The Giants need a win in Carolina this weekend to keep their sinking playoff hopes alive. Last weekend's loss to the Cowboys scuttled their chances of winning the division crown. Now they find themselves in a dogfight, one of seven teams battling for two wild card spots in the NFC. The Giants need to win at least three of their last four games to have a shot, and that's no easy task for a team mired in a four game losing streak.
The Jets return home after thoroughly trouncing the Packers at Lambeau Field, and they too are in the middle of a fierce battle for a wild card berth. Five AFC teams sport a 7–5 record, and the Jets remaining schedule seems to give them the upper hand. Both local teams need wins this weekend to keep their playoff hopes alive. Here's a look at how they matchup with their opponents.
GIANTS (6–6) AT CAROLINA PANTHERS (6–6) (Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX)
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina's defense is very quick, especially along the front line. Julius Peppers leads the team with 11 sacks, and he's always a disruptive presence against the run. With fellow end Mike Rucker and tackles Kris Jenkins and Damione Lewis, the Panthers feature one of the league's best defensive lines. Their linebacking corps, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. Will Witherspoon departed during the offseason, and Dan Morgan has been on injured reserve since suffering a concussion in Week 1. Morgan's leadership has been missed, and outside linebackers Na'il Diggs and Thomas Davis have struggled during his absence. The Panthers have generally done a good job of preventing opposing running backs from breaking free for big gains. Some of the more physical teams, however, have been able to pound the ball on the ground and control the clock.
That's a good sign for the Giants, who have been getting bruising halfback Brandon Jacobs more involved in the offense each week. Starter Tiki Barber has been hampered by a broken thumb. The injury isn't serious enough to keep him out of action altogether, but having Jacobs come in for five to 10 carries has been a big help. Jacobs has been particularly productive in short yardage situations and in the red zone, where he has scored eight touchdowns this season.
Quarterback Eli Manning has been under fire for his poor play down the stretch, and he responded with an outstanding game last week. So did beleaguered receiver Plaxico Burress, who had six catches, including a great play in the endzone for a game-tying touchdown with just over a minute left in regulation.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Jack Delhomme injured his throwing hand last week when he slammed it into an opponent's helmet. He skipped practice this week and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Most likely, the Panthers will go with Chris Weinke under center. The former Heisman Trophy winner hasn't started a game in four years, but the calls for him to play were growing even before Delhomme's injury.
The Panthers have blown fourth quarter leads in five games, including a loss last Monday night at Philadelphia. A late interception in that game illustrated how untimely turnovers have derailed the Carolina offense. After the Eagles took the lead with just over three minutes remaining, Delhomme marched his team down to Philly's seven-yard line on the ensuing possession. A short field goal could have forced the game into overtime, but Delhomme's pass to a tightly covered Keyshawn Johnson was intercepted in the end zone, rendering that option moot.
The Panthers have a tremendous receiving corps. Johnson remains one of the league's best possession receivers, a big target who makes the tough catches. On the other side, Steve Smith uses his explosive quickness and blazing speed to make big plays. To win, Carolina needs this passing attack to be productive because their ground attack has only scored six rushing touchdowns in 12 games. Leading rusher DeShaun Foster has been inactive the past two weeks, suffering the lingering effects of a hyperextended elbow. Rookie DeAngelo Williams has started in his place, and while he did put up 114 yards in a game against the Rams, he has had trouble holding on to the ball.
Three injured starters returned to the Giants lineup last week, but their struggling defense didn't get much of a boost. The Cowboys gained an average of 6.2 yards a play, the highest total for any opponent this season. Most glaring has been their inability to close games out in the second half. The Giants have gone nine straight games holding their opponents to 10 points or less in the first half. After the intermission, however, they've been running out of steam. During their losing streak, they've given up an average of 20 fourth quarter points per game.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Despite their problems at the quarterback position, the Panthers talented receivers can hurt the Giants. If you don't believe me, just look back at the performance Steve Smith had against them in the playoffs last year. Big Blue needs to get physical with Smith and Keyshawn Johnson and keep them from getting loose down the field. The Panthers won't be able to beat the Giants with their running game.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 27–17
BUFFALO BILLS (5-7) AT JETS (7-5) (Sunday, 4:15 p.m., CBS)
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Chad Pennington picked apart the Green Bay secondary last week, completing passes to eight different receivers and leading the team to point on each of their first five possessions. He took advantage of a team that had a lot of young faces and a lot of injuries, two problems that have also afflicted the Buffalo Bills. Cornerback Terrence McGee rolled his ankle in last week's game and didn't return. A bad hamstring has slowed safety Donte Whitner. The Bills will try to compensate for these problems in the secondary with a strong pass rush, a strategy that did not work for the Packers last week.
More troublesome for the Bills, however, is their porous run defense. They have allowed an average of 177 rushing yards over the last five weeks, and that's a weakness the Jets will try to exploit. Cedric Houston has returned strong from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for five weeks, and he's making a case to be the featured back in the Jets' running attack. He's a big powerful runner, and when he hits the hole he's hard to bring down. The Jets were also pleased with the performance last week of Leon Washington, whose speed out of the backfield and ability to catch passes make him a nice change of pace.
The Bills will be without weakside linebacker Angelo Crowell, one of their best players, who broke his leg last week. He's the fourth defensive player that Buffalo has had to place on injured reserve this season. They'll fill Crowell's spot with rookie Keith Ellison or Coy Wire, a converted safety. Both lack the bulk you'd normally prefer at the position. The pressure will be on middle linebacker London Fletcher to help carry the load.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
At times, the Bills young offensive stars have been spectacular. When these two teams met in September, quarterback J.P. Losman threw for 328 yards and Willis McGahee ran for 150. The Bills lost that game, however, because they committed three turnovers and could only manage 13 points on five trips into the red zone. Wide receiver Lee Evans had 265 receiving yards against Houston three weeks ago, with two separate 83-yard touchdown catches in the first quarter. That explosiveness has not been apparent for most of the rest of the season. Evans has topped the 100-yard mark just one other time. Young teams are inconsistent, and that has been Buffalo's biggest problem this season.
Gang Green still has trouble defending the run and has had a particularly hard time stopping McGahee. In four starts against the Bills, he has averaged over 120 rushing yards a game. Over the last four weeks, the Jets overall defense has improved, and they've held their last four opponents to 14 points or less.
KEY TO THE GAME
The Jets must find a way to keep Willis McGahee from having a big day. If he runs wild again, it'll put tremendous pressure on their own offense to produce points. That's generally when bad things happen.
Lahman's Pick: Jets 21–13