Watching the Giants each week, I can't help feeling like Bill Murray's character in the film "Groundhog Day." Stuck in an endless rut, believing that things have to get better watching helplessly as they remain the same. When you look at the talent on the Giants roster, you think they should be winning each week. Inevitably, the penalties, turnovers, and general lack of passion lead to another loss. For the third time in four seasons the Giants have completely collapsed in the second half. A win Saturday night could let them squeak into the playoffs at 8–8, but it almost seems like a moot point now.
GIANTS (7–8) AT WASHINGTON REDSKINS (5–10)
Saturday, 8:00 pm, NFL Network
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL The demotion of offensive coordinator John Hufnagel this week seems like a desperate move. Head coach Tom Coughlin insisted the play calling wasn't the cause of the team's offensive woes; that the problems were all about player performance. Maybe that's true, but you can't help but notice the imbalance in the offense when you look at the box scores. In each game during the month of December, Tiki Barber has seen fewer carries than he did the week before. With a quarterback struggling as bad as Eli Manning has, it doesn't make sense to have him throw 40 passes while only giving Barber 19 carries (as happened against Philadelphia two weeks ago). The strategy seems to have been to stick with Manning to avoid wrecking his confidence, but in doing so the Giants have ignored their best offensive weapon and destroyed whatever confidence this unit had when the team stood 6–2 at the beginning of November.
Even with quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride calling the plays, the likelihood is that he'll stay with the same approach, hoping that Manning can break out of his slump against Washington's 29th ranked pass defense. The Redskins secondary has been horrible, giving up 29 touchdown passes while nabbing a league-low six interceptions. They've allowed 55 passes of more than 20 yards, a result of lousy coverage and even worse tackling. The Redskins spent a lot of money on free agent defensive backs like Adam Archuleta and Troy Vincent and got nothing but headaches in return.
Their pass rush has been equally dismal; Washington ranks dead last among NFL defenses with 18 sacks. Defensive end Andre Carter leads the team with five sacks. After signing him to a big contract in free agency, the Redskins expected a lot more than that. The rest of the line is showing their age, and the team doesn't have any players at tackle or middle linebacker who can stop the run.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL When these two teams last met, the Giants earned a 19–3 victory by holding the Redskins to 164 total yards. The team they'll face this weekend is a much different one. First, they'll be seeing a different quarterback. Veteran Mark Brunell's struggles sent him to the bench, handing the reins to second-year passer Jason Campbell. The numbers haven't been particularly impressive, but there's reason to hope he can get better. If nothing else, Campbell has shown a willingness to throw the ball downfield, while Brunell simply dinked and dunked and avoided risk at all costs. After struggling in his first four starts, Campbell played well in an upset win over the Saints and last week's overtime loss to the Rams.
Another big change has been at running back, where Ladell Betts has taken over for the injured Clinton Portis. That hasn't stopped the Redskins from continuing to focus on their running game, and the results have been impressive. Since taking over the starting duties in mid-November, Ladell Betts has rushed for 100-yards or more in five straight games.
That ought to cause concern for the Giants, especially after the way their run defense was sleepwalking last week. Saints' running backs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister scorched them for a combined 234 yards. For all of the talk about how much the Giants' offense has underachieved, their defense has provided it's share of disappointing performances. They enter the final game ranked 23rd overall in yards allowed.
KEY TO THE GAME: Dropped passes, missed tackles, stupid penalties ... all of these things have killed the Giants in the second half of the season. It's not so much that they've been outplayed but that they have self-destructed. If they can play a disciplined game they should rout the Redskins, but why should we expect that to suddenly happen now when it hasn't happened for a long time? A win would just prolong the Giants' misery.
Lahman's Pick: Redskins 20-13
Ravaged by injuries and playing out the last remnants of a dismal season, the Raiders limp into town anxious to get it over with. The Jets know something about that feeling, having been in a similar position a year ago. Now, however, they're poised for a return to the playoffs, and will be more than happy to beat up on team that's down and out.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (2–13) AT JETS (9–6)
Sunday, 1:00 pm, CBS
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL You can't really point to any one thing that the Jets offense does exceptionally well, but they have a lot of different pieces and somehow, find a way to use the right ones at the right times. The team is still buzzing about Leon Washington's play late in last week's game that set up a game-winning field goal. The rookie caught a screen pass in the backfield and turned it into a 64-yard gain, eluding several tacklers along the way.
Quarterback Chad Pennington had an off game last week, but that can be attributed to a stomach ailment. Still, he did a great job of reading the Miami defense, picking up blitzes and identifying mismatches in coverage. Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery have combined for 164 catches, making them the most prolific receiving duo in Jets history. Coles took a hard hit on a play across the middle last week, and while he's expected to start, he may not see a whole lot of playing time.
This game is somewhat similar to last week's matchup with the Dolphins — a team with a losing record but a tough defense. Oakland has the league's number one ranked passing defense, and it's not simply because teams start chewing up the clock with their ground game. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha has eight interceptions, tied for second in the NFL. You've got to believe that if he played for a better team he would have been invited to the Pro Bowl. He's a big, physical corner with good straight-line speed. Veteran linemen Derrick Burgess and Warren Sapp have combined for twenty sacks, and their ability to get pressure without blitzing has certainly helped the secondary.
The Jets' running game remains a question mark, and one never knows what to expect. Cedric Houston sat out last week's game with a calf injury, but he had 208 yards and three touchdowns in the previous three games. Kevan Barlow has had some effective runs in short-yardage situations, and Washington's explosiveness makes him dangerous.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL How bad has the Raiders' offense been? They're averaging just 11.0 points per game. They've failed to score an offensive touchdown in seven of their fifteen games this year, and in three of their last four games they've committed at least five turnovers. Oh, it's bad.
They tried to right the ship by firing their offensive coordinator after starting 0–5, but the new guy (John Shoop) hasn't had any more success than the old guy (Tom Walsh). Injuries have been part of the problem. The offensive line has been a shambles.
Halfback LaMont Jordan is out for the season with torn knee ligaments, and receivers Jerry Porter and Randy Moss have struggled with nagging injuries.
Even those facts can't change the fact that the Raiders have played horribly, and as things got worse the players have been willing to voice their displeasure. There has been plenty of finger pointing and not enough effort. A lot of the players who came to Oakland looking for a second chance — guys like Moss and quarterback Aaron Brooks — may have played their way out of the league.
The Jets defense held Miami to a season low 235 passing yards on Monday, and has held four of their last six opponents to a single touchdown. Their run defense is still vulnerable, but that's not a weakness the Raiders are likely to exploit with Justin Fargas as their primary ball carrier. With Brooks nursing a neck injury, Andrew Walter is expected to start at quarterback. The young signal caller has committed 22 turnovers in ten starts and been sacked 46 times.
KEY TO THE GAME: The will to win. The Jets need a win to punch their postseason ticket, and the banged up Raiders have lost eight games in a row. When you add up the number of things that would have to go wrong for the Jets and go right for the Raiders, this is as close to a sure thing as it gets in the NFL.
Lahman's Pick: Jets 27–7