Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Eagles-Giants May Be Best Game This Weekend

Peter King of Sports Illustrated — a sportswriter for whom I have a great deal of respect — points out that this weekend's playoff games are all rematches of regular-season encounters.

And each one was a "barnburner," King says.

"Philadelphia beat New York by six, New York beat Philly by five, Carolina beat Arizona by four, Tennessee beat Baltimore by three, Pittsburgh beat San Diego by one," he observes. "Wow. You can't make this stuff up."

No, you can't.

Only the outcome of one of the four playoff games is guaranteed to be a reversal of a regular-season game — the Philadelphia-New York game. Those teams play in the same division, which means they face each other twice during the regular season.

As King notes in his column, the Giants and Eagles split their games during the season. So what is to be gleaned from that? Well, the visiting team was the winner in both instances. If that trend continues, that means the Eagles will prevail over the defending Super Bowl champions.

That may turn out to be the relevant factor. The Eagles were very hot at the end of the season, going 4-1 in their last five games. And one of those wins was a 20-14 victory over the Giants at the Meadowlands.

The Giants, meanwhile, sort of staggered to the finish line, going 2-3 in the same stretch.

The Giants still won the NFC East, with a 12-4 record. The Eagles took a wild-card spot with an 8-7-1 record, including a much-maligned tie with Cincinnati that many observers believed would keep them out of the playoffs.

Nevertheless, the Eagles made it to the playoffs, beat the Minnesota Vikings, and should be very confident when they take the field Sunday against the Giants, having won five of their last six games.

Do the statistics support the suggestion that the Eagles will advance to the NFC title game and face either Carolina or Arizona?
  • Well, neither team seems to have an advantage at quarterback. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and New York's Eli Manning both have ratings of 86.4.

    McNabb threw for 3,916 yards and 23 touchdowns during the regular season. In his 10-year career, that's the highest yardage total he has compiled and his third-highest TD total. He threw for 300 yards or more four times this season, but came up just short of 200 yards in each of the games with New York.

    Manning's NFL career has been half as long as McNabb's, and neither his yardage total (3,238) nor TD total (21) represented his best efforts. But Manning threw only 10 interceptions (his lowest total since his rookie year, when he only played in nine games). He failed to throw for more than 200 yards in either of his previous encounters with the Eagles.

  • Both teams appear to have spread the ball around in the passing game. Rookie DeSean Jackson led the Eagles with 912 yards on 62 receptions and scored two TDs. Brian Westbrook led the team in receiving TDs with five — one came at New York on Dec. 7.

    For the Giants, second-year receiver Kevin Boss led the team in receiving TDs with six, one of which came against Philly on Nov. 9. He had 33 catches during the season for 384 yards. Steve Smith led the team in receptions with 57, accounting for 574 yards and one TD.

  • The Giants seem to have the edge in the ground game. Both Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward ran for more than 1,000 yards, while the Eagles' leading rusher, Westbrook, accounted for 936 yards. However, when you combine his rushing and receiving yards, Westbrook accounted for 1,000 yards for the fifth consecutive season.

    Jacobs was third in the NFC in rushing TDs (15), and he got two of them at Philadelphia in November, but Ward got into the end zone twice. Westbrook, meanwhile, scored nine TDs, one of them at New York on Dec. 7. For both Jacobs and Westbrook, those are career high TD totals.

    But Jacobs has been hobbled by injury in recent weeks. The Giants have to hope that having some time off since the last regular-season game will help him get back to normal.

  • On defense, things look fairly even in the sack department. Justin Tuck (12.0) and Mathias Kiwanuka (8.5) were New York's top producers in that category; Darren Howard (10.0) and Trent Cole (9.0) set the pace for Philadelphia.

  • Putting additional pressure on the quarterbacks are Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel, who picked off four passes this season, and safety Quintin Mikell, who intercepted three passes. Giants safety James Butler, second-year cornerback Aaron Ross and cornerback Corey Webster had three interceptions each.

  • Second-year linebacker Stewart Bradley led the Eagles in tackles with 108. Antonio Pierce was the best tackler for the Giants with 94.
The Giants-Eagles game may well be the best playoff matchup of the weekend, although, as King observed, all four games are rematches so they should all be reasonably familiar with each other.

Bob Glauber of Newsday says the Eagles look like last year's Giants team that, as a wild-card team, won three straight road games and then beat the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

But Gary Myers of the New York Daily News is adamant that the Eagles will not beat the Giants on Sunday.

The Giants "take the Birds seriously," Myers writes. But, he insists, "The Eagles come flying into Giants Stadium but will pack up their season and leave by bus."

Sounds like bulletin board material.

No comments: