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NFL Preview - Arizona (3-2) at N.Y. Giants (5-1)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A prolific passing attack knocked the New York Giants from the ranks of the unbeaten a week ago. The Arizona Cardinals are hoping a similar approach breeds the same results this Sunday, when the defending NFC champions head to the Meadowlands for a primetime showdown between division leaders.
After opening the 2009 season with five consecutive victories, the last three of which came by 11 points or more, the Giants were handed a stern reality check by Drew Brees and a juggernaut New Orleans squad last Sunday at the Superdome. Behind 369 yards and four touchdowns from Brees, the unbeaten Saints ruined Eli Manning's homecoming with an authoritative 48-27 win that stamped the club as the early favorites in the NFC.
New Orleans scored on its first four possessions and piled up 493 total yards on a New York defense that entered the contest as the NFL's top-ranked unit. The Giants struggled to keep up in the shootout, with Manning -- bothered by a plantar fasciitis injury in his right heel -- completing only 14-of-31 throws for 178 yards and committing two turnovers.
The Giants, who still lead the NFL in pass defense (147.3 ypg) even after last week's barrage, will be encountering another team that can wing it on Sunday. Arizona is averaging better than 280 yards per game through the air and possesses one of the sport's most accurate quarterbacks in two-time league MVP and Super Bowl winner Kurt Warner.
Arizona comes into this Week 7 clash with a surge of momentum as well. The Cards have won two straight games and put forth their most impressive performance of the season this past weekend with a dominant 27-3 triumph on the road against fellow NFC West member Seattle.
Warner threw for 276 yards and a pair of scores in a typically efficient outing, while a defense that has had its troubles at times this season was clearly on top of its game. The Cardinals limited the Seahawks to 128 total yards, including a scant 14 on the ground.
Arizona is yielding league-lows of 59.6 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per attempt thus far in 2009. Including the playoffs, the Cardinals haven't allowed an enemy back to gain 100 yards in 11 straight tests dating back to last season.
Last week's big win moved the 3-2 Cardinals into a first-place tie with San Francisco in the NFC West standings. The Giants begin Sunday's play 1 1/2 games in front of both Dallas and Philadelphia for the top spot in the NFC East.
Warner will be attempting to knock off the Giants for the first time since being released by New York following the 2004 season, when he served as a mentor to Manning during his counterpart's rookie campaign. The 38-year-old amassed 351 yards in a 37-29 loss to the G-Men in Glendale last November.
The Giants hold a 79-41-2 lead in their all-time series with the Cardinals, which dates back to the 1926 season, including wins in each of their last two head-to-head meetings with Arizona. As mentioned, the Giants were 37-29 winners when the teams met in Glendale in Week 12 of last season, and enjoyed a 42-19 home romp in the most recent meeting between the clubs at the Meadowlands, in Week 1 of the 2006 campaign. Arizona won the two previous matchups, including a 17-14 home victory during the 2004 campaign, but are 0-3 in series road games since last beating the Giants on their home field in 1999.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has a career record of 3-1 against Arizona, including a win while at the helm of the Jaguars in 2000. The Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt is 0-1 against both Coughlin and the Giants as a head coach.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Arizona wasn't going to change its game plan for Sunday's test even if the Giants hadn't undergone a defensive letdown against the pass last week. This is a team built to air it out behind the still-dangerous Warner (1441 passing yards, 8 TD, 5 INT), who's completing just under 69 percent of his attempts, and a tremendous corps of receivers headlined by All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald (35 receptions, 360 yards, 5 TD), who abused the Seahawks for 100 yards and a touchdown on 13 catches in Week 6. Fellow standout Anquan Boldin (29 receptions, 1 TD) suffered a sprained right ankle in the win, however, and the three-time Pro Bowl participant's status for this tilt likely won't be known until game time. The Cards do have capable reinforcements, however, as the speedy Steve Breaston (23 receptions, 320 yards, 1 TD) is on pace for a second straight 1,000-yard season and Jerheme Urban (15 receptions) had nearly 450 yards in a reserve capacity last year. Running back Tim Hightower (158 rushing yards, 3 TD) also plays a key role in the passing game, as the second-year pro leads all NFC backs with 29 catches and 228 receiving yards. Neither he nor rookie first-round pick Beanie Wells (124 rushing yards) have been effective runners, though, since the Cards are tied for last in the league in rushing yards (57.6 ypg).
The Giants were burned by Brees primarily due to a lack of pressure up front, an unusual occurrence for a group that recorded 14 sacks over the first five weeks. An accomplished line headed by 2008 All-Pro Justin Tuck (19 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and athletic ends Osi Umenyiora (13 tackles, 3 sacks) and Mathias Kiwanuka (17 tackles, 2 sacks) will be vying to tee off on the less-than- mobile Warner, with top cornerback Corey Webster (19 tackles, 1 INT) taking on the difficult challenge of covering Fitzgerald. New York has been so-so in defending the run this season, having permitted an average of 110.3 yards per game (18th overall), but did hold Arizona's anemic ground game to 23 yards on 15 attempts in last year's meeting. The Giants haven't had weakside linebacker Michael Boley available for the past two games as he recovers from a recent knee procedure, but special-teams ace Chase Blackburn (30 tackles, 0.5 sacks) has done well as a replacement and compiled 11 tackles against the Saints.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
New York had shown excellent balance on the offensive side during its five- game winning streak, but a big early deficit against New Orleans last week forced the team to essentially abandon its formidable rushing attack and in turn resulted in Manning's worst showing of the season. The Giants managed a season-low 84 yards on the ground last Sunday, one week after racking up 220 rushing yards in a home rout of Oakland. The team will be aiming to better that number on Sunday behind the backfield tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw (423 rushing yards, 3 TD, 6 receptions) and the massive Brandon Jacobs (388 rushing yards, 1 TD, 5 receptions), with the idea that a greater commitment to running the ball would open up the throwing lanes for Manning (1390 passing yards, 11 TD, 3 INT). The Giants are averaging a very respectable 254.3 passing yards per game and have gotten excellent production out of a young and promising trio of wide receivers. Third-year man Steve Smith (41 receptions, 4 TD) presently tops the NFC in both catches and receiving yards (525), sophomore Mario Manningham (24 receptions, 392 yards, 4 TD) has a touchdown grab in four of the first six weeks and rookie Hakeem Nicks (12 receptions, 3 TD) posted personal-bests of 114 yards and five receptions in Sunday's loss.
Bradshaw and Jacobs will surely be tested by an Arizona defense that's been exceptionally stout at the point of attack. Leading tacklers Karlos Dansby (29 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Gerald Hayes (29 tackles) form a quality combo of inside linebackers, lineman Darnell Dockett (15 tackles, 1 sack) is a disruptive force who's often found camped out in opposing backfields, and two- time Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson (21 tackles, 0.5 sacks) is one of the league's premier thumpers at his position. Outside linebackers Bertrand Berry (4 tackles, 3 sacks) and Chike Okeafor (14 tackles, 2 sacks) bring a proven pass rush along the edge, while former first-round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (16 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PD) and ex-Steeler Bryant McFadden (24 tackles, 6 PD) are both well-regarded cornerbacks. Despite that strong collection of talent, the Cardinals have surrendered 265.2 passing yards per game this year, the second-worst mark in the NFL, along with nine touchdowns via the air. The group did deliver a season-best five sacks, however, in last week's shutdown of the Seahawks.
The two quarterbacks and former teammates should take center stage in this game and figure to be focal points from a fantasy perspective as well. Manning owners need not be overly concerned about his ailing foot or last week's subpar display, as he gets a chance to bomb away at a secondary that brother Peyton exploited for 379 yards and four scores back in September. It's no secret that the Cardinals are going to throw a lot on Sunday, which makes Warner a solid play in a week where a number of teams are on byes. All the top receivers among these two squads, namely Fitzgerald, Breaston, Smith and Manningham, should be started as well with the exception of Boldin, who's likely to be significantly limited if he does indeed play. Hightower is a good choice in leagues that reward points for receptions, but the two New York running backs each carry risk due to the timeshare system and Arizona's top-notch run defense. Bradshaw has outperformed the disappointing Jacobs in the early going and is the more attractive option of the duo. The Giants defense usually plays at a very high level at home and has the ability to pressure Warner into mistakes, so start it if you've got it.
The Cardinals finally seem to have hit their stride after a shaky start, but a cross-country trip and a matchup against an angry Giants team doesn't exactly translate into a recipe for success. Add in the fact that New York has better offensive balance, is generally less prone to mistakes than this week's foe and will be highly motivated to atone for last week's humbling experience, and the odds of a bounce-back out of Big Blue appear pretty strong.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 26, Cardinals 16
10/22 17:41:54 ET