ex-Giant Jeremy Shockey makes his first appearance against his former team since being traded to New Orleans during the 2008 offseason after a series of run-ins with head coach Tom Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese. The fun-loving tight end made four Pro Bowls during his six-year tenure with the G-Men.
Manning is dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right heel, but the injury didn't affect his performance in last Sunday's rout of the Raiders. The star signal-caller completed 8-of-10 passes for 173 yards and two scores before being removed in the second quarter with the Giants owning a comfortable lead. Manning has thrown for 10 touchdowns on the year, one more than Brees for the league lead.
The Giants hold a 14-10 edge in their all-time series against the Saints, but were 30-7 home losers when they last met New Orleans, during the 2006 campaign. Big Blue won the previous meeting, a 27-10 decision in Week 2 of the 2005 season, which was played in East Rutherford due to the destruction to the Superdome due to Hurricane Katrina, but was designated as a Saints home game. New Orleans won its last legitimate home game against New York, a 45-7 romp in 2003. The Giants are 0-2 at the Superdome since last winning there in 1993.
Coughlin is 2-2 in his career against the Saints, including 1-1 since coming to the Giants. Payton, who served as offensive coordinator for the Giants from 1999 to 2002, is 1-0 against both Coughlin and his former employer as a head coach.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Although the Saints have the reputation as being the offensive juggernaut of these two teams, New York's season average of 417.2 total yards per game trails only Dallas for tops in the NFL for that category. Much of the credit belongs to Manning (1212 passing yards, 10 TD, 2 INT), who's in the midst of the best season of his six-year career and is in no danger of missing this game despite his injured foot. Young wide receivers Steve Smith (37 receptions, 481 yards, 4 TD) and Mario Manningham (20 receptions, 342 yards, 3 TD) have certainly done their part as well, with the former entering this week's play atop the league in both catches and receiving yards. Manning is expected to have another weapon in his arsenal for Sunday's matchup, with tight end Kevin Boss (10 receptions) recovered from a sprained ankle that kept him out of the Oakland win. The Giants can move the ball on the ground as well, ranking fourth overall in rushing offense (160.4 ypg) and possessing two quality backs in 264-pound bruiser Brandon Jacobs (355 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) and Ahmad Bradshaw (375 rushing yards, 2 TD, 6 receptions). Jacobs has run for over 1,000 yards in two straight years, but Bradshaw is averaging an excellent 6.5 yards per carry and piled up 165 total yards (110 rushing) and two touchdowns against the Raiders.
New Orleans has installed an aggressive and attacking defensive scheme under new coordinator Gregg Williams, and that philosophy has paid big dividends thus far. Enemy quarterbacks have managed a league-low 51.3 passer rating against a secondary that's received a tremendous lift from the offseason signing of Sharper (15 tackles, 5 INT, 5 PD). The 13th-year pro leads the NFL in interceptions this season and had a momentum-changing 99-yard pick for a score in the team's October 4 victory over the Jets. Ends Charles Grant (10 tackles, 4 sacks) and Will Smith (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks) have helped out the backfield by generating a consistent pass rush, with Grant having produced back-to-back two-sack outings. Opponents haven't tested the Saints' seventh- rated run defense (83.3 ypg) a whole lot due to usually having to play from behind, but the group has received solid showings out of Grant, second-year tackle Sedrick Ellis (11 tackles, 1 sack) and standout middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (22 tackles, 1 sack).
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Everyone knows that Brees (1031 passing yards, 9 TD, 2 INT) can pick defenses apart when given the opportunity, but the emergence of a formidable running game has made the Saints even more of a challenge to gameplan against. Top back Pierre Thomas has amassed 212 rushing yards and three touchdowns in two games since returning from a knee injury, while capable reserve Mike Bell put up 229 yards and a score over the first two weeks with Thomas sidelined. A deep backfield also includes former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush (148 rushing yards, 1 TD, 14 receptions), an outstanding receiver who serves as one of Brees' top options when the deadly-accurate quarterback drops back to pass. Shockey (18 receptions, 2 TD) and physical wideout Marques Colston (17 receptions, 3 TD) are consistent chain-movers in Payton's multi-faceted offense, with outside receiver Devery Henderson (14 receptions, 1 TD) a dangerous deep threat who's averaged 21 yards per catch for his career. Slotman Lance Moore has only three grabs so far this year while missing time with a hamstring problem, but the undrafted free agent posted team-bests of 79 receptions, 928 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago.
After smothering a rather soft slate of opposing triggermen over the past few weeks, the Giants' top-ranked pass defense figures to face a far sterner test from Brees on Sunday. It'll likely do it without the services of two usual starters in the secondary, as cornerback Aaron Ross is still bothered by a lingering hamstring strain that's kept him sidelined all year and safety Kenny Phillips is out for the season with a chronic knee condition. Sophomore Terrell Thomas (17 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) and safety C.C. Brown (15 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) have handled themselves well as replacements, and they've been aided by a strong pass rush that's compiled 14 sacks through the first five games. All-Pro lineman Justin Tuck (17 tackles, 3.5 sacks) terrorized the Raiders' Russell last Sunday with two takedowns and a forced fumble, while fellow end Osi Umenyiora (10 tackles, 3 sacks) is a two-time Pro Bowler with a pair of double-digit sack seasons to his credit. The Giants will also be without regular weakside linebacker Michael Boley (14 tackles) for a second straight week due to recent knee surgery, but stand-in Chase Blackburn (19 tackles) stepped in nicely with an eight-tackle effort versus Oakland.
Brees and Manning have been two of the best fantasy quarterbacks in the early going and should remain in lineups even with a potentially tough matchup looming for both players this weekend. Each team has a confusing situation at running back, however. Pierre Thomas showed up on New Orleans' injury report with a sore hamstring and will need to be monitored. Give him the go-ahead if able to practice without restrictions by week's end, with Bell's value getting a major boost if that's not the case. Bush is a strong play in leagues that give points per reception, but the former USC star doesn't have much appeal otherwise because of limited work near the goal line. On the Giants' side, Jacobs has been a disappointment for owners after a 15-touchdown season in 2008, as Bradshaw has been the more productive back despite receiving significantly fewer touches. Steve Smith is a must-start as New York's clear- cut No. 1 receiver, with Manningham a useful option there as well. Both Colston and Shockey, who'll be highly motivated with the opportunity to show up his old team, are good choices as Brees' top two targets, but Henderson has always been a hit-or-miss player who carries considerable risk. Although each of these defenses have been very strong from a fantasy perspective, it may not be a bad idea to evaluate some alternatives this week, as they'll be facing teams that can put up points and don't make many mistakes.
This one definitely has a chance to live up to its advanced billing, as neither team has shown a glaring weakness and have been getting exceptional quarterback play over the season's initial stages. The Giants are a bit banged up on defense, however, and although that hasn't mattered against the likes of the Buccaneers, Chiefs and Raiders, it very well may be a factor when dealing with an offense as talented and unpredictable as New Orleans'. The Saints will be rested and ready and will have the Superdome crowd working in their favor, which may be enough to make for an unhappy homecoming for Manning.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, Giants 20
10/15 16:46:06 ET