Date: January 7, 2007
Time: 4:30 p.m. Eastern
Site: Lincoln Financial Field
Series: Giants lead, 76-66-2
Streak: Eagles, one game
Last time: Eagles, 36-22
When the Giants put together a remarkable fourth-quarter rally to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in September, more than a few NFL observers believed that the Broad Street Birds wouldn’t recover from the devastating turn of events. Surely, such a heartbreaking loss was certain to have a disastrous, residual effect on Philadelphia’s fortunes this season.
And when starting quarterback Donovan McNabb was lost to injury in late November it certainly had the markings of a coup de grace – right?
Wrong. The Birds are back – and they’re kicking butts and taking names.
On December 17, Philadelphia trashed Big Blue, 36-22, at Giants Stadium – getting more than their measure of revenge on a slumping, bumbling team that has been on life support for the second half of the NFL season. And the Eagles have a chance to send the Giants home for the winter on Sunday in the friendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
Backup quarterback Jeff Garcia has provided the leadership and skills that have helped turn around Philadelphia’s season, while the defense has come up with some big, timely plays.
“We worked hard over the last month to fight and claw our way back,” Garcia said after his team defeated the Atlanta Falcons to end the regular season last Sunday. “We came out expecting to earn the NFC East championship.”
The team once left for dead did just that.
WHEN NEW YORK RUNS:
The Eagles had Tiki Barber’s number the last time they played at Giants Stadium, holding the soon-to-be-retired RB to 75 yards rushing. In fact, it’s been rumored that Eagles MLB Jeremiah Trotter – who leads his team with 112 tackles – is a major reason for Barber’s early exit from the NFL, given the physical beating he’s absorbed from the 260-plus-pound run-stopping specialist. In the Eagles’ 36-22 victory in mid-December, their front seven got the first step on Big Blue’s offensive line, frustrating the running game for much of the afternoon. Free safety Brian Dawkins – who is outstanding in run support – was the leading tackler three weeks ago, totaling 11 solos and one assist, while up-and-coming OLB Omar Gaither had eight stops and two assists. Trotter only garnered four tackles that afternoon. Ironically, Philadelphia’s run defense has been an Achilles’ heel of sorts this season, as the Eagles are ranked No. 26 in the NFL. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin could enhance his team’s performance on the ground by greater utilization of 264-pound RB Brandon Jacobs, who had only three carries for 13 yards in the December match-up – but ran like a wild man in the final minutes of the Giants’ come-from-behind win over the Eagles in September at Lincoln Financial Field. Hey, coach, how about using both Barber AND Jacobs in the backfield at the same time? Wasn’t that part of your plan in training camp? Such a ploy would certainly be a concern for Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and his charges.
THE EDGE: NEW YORK
WHEN NEW YORK PASSES:
It’s been said time and time and time again that Eli Manning needs to step up in big games. And no other game in his three-year career is more important than the one on Sunday in Philadelphia. Once again, Manning has regressed in the second half of the season – and it could clearly be an indictment of the coaching he’s received during his time with the Giants. As he displayed in Washington, Eli is an in-game Jekyll and Hyde. One moment, he’s lights-out on-target with passes, the next he’s displaying hideous technique: throwing off his back foot, or while falling backwards, sometimes into tight coverage. Bad stuff – and certainly not the kind of mechanics and judgment one would expect from a quarterback selected in Round One of the NFL Draft. In Manning’s defense, however, his receivers have dropped more than their fair share of catch-able balls this season. In the last game against the Eagles, Manning completed 28 of 40 passes, but was intercepted twice, including one by DE Trent Cole that he returned 19 yards for a touchdown. Philly cornerback Lito Sheppard is a top-notch shutdown defender, and leads his team with six picks, while free safety Brian Dawkins (who had the other interception on December 17 at Giants Stadium) has four. A good pass rush also powers Philadelphia’s pass defense, ranked ninth in the league. Athletic DE Cole leads his team with 8.0 sacks, while DT Darwin Walker (6.0 sacks) continues to show he’s one of the league’s top pass-rushing interior linemen. Because of the pressure exerted by the front four, the Birds don’t need to blitz as much as they have in the past. The Giants’ OL needs to give Manning adequate time to read the coverage – and Manning needs to show better pocket awareness. Philadelphia nickel linebacker Shawn Barber is a very good pass defender, and could be assigned to Tiki and FB Jim Finn for much of the afternoon.
THE EDGE: PHILADELPHIA
WHEN PHILADELPHIA RUNS:
Eagles RB Brian Westbrook has firmly established his credentials as one of the best all-around skill players in the NFL. Westbrook ended the regular season with 1,217 yards, a healthy 5.1 average per carry, and seven rushing touchdowns. In Philadelphia’s victory over Big Blue in December, the shifty Westbrook had 19 carries for 97 yards and two scores, including a nifty 28-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Westbrook’s outstanding cutting skills, and surprising strength for a man that’s 5-9, 200 pounds, have caused problems for Giants defenders on misdirection plays. Backup RB Correll Buckhalter, a 217-pounder, offers a change-up as a more physical back. Buckhalter can be a load to bring down in the open field. The Eagles’ offensive line is excellent, manned by left tackle William Thomas, left guard Todd Herremans (who the team recently locked up with a contract extension), center Jamaal Jackson, right guard Shawn Andrews (6-4, 340) and right tackle Jon Runyan. With these guys leading the way, the Eagles’ rushing attack is ranked No. 11 in the NFL, averaging 124 yards per contest. And when Philadelphia’s running game gets going, the team’s dangerous passing attack usually follows suit.
THE EDGE: PHILADELPHIA
WHEN PHILADELPHIA PASSES:
Veteran QB Jeff Garcia has been just short of magnificent, stepping in for the injured Donovan McNabb when he went down for the season to injury in late November. Since taking over, Garcia has been the consummate field general, completing 116 of 188 passes (61.7 percent) for 10 touchdowns, while tossing only two interceptions, including one to Giants safety Will Demps in December at Giants Stadium. In addition, the Eagles’ fine offensive line – and Garcia’s mobility and escape skills – have limited defenses to only 6.0 sacks since he’s taken over the offense. And it won’t help Big Blue’s cause on Sunday if their seemingly chronic problems with mobile quarterbacks continue – although they did sack Garcia twice in their last meeting with the Eagles. Philadelphia has the league’s No. 2 passing attack, averaging 381.4 yards per game. Garcia has an arsenal of talented and dependable receivers from which to choose, including WR Reggie Brown (46-816 yards, eight touchdowns), WR Donte’ Stallworth (38-725, five TDs), RB Brian Westbrook (77-699, four TDs) and TE L.J. Smith (50-611, five TDs). Stallworth was an early Christmas gift to the Birds when New Orleans traded him just prior to the start of this season. He offers blazing downfield speed that opens up underneath routes for other receivers, including Smith and Westbrook. Rookie WR Hank Baskett has been a pleasant surprise by displaying considerable downfield speed that many scouts thought he lacked. Baskett had an 89-yard touchdown catch in the regular-season finale against the Atlanta Falcons.
THE EDGE: PHILADELPHIA
Philadelphia kick return man Reno Mahe almost ran to the Nevada city with which he shares his first name in the December 17 game at Giants Stadium. Mahe’s 64-yard runback after the Giants took a 16-14 lead in the fourth quarter created a momentum shift and led to a drive that put his team ahead for good. Although he’s certainly not among the fastest return specialists in the league, Mahe is shifty, smart and has excellent field vision. Mahe also handles punt-return duties. Lito Sheppard is also a kick returner – but possesses the blazing speed that Mahe lacks. Eagles’ kicker David Akers ended the regular season with 18 field goals on 23 attempts; he has been successful on six of eight tries from 40 to 49 yards. Punter Dirk Johnson, meanwhile, averaged 42.6 gross yards and 34.9 net, with a respectable 21 of his boots downed inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. Giants punter Jeff Feagles, who is certainly headed to the Hall of Fame when he hangs up his cleats, has been one of Big Blue’s unsung heroes in this most challenging of seasons.
THE EDGE: NEW YORK
PREDICTION: PHILADELPHIA 30, NEW YORK 16