After slow starts, both the Jets and Giants have surged back into contention in their respective divisions. The Giants have won three games in a row, and the formula has been pretty consistent: Tiki Barber has rushed for at least 100 yards in each game, and the defense has sacked the opposing quarterback 16 times. The Jets are looking for their third straight win against the hapless Browns. A victory in Cleveland Sunday would send Gang Green into the bye week with a 5–3 record and position them for a serious run at the playoffs.
BUCCANEERS (2-4) AT GIANTS (4-2)
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The once vaunted Tampa Bay defense has fallen on hard times. Ronde Barber returned two interceptions for touchdowns last week, but the Buccaneers have made only four picks all season. Cornerback Brian Kelly was placed on injured reserve this week, and the man who will take his place, Juran Bolden, is playing with a significant hip injury. Despite these injuries, the pass defense has been respectable.
The same can't be said for their run defense. Key veterans Simeon Rice (shoulder) and Shelton Quarles have been battling injuries, and both are listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Against Philadelphia last week, two glaring weaknesses became apparent in the Tampa defense. First, sloppy tackling by the front seven allowed Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook to run wild. Second, the offensive line wore out the Bucs defenders, and by the fourth quarter they were completely out of gas.
Seeing those things on the game film makes it easy for the Giants to map out their game plan. A steady diet of running plays should grind the Buccaneers into submission. Tiki Barber leads the NFL in rushing yards, and his ability to consistently gain yards has helped make life easier for quarterback Eli Manning. Opposing defenses have to commit defenders to stopping the run, and eventually that means they have to leave receivers Plaxico Burress or Jeremy Shockey in man coverage. Manning has done a fantastic job of identifying those mismatches and exploiting when they arrive. Last week, for example, he only connected with Burress twice, but one play went for 44 yards and the other was a 55-yard touchdown.
WHEN THE BUCS HAVE THE BALL
The season-ending injury to quarterback Chris Simms was a big blow to the Tampa Bay offense, but even with Simms in the lineup this group was playing poorly. Running back Cadillac Williams struggled early in the season, hampered by a revamped offensive line that features two rookies starting on the right side. Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has won two of his first three starts, but not surprisingly, he has been wildly inconsistent.
While the Giants defense has strengthened in October, they've also been hit by the injury bug: Linebacker LaVar Arrington suffered a season ending Achilles tendon injury last week, Osi Umenyiora suffered a hip flexor injury, and Carlos Emmons has been sidelined with a strained pectoral muscle. The G-Men need to overcome those losses if they're going to continue their run towards the playoffs.
Arrington will be replaced by the combination of Reggie Torbor and rookie Gerris Wilkinson. If Carlos Emmons is healthy enough to play, then another option is to move him to the strong side while Brandon Short stays on the weak side. A rookie DE, Mathias Kiwanuka, will play Sunday if Umenyiora cannot. Also ailing is cornerback Frank Walker, who would be replaced by rookie Kevin Dockery.
KEY TO THE GAME
The Buccaneers upset the Eagles by forcing four turnovers, and even then they needed a 62-yard field goal to have enough points on the board for a win. With a rookie quarterback and a beleaguered offense, the only way the Bucs can win is if the Giants completely self-destruct. That doesn't seem likely, especially with Big Blue playing in the Meadowlands.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 28–10
JETS (4-3) AT BROWNS (1-5)
(Sunday, 4:15 p.m.,CBS)
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
With Chad Pennington healthy and an improved running game, everything seems to be going well for the Jets offense. Rookie Leon Washington has emerged from the pack to establish himself as the team's featured runner. Because he's just 5 feet 8 inches tall, folks expect Washington to use his speed to run outside. Over the last few weeks, however, he's shown the ability to be very physical between the tackles, running through linebackers and bouncing off tacklers.
Laveranues Coles ranks third in the NFL with 42 catches, but he continues to be bothered by a calf injury. He's listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but you can be sure that he's anxious to play against a Cleveland secondary that has been hammered by injuries.
Cleveland's secondary has been hammered by injuries. Cornerback Gary Baxter is out for the year after injuring both knees last week. He joins fellow cornerbacks Daylon Mc-Cutcheon and DeMario Minter, and safeties Jeremy LeSueur and Shawn Mayer on injured reserve.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Cleveland's offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon resigned on Tuesday. His unit managed just 165 total yards against the Broncos last Sunday and committed three turnovers. The Browns rank dead last in total offense, and it won't take Jets fans long to see why. Reuben Droughns is Cleveland's leading rusher, but his success has been limited by the inconsistent play of the offensive line. Droughns has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, and the lack of a running game has put tremendous pressure on quarterback Charlie Frye.
The Browns passing game has been a mess. Frye has been sacked 21 times, and that constant pressure is a major reason why he has thrown a leagueworst 10 interceptions. Tight end Kellen Winslow is the leading receiver, but the rest of the receiving crew hasn't been much help.
The Jets defense remains a major question mark, the one thing that stands in the way of the team returning to the playoffs. They continue to struggle with the 3–4 scheme, with opposing teams simply pounding the ball up the middle. The pass rush has been largely ineffective (safety Kerry Rhodes leads the team with three sacks), but the secondary has netted nine interceptions in seven games.
KEY TO THE GAME
This will be a great opportunity for the Jets to work out the kinks in their defense. With a young quarterback and an impotent ground game, the Browns' offense isn't likely to generate any fireworks. The aggressive Jets defense needs to feast on a vulnerable opponent to set themselves up for improvement in the second half.
Lahman's Pick: Jets 24–10