Despite losing five of their last six games, the Giants still control their own playoff fate. The big question isn't so much whether they'll get in, but rather if they can overcome the poor play that led to this late season slide. Too many players have underperformed and the head coach is on the hot seat. Over the last two weeks, the Giants need to be thinking as much about the postseason as about next season, and which personnel on and off the field should be invited back.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (9-5) AT GIANTS (7-7)
(Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX)
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
If he follows through on his plans to retire at season's end, Sunday will be the last home game of Tiki Barber's career. It will probably be a busy one. The Giants' ground attack has been one of the few things that has been consistent this season, and the New Orleans defense has had a tough time against the run. They're giving up 5.1 yards a carry, and when opposing teams have been able to stick with their running games they've been successful.
That's not always easy, because the Saints high scoring offense can force opponents to start passing. Quarterback Eli Manning has not been making good decisions under pressure, and the injuries on the offensive line haven't helped. Veteran Bob Whitfield has done his best to take over the left tackle position since Luke Petitgout broke his leg, but he looks overmatched most of the time. Even more worrisome is the fact that center Shaun O'Hara will miss a second straight game with his bad ankle, and backup Rich Seubert will also be out after suffering a leg injury last week. Head coach Tom Coughlin said on Wednesday that he'll respond by moving Chris Snee to center, with Grey Ruegamer filling Snee's spot at right guard.
All of the shuffling on the line is worrisome in the face of a pretty good New Orleans pass rush. They rank ninth in the league with 36 sacks, and they've had at least one in every game this season. The key contributor there is defensive end Will Smith, who this week earned his first Pro Bowl invitation. He leads the team with 10.5 sacks.
The Saints defense has gotten stronger down the stretch, holding its last four opponents to 17 points or less and not allowing any of them to score a fourth quarter touchdown. That means the Giants have to get out of the gates quickly and put points on the board in the first half.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
What a difference a year makes. Last year the Saints struggled to score points; this year they have the NFL's top ranked offense, averaging over 400 yards a game. Three new faces have helped spark the turnaround.
The first is Jammal Brown, who's actually in his second year with the Saints. Last year, he moved to left tackle from right tackle, and the result has been a dramatic improvement in pass protection. The Saints surrendered 41 sacks last year but only 17 so far in 2006, tied for second in the league with the Baltimore Ravens.
The main beneficiary of that improved pass blocking has been quarterback Drew Brees, a big free agent addition who could be the league's Most Valuable Player. He leads the league with 4,240 passing yards and ranks second with 25 passing touchdowns.
And finally there's rookie running back Reggie Bush, last year's Heisman Trophy winner. He hasn't made a huge impact in the running game, but that's largely by design. The Saints already had Deuce McAllister, and he has remained the main focus of the team's ground attack. Bush is used largely in the passing game, either out of the backfield or from the slot position. Brees gets the ball to him on swing passes or screen plays, and that creates all kinds of match-up problems for opposing defenses. Bush leads the team with 84 receptions.
Containing the Saints versatile attack isn't easy, and the Giants 28th ranked pass defense will have its hands full. One reason for optimism is the anticipated return of defensive end Michael Strahan. He's missed six games with a foot injury, and the team has gone 1–5 in his absence.
KEY TO THE GAME If the Giants commit to their running game, they can keep the Saints offense off the field. That may be the only way to avoid getting into a shootout, the kind of contest they probably can't win. If the Saints are able to dictate the tempo, quarterback Eli Manning will have to be perfect to guide his team to victory.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 27–24