Last season, the New York Giants had to face the Dallas Cowboys for a third time for the right to advance in the playoffs, winning 21-17. This season, the Giants will do the same with another NFC East rival, the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles return to Giants Stadium in an attempt to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions for the second time this season at their house. That isn't an easy task, but many believe it's possible because Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has been red hot after being benched in a Week 12 loss at Baltimore. The Eagles are 5-1 in their last six games, and McNabb has 10 touchdown passes with just two interceptions.
I don't think the decision to bench McNabb motivated this team -- or the quarterback, for that matter. The Eagles are a good team that started playing well when RB Brian Westbrook got healthy. The Giants got cold when RB Brandon Jacobs was injured, but he's ready to go now, and this NFC Divisional Playoff Game will take the full 60 minutes to produce a winner.
The Eagles are 1-3 against the Giants since Steve Spagnuolo left Philadelphia to become New York's defensive coordinator in 2007. The Giants haven't sacked McNabb in 66 pass plays this season, but he also hasn't thrown for more than 194 yards in a game against a Spagnuolo-coached defense.
The Eagles and Giants run identical defenses and roll offensive personnel groups throughout the game. There are no secrets, special plays or blitz calls that these players haven't seen, so this game will come down to execution and the ability to capitalize on turnovers.
How important are turnovers that result in defensive touchdowns? Last week, three teams scored defensive touchdowns, and all three won. When any of the 12 teams that made the playoffs scored a defensive touchdown this season, they were 41-4.
Their first two meetings
McNabb wasn't sacked in the two regular-season meetings, and Giants quarterback Eli Manning was dropped just once. That shows that these offensive lines understand what the defenses are trying to do when they create the illusion of a rush from a defensive lineman before he drops into coverage. The move is designed to confuse the tackle or guard so the real blitzer can find an opening. But with these two offensive lines, it hasn't worked.
Jacobs had his playing time cut short by injury in the Giants' 20-14 home loss to the Eagles, but he still managed to rush for 5.6 yards per carry in the two games against Philadelphia. The Eagles defense needs to stop the big back.
The Giants corralled Westbrook in the first meeting this season, a 36-31 New York victory in Philadelphia, but he exploded in the second game, mostly because Eagles coach Andy Reid stayed with the run. But Philadelphia's running game faces a bigger challenge this time around because the Giants return both of their defensive tackles. So, will Reid still call 30 running plays? Westbrook had 55 touches (46 carries, 9 receptions) in the two games for 262 total yards.
When the Eagles have the ball
Philadelphia is a passing team that might have finally realized that its running game is the key to a deep playoff run. The Eagles averaged 26.7 runs per game during the regular season, but I expect closer to 35 in this contest. The Giants boast the NFL's ninth-ranked run defense and will be up to the task with defensive tackle Fred Robbins back inside taking on double teams.
The biggest issue facing New York's defense is finding Brian Westbrook. Philadelphia uses him in five different alignments, and each calls for a special plan.
One, Westbrook will line up at tailback with a fullback in front of him, so the Giants will drop a safety into the box and play the run all the way.
Two, Westbrook will line up behind the quarterback in a one-back set. New York will counter this with seven defenders in the box against six potential blockers (five linemen and a tight end) and play the run, draw and screen.
Three, Westbrook will be offset in the backfield behind a tackle. This is his most dangerous alignment because the run remains in play, but Westbrook can also use his ability to release and run a route. The Giants should try to blitz Westbrook and prevent his release. Otherwise, he'll win.
Four, Westbrook will line up in the slot and become a receiver. He can deliver much of what New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker does from this alignment, as he reads zone coverages well. The Giants must get a safety on Westbrook in this alignment because linebacker coverage simply doesn't work.
Lastly, Westbrook will line up outside as a wide receiver, an alignment I consider to be the least dangerous. A cornerback can stay with Westbrook, and a solid zone principle will work. The alert here is the bubble-screen stuff similar to what wide receiver Steve Smith runs for the Carolina Panthers.
When the Giants have the ball
New York leads the NFL with 73 runs of 10 or more yards. They have delivered four or five big runs every game, and with Jacobs finally healthy, I expect close to 200 rushing yards from the Giants. As good as Jacobs is, his backfield mate, Derrick Ward, leads the NFL in runs over 10 yards with 35 in 182 attempts. Look for first-down runs to reap big rewards for New York. I'd also expect a flea-flicker or reverse early in the game on a first down to slow up the aggressive Eagles defense.
Philadelphia is fairly stingy on first downs, surrendering just 3.39 yards per carry, and they must deliver or they will see the run again on second down. New York will convert a lot of third downs if they get them to a manageable 2-4 yards with running plays.
None of the Giants' wide receivers, who have dropped 33 passes this season, commands a double team or some form of rolled coverage, but Manning is good at reading the defense and going to the open man. Manning is also one of the better deep-ball throwers in the NFL, as surprising as that might seem. He has connected on 5 of 19 passes over 30 yards in the air, including three touchdowns. He must take a few shots downfield in this game, especially on first downs.
The bottom line
The Eagles have mounting enthusiasm from their strong regular-season finish and wild-card victory at Minnesota. The Giants will have their hands full, but Jacobs is a key factor and Manning knows how to rally his team if they're behind, especially at home. Both teams are good at converting turnovers into points, so execution is critical. It's a hard game to predict, but I'll go with the Giants by a field goal.