As the weather turns colder, we start to see which NFL teams are contenders and which ones are about to turn into pumpkins. The Jets head into a soft part of their schedule, starting with a home game against the Dolphins that they hope will propel them back into contention. The schedule is not nearly so friendly for the Giants, who are in the middle of a six-week stretch with only one home game. In Atlanta this Sunday they'll face what could be their biggest challenge of the season.
GIANTS (2-2) AT ATLANTA FALCONS (3-1)
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Last week the Giants found balance in their offense, and that made all of the difference in the world. Their success running the ball early in the game set up the play-action pass by keeping the opposing linebackers frozen. That will be a tougher task this week in Atlanta, where the Falcons have held opponents to just 69.3 rushing yards per game.The solid play of their front seven, led by linebacker Keith Brooking and defensive ends John Abraham and Patrick Kerney, has also helped their secondary improve dramatically. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall leads the Falcons with three interceptions in four games, and the Falcons' defense has allowed just one touchdown so far this season.
The key for the Giants is going to be tight end Jeremy Shockey, who has been slowed by an ankle injury.MRI results this week were negative and he's expected to play, but it's unclear how effective he will be. To combat the Falcons stingy run defense, the Giants need Shockey working over the middle and drawing linebackers and safeties away from the line of scrimmage. If he can't do that, the Falcons will simply load the box to stop Tiki Barber and the running game.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
The Falcons have adopted the spreadoption offense, a system popularized by Urban Meyer at the University of Florida. They don't run it on every down, but when they do, quarterback Michael Vick lines up in the shotgun formation with one of the running backs along side him. Both players break to the same side, and if Vick sees the defensive end providing containment on the outside, he'll hand it off to the back to cut inside and run through the line. If the defensive end crashes and fills the running lane, Vick keeps the ball and runs outside himself. It sounds simple, but it's hard to defend.
So far this season, Vick and his teammates are averaging 234 rushing yards a game and an astonishing 6.1 yards a carry. Running back Warrick Dunn has good cutback ability and a second gear in the open field, and rookie back Jerious Norwood has become a factor because of his explosive speed.
Vick hasn't thrown the ball much this year and when he has, the results haven't been pretty. He has been sacked 11 times in four games with just three touchdown passes and a mediocre 69.8 passer rating.
The Giants run defense was impressive last week, holding Clinton Portis to just 76 yards.That was a power running attack, however, and the game this week is all about speed.
KEY TO THE GAME
The Falcons will use their option play to attack Giants end Osi Umenyiora, who has been overly aggressive at times in his run coverage. With OLB Carlos Emmons sidelined, they'll also target his replacement, Brandon Short. The Giants won't be able to win unless they can contain Vick and the Falcons running game, and to do that they'll need a big game from linebackers LaVar Arrington and Antonio Pierce, and help from strong safety Gibril Wilson.
Lahman's Pick: Falcons 24-16
MIAMI DOLPHINS (1-4) AT JETS (2-3)
(Sunday,4:15 p.m., CBS)
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
In the NFL, it's easy for a good team to contain a one-dimensional offense.Jets fans saw that happen in Jacksonville last week, where the Jaguars consistently pressured quarterback Chad Pennington and kept him from being effective.That pressure forced three interceptions and four sacks, and Pennington ended the day with just 10 completions for 71 yards.
Rookie running back Leon Washington ended that game with 101 rushing yards, but it was a meaningless exercise. Seventy-one of those yards came in the second half, after the Jets fell behind 38Ė0, and with the Jags more than willing to let the Jets chew up the clock.
The Dolphins defense will give you multiple looks throughout the course of the game, and they have enough veteran talent to be able to adjust to nearly any situation. Miami's pass rush is led by defensive ends Jason Taylor and Kevin Carter, but the centerpiece of the defense continues to be middle linebacker Zach Thomas. Teams attack them through the air, and opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 93.2 passer rating against them. The revamped secondary has struggled, and they could be even more vulnerable with starting cornerback Travis Daniels out this week because of a knee injury.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Joey Harrington will get his second start this week, with Miami head coach Nick Saban declaring that Daunte Culpepper's slow recovery from knee surgery was largely responsible for his poor showing this season. Something was obviously wrong, as Culpepper was sacked 21 times in four games and never seemed able to get comfortable in the pocket.
Harrington did not fare well against the Patriots last weekend, but he got rid of the ball quickly and injected some enthusiasm into an offense that was beginning to seem clinically depressed. Injuries to WR Marty Booker and TE Randy McMichael have had an impact, but the poor play of the offensive line is the main reason the Miami offense has been stuck in neutral. Running back Ronnie Brown has been bottled up, held to just 3.3 yards a carry. With a more elusive quarterback in the backfield, perhaps the line play will improved as they focus more attention to run blocking and less to protecting an immobile passer.
KEY TO THE GAME
Gang Green can only beat themselves. Miami's own offensive woes will keep them from taking advantage of the Jets defensive weaknesses. As long as Pennington doesn't self destruct, he should be able to make enough plays to outscore the Dolphins.
Lahman's Pick: Jets 17-10