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NFL Preview - Philadelphia (8-4) at N.Y. Giants (7-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The muddled picture in the NFC's East Division could be become clearer after this Sunday's pivotal matchup between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Or the race could wind up even more confusing than it was heading into this upcoming weekend's slate of games.
The Eagles enter the Week 14 schedule tied with Dallas atop the division with an 8-4 record, with the Giants one game behind both rivals in third place. A New York victory could conceivably create a three-way logjam at the top spot by the night's end, since the Cowboys draw a tough assignment from a red-hot San Diego club presently on a seven-game win streak.
This primetime showdown essentially serves as an elimination game for the Giants in regards to their quest for a second straight NFC East crown. A Philadelphia win at the Meadowlands would not only give the Eagles a two-game lead on New York with only three to play in the regular season, but the tie- breaker advantage as well by virtue of a series sweep. Philly routed the G-Men by a 40-17 score when these longtime foes met at Lincoln Financial Field back in early November, New York's most lopsided loss to the Eagles in 13 years.
That shockingly uncompetitive setback was part of a four-game losing streak that knocked the Giants, who began the season with five straight wins, out of first place in the division and put their playoff chances in question. Big Blue has since rebounded by winning two of their last three tilts, including a huge 31-24 home verdict over Dallas last weekend.
New York overcame an early 10-0 deficit and scored 17 straight second-half points to take a commanding 31-17 lead in that must-win scenario. A 74-yard connection from quarterback Eli Manning to running back Brandon Jacobs put the Giants ahead late in the third quarter, while wide receiver Domenik Hixon scored on a 79-yard punt return with under six minutes left to help seal the game.
The Giants were able to stay one game behind both the Eagles and Green Bay Packers, the current co-leaders in the battle for the NFC's two Wild Card spots.
Philadelphia drew even with Dallas by delivering a 34-7 dismantling of injury- riddled Atlanta last Sunday in Michael Vick's highly-billed return to the Georgia Dome. The fallen former Falcons quarterback and current Eagles backup played a part in downing his old team, reaching the end zone on a five-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and tossing a short scoring pass to tight end Brent Celek while relieving a resting Donovan McNabb in the fourth.
The Eagles cruised to their third straight triumph despite having two key offensive weapons, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back Brian Westbrook, miss the game with concussions. The fleet-footed Jackson, who burned the Giants for a 54-yard touchdown catch in the Week 8 clash, is on track to return for Sunday's test, but the team will probably hold out Westbrook for at least another week.
Jackson's expected involvement gives a boost to Philadelphia's chances of earning a fourth consecutive win over New York. The Eagles prevailed in both their trips to Giants Stadium last season, including a 23-11 decision in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
SERIES HISTORY The Giants hold a 79-68-2 edge in a regular season series that dates back to the 1933 season, but were 40-17 road losers when the teams met in Week 8. The teams embarked on an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home, with the Giants taking a 36-31 win at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 10, and Philly returning the favor with a 20-14 triumph at Giants Stadium in Week 14. New York swept the 2007 home-and-home with its NFC East rival. The Eagles are vying for their first home-and-home sweep of the Giants since 2004.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have split a total of four postseason matchups all-time. The Eagles evened that series with the aforementioned 23-11 win in last year's NFC Divisional Playoff. Philadelphia was also a 23-20 home winner in a 2006 NFC First-Round Playoff, while Big Blue took a 20-10 home decision in a 2000 NFC Divisional Playoff and a 27-21 triumph in a 1981 NFC First-Round Playoff at Veterans Stadium.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 12-12 against New York all-time, including 2-1 in the postseason. The Giants' Tom Coughlin is 8-7 versus Philadelphia, with two of the wins dating back to his tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and is 7-7 against Reid in his career.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia's quick-strike ability on offense was fully displayed in the team's pasting of the Giants earlier this season, as running backs LeSean McCoy (530 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 3 TD) and Leonard Weaver (216 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 3 total TD) had touchdown runs of 66 and 41 yards, respectively, in addition to Jackson's (44 receptions, 769 yards, 8 total TD) long scoring catch. McNabb (2427 passing yards, 16 TD, 6 INT) threw three first-half touchdown passes to key the rout and completed 17-of-23 attempts for 240 yards in one of his best performances of what's been another good season at the controls of Reid's trademark West Coast scheme. The Eagles were able to survive the explosive Jackson's absence last week due to their deep arsenal of pass-catchers, as Celek (56 receptions, 6 TD) has developed into one of the league's better tight ends, rookie wideout Jeremy Maclin (46 receptions, 4 TD) has been able to quickly step in make an impact and slot receiver Jason Avant (35 receptions, 2 TD) is a reliable possession target whom McNabb often looks to in critical situations. Maclin's been bothered by plantar fasciitis in one of his feet, but the injury didn't stop the youngster from recording 83 yards on four grabs against the Falcons. Fellow rookie McCoy has also been able to immediately contribute as well, a necessary measure considering Westbrook (225 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 2 total TD) has been limited to just six games due his concussion and an earlier ankle injury.
The Giants' defense will be motivated to atone for their lackluster showing back in early November, when the normally pass-oriented Eagles racked up 180 rushing yards and 391 total while converting 6-of-11 third-down tries. New York was without three important cogs on that side of the ball for that game in weakside linebacker Michael Boley (50 tackles, 1 sack), tackle Chris Canty (5 tackles) and defensive back Aaron Ross (7 tackles), all of whom will be suiting up on Sunday. New York won't have middle linebacker Antonio Pierce (neck, injured reserve) available for this go-around, however, but the team is hopeful starting safety Michael Johnson (44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) can make it back from a groin strain that kept him out of the Dallas game. Second-year man Jonathan Goff (15 tackles) made his first career start in Pierce's place last week and recorded eight tackles to help out a unit that held the Cowboys' well-regarded ground game to a mere 45 yards on 23 carries. The Giants only sacked McNabb twice in their previous loss to the Eagles and will need accomplished pass rushers Justin Tuck (40 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (21 tackles, 5 sacks) to bring the heat in order to slow down Philadelphia's offense.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
New York's hopes for a victory on Sunday rest heavily on the shoulders of the somewhat inconsistent Manning (2925 passing yards, 20 TD, 11 INT), who's put up 15 touchdown passes in the Giants' seven wins and been intercepted seven times in the team's five losses, two of which came against the Eagles in midseason. He only managed to complete 11-of-25 throws versus Dallas last week, but his dump-off to Jacobs (722 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 5 total TD) and a 21-yard strike to promising rookie receiver Hakeem Nicks (34 receptions, 5 TD) both went for scores. The primary option in the Giants' 12th-ranked passing offense is third-year wideout Steve Smith (78 receptions, 979 yards, 5 TD), who produced 110 yards on six grabs in last Sunday's win and is on the verge of setting a team single-season record for catches, with Nicks and tight end Kevin Boss (27 receptions, 4 TD) often targeted in the red zone, an area where New York has struggled this season. The bruising, 264-pound Jacobs and shifty counterpart Ahmad Bradshaw (596 rushing yards, 4 TD, 10 receptions) provide a good inside-outside tandem in the running game, but there's some concern about the health status of guard Chris Snee, the Giants' best blocker up front. The 2008 Pro Bowl honoree had to leave the Dallas game with hyper-flexion of his left knee, although he's expected to give it a go in this high-stakes test.
Manning will have to be careful against a playmaking Philadelphia defense that's third in the NFL with 28 takeaways and fourth overall with 20 interceptions this season. Ball-hawking cornerbacks Asante Samuel (30 tackles, 7 INT, 11 PD) and Sheldon Brown (36 tackles, 5 INT, 13 PD) have combined for 12 picks thus far, with Samuel getting one against Manning earlier this year and Brown fresh off an 83-yard interception return in last weekend's win over Atlanta. The duo, with help from a strong pass rush headed up by ends Trent Cole (42 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Juqua Parker (25 tackles, 6 sacks), are a big reason why the Eagles are fifth in the league in pass efficiency defense at the moment. Philly has held its own against the run as well, with sturdy tackles Mike Patterson (34 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Brodrick Bunkley (32 tackles, 1 sack) and middle linebacker and in-season acquisition Will Witherspoon (71 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) the main components of a front seven that's holding the opposition to 98.8 rushing yards per game (7th overall). The Eagles should get some more reinforcements for Sunday's battle, with outside linebacker Akeem Jordan (53 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and nickel back Joselio Hanson (29 tackles, 1 INT) ready to return from a hyperextended knee and suspension, respectively, that have kept both players out of the last four games.
With McNabb having generated excellent numbers in the earlier meeting between these teams and getting to attack a Giants secondary that permitted nearly 400 yards to Dallas' Tony Romo last Sunday, the Eagles' longtime triggerman should be a safe play this week. Be wary of Manning, though, as New York's franchise face has had a string of erratic outings and history of struggling in the often-treacherous conditions at Giants stadium in the winter months. McCoy and Celek are must-starts on the Philadelphia side, and Jackson joins them on that list as long as he's active for the game. Maclin is more of a lukewarm option, however, due to concerns over his foot injury. Smith should be a lock in weekly lineups as New York's go-to receiver, with Nicks and fellow youngster Mario Manningham (46 receptions, 4 TD) worthy of flex consideration with some risk involved because of the pair's week-to-week inconsistency. Jacobs' two- touchdown day against the Cowboys make him a solid choice at the running back position, and Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes always carries value in an offense that has been forced to settle for a lot of field goals this year. Start Philadelphia's opportunistic defense but use caution with kicker David Akers, who's endured his share of troubles at Giants Stadium over the years.
The Giants showed terrific resiliency with their backs against the wall last week, but may find their latest test to be more of a challenge. Manning still hasn't quite reclaimed the form he displayed early in the season, and that could spell trouble against an aggressive Eagles defense that's masterful at inducing mistakes out of the enemy. Philadelphia's dominant win back in November and recent success in this series cannot be discounted, and there's no question that the Eagles have the talent on offense capable of doing plenty of damage to New York's still-vulnerable stop unit. The Giants were able to take advantage of a shaky and error-prone Dallas team last weekend, but odds are the Eagles won't be so generous.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 27, Giants 20
12/11 09:21:53 ET