Despite their struggles, the Giants are on the verge of earning a playoff berth for the third straight season. Losses by the Saints and Vikings could seal the deal Sunday afternoon, or the Giants could clinch by beating the Redskins Sunday night.
The Redskins would like to make a run for the other wild-card berth, but the loss of quarterback Jason Campbell to a knee injury last week makes their long odds even longer. If forecasts of heavy snow prove accurate, this game could turn into a game of ball control and field position.
REDSKINS (6–7) at GIANTS (9–4)
Sunday, 8:15 p.m., NBC
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL Over a three-game stretch in early October, the Giants put at least 30 points on the scoreboard each weekend. But that high-flying offense has been grounded in the weeks that have followed. Over the past six games, the Giants have averaged just 17 points a game and haven't scored more than 21 in any game since their mid-October victory over the 49ers.
Much of the problem can be traced to turnovers and poor performance in the red zone. Although the Giants have generally been able to move the ball, these breakdowns have repeatedly stalled drives. They have also squandered good scoring opportunities. Fortunately for them, the Redskins aren't very good at forcing turnovers: They rank 26th among NFL teams, with just 19 turnovers in 13 games.
What the Redskins can do well is defend the run. They're giving up just 94.8 yards per game, the sixthlowest total in the league. It starts with the strong play up front, with players such as defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin occupying blockers. That leaves the linebackers free to make plays, and the Redskins have three such playmakers: Veteran middle linebacker London Fletcher is undersized, but when he's free to work in space, he can make plays from sideline to sideline. On the weak side, Rocky McIntosh has emerged as an impact player this year. Strong side linebacker Marcus Washington has battled injuries this year, but when he's healthy, he's one of the NFC's best allaround linebackers.
The Redskins have obviously had to deal with the personal toll of Sean Taylor's death, but his loss also makes an impact on the field. His fiery leadership was a key element of the team's aggressive personality. Washington also misses his contributions in the secondary. Second-year safety Reed Doughty has taken over the free safety position. While he can be a big hitter, he's awfully raw. This can only stress a pass defense that has already been struggling. The Redskins rank 23rd in passing yards allowed. They don't have a great pass rush, but they use different blitz packages and line stunts to create pressure. This is a gamble that the Giants will try to take advantage of by taking shots down the field.
The most encouraging development of the last month has to be the outstanding performance by Plaxico Burress last week. He has been bothered all year by an ankle injury, but he caught seven passes for 136 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown. The Giants will desperately depend on his ability to stretch the field.
Brandon Jacobs will handle the rushing duties this week, as he is looking to bounce back from a poor performance against the Eagles: He was held to just 70 yards on 22 carries and made two costly fumbles.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL With Jason Campbell sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury, the Redskins turn to Todd Collins to take over the quarterbacking duties. The 36-year-old hasn't started an NFL game since 1997, when he was with the Bills. He has spent the last 10 years as a backup, attempting just 27 passes in spot duty.
Despite the lack of action, Collins looked sharp last week. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Redskins to a win over the Bears. He has a strong arm, but he's not very mobile. What should be a bigger concern for Washington is that his lack of game action will make it harder for him to identify defenses, read coverages, and go through his progressions. The Giants bring pressure as well as any team in the league, so Collins could be in for a long day.
He'll need help from the running game. Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts were a pretty formidable one-two punch last year, but the Redskins have struggled to run the ball in 2007. Some of the problems can be attributed to injuries on the offensive line, particularly the loss of guard Randy Thomas. On the other hand, there are some observers who think that Portis is worn out. He carried the ball 36 times in a game against the Jets earlier this year, and ran 30 times the following week. Since then, he's averaged just 2.6 yards per carry and has only one run longer than 7 yards. The explosiveness just doesn't seem to be there.
The Redskins will have to count on their veteran receiving corps to provide the offense. Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El both have good speed, but they haven't been able to make enough big plays this year. Between them, the pair has combined for just one touchdown catch this season. Tight end Chris Cooley is the team's leading receiver. His skill for finding the soft spots in zones makes him Washington's most dangerous player.
Covering Cooley has to be the Giants' biggest concern. Strong safety Gibril Wilson did not play last week and may remain sidelined with his knee injury. Last week, rookie Craig Dahl started in his place, but the Giants may move cornerback R.W. McQuarters over to strong safety on Sunday. They may also need to use linebacker Reggie Torbor to help slow Cooley down at the line of scrimmage.
KEY TO THE GAME The Giants have won the last two games despite turning the ball over more often that their opponents. They can't pull off that rare feat three times in a row. To win, the Giants need to protect the ball and force a rusty Collins to make mistakes.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 21–17