Step one is getting into the playoffs. Both New York teams have done that, and the Jets and the Giants now find themselves in very similar circumstances. They both are opening the postseason with a road game against a division rival and they both are huge underdogs, facing low expectations from critics who think their teams are too flawed to be competitive in the postseason.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin hopes to confound those critics, and he'll have to if he wants to save his job. The good news is that the Giants have already gone into Philadelphia and beaten the Eagles once this year. The bad news is that they return as a mere shell of the team that won that game in September, while the Eagles have become the NFC's hottest team.
The Jets have also already proved that they can beat their opponent on the road. They upset the Patriots 17–14 on a rain-soaked afternoon in mid-November at Foxboro. Still, rookie head coach Eric Mangini will have his hands full Sunday as he faces off against his mentor and former boss. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a 10–1 record in the postseason, and has won three of the last five Super Bowls. His Patriots have an edge in both talent and experience, and those are tough hurdles for the Jets to overcome.
Step two is winning, but to do that this weekend, both the Giants and Jets will have to overcome not only a formidable opponent but also their own liabilities.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL With Kevin Gilbride taking over play-calling duties last week, the Giants offense exploded for 34 points. The most apparent difference was that they gave the ball to Tiki Barber more often, but what might not have been so obvious was the subtle change in the way he was used. The Redskins blitzed a lot in the first half, and in the past, the Giants response to that pressure was to take frequent shots down the field. When linebackers or defensive backs are rushing the passer, Plaxico Burress is likely to be in single coverage. Gilbride's approach was different, and that was to neutralize the pressure by attacking the defense with the running game. That's something the Giants haven't done in a long time, but it was extremely successful.
They need to continue that approach, because if the Eagles have a weakness it's stopping the run. Their defense finished the season ranked 26th against the run, allowing six of their last eight opponents to rush for at least 145 yards. This is due in part to the Eagles' aggression, especially up front. They get good penetration from their front four, and they like to bring additional pressure with linebackers and defensive backs. This strategy has helped them rejuvenate their pass rush and get good pressure on the quarterback, but they sometimes over pursue the ball carrier and leave themselves vulnerable to traps and draw plays.
Eli Manning has had good success throwing the ball against the Eagles. His two most productive games have the season have come against this defense, with 371 passing yards in their first meeting and 282 in the second. What he needs to be wary of is their ball-hawking secondary, particularly free safety Brian Dawkins. The Eagles corners — Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown — are very physical, and they'll do their best to keep the Giants receivers from getting any separation.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL Quarterback Jeff Garcia has gone 5–1 as a starter since taking over for the injured Donovan McNabb. He has been extremely efficient, avoiding sacks and turnovers and spreading the ball around to different receivers. Not only has Garcia thrown the ball well, but his fiery leadership both in the huddle and on the sidelines has pulled the team together. His past success has given him the confidence to know that with the right supporting cast he can still win football games.
Garcia is also smart enough to know that the burden to make big plays is not on his shoulders. Philadelphia's offense — both on the ground and through the air — is built around Brian Westbrook. The elusive running back finished eighth in the NFL in rushing yards and led the Eagles with 77 receptions. His quickness and speed to the outside make him dangerous in the open field, and the Giants will have to focus their efforts to keep him contained.
One of the big differences for the Eagles this year as opposed to last year is the play of their offensive line. Some of their success this year can be attributed to the fact that they've all stayed healthy. Right guard Shawn Andrews earned a Pro Bowl invitation, and center Jamaal Jackson deserves to go, too. This young unit got better as the season went along, and they're among the league's best at both run blocking and pass protection.
The Giants defense has not been able pressure opposing quarterbacks, and that's affected both their run and pass defense. The Giants have allowed an average of 31 points over the last three weeks, and there's no reason to think they 'll suddenly clamp down against a team as balanced and well-stocked as the Eagles.
KEYS TO THE GAME This will be a physical game, and most likely a close contest. The key for the Eagles is to contain Barber, something they did well in both meetings this year, and make Manning beat them. For Big Blue, the challenge is to solidify their shaky defense and not let the Eagles build an early lead. Once the Giants are forced to abandon the run, the game will be over.
Lahman's Pick: Eagles 24-17
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL For years, the Jets offense has been built around their running game, but that's all changed with the departure of Curtis Martin. The Jets ranked 30th during the regular season with an average of 3.4 yards per carry. Kevan Barlow had his best game of the season against New England in November, but his thigh injury will keep him from being a factor in this game. That leaves Gang Green with the backfield duo of Cedric Houston and Leon Washington. Each is capable of making a play here or there, but neither can carry the team or takeover the game.
That responsibility falls to quarterback Chad Pennington, who yesterday was honored by the Associated Press as the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. This season marked the first time in his pro career that he's been able to stay healthy enough to start 16 games. The comeback was aided by the outstanding play of his receivers. Laveranues Coles had a career high 91 catches and Jerricho Cotchery exploded with 82, after making just 25 in his first two seasons. Both will need to have a big day for the Jets to beat the Patriots. Each had a touchdown catch in the first meeting between these teams, and Cotchery had another in the second contest.
Generally, though, the New England secondary has been very stingy. They allowed just 10 touchdown passes all season while nabbing 22 interceptions. Safety Rodney Harrison will be out after suffering a knee injury last week. His intensity and leadership is important, but he did miss six weeks with a shoulder injury and the pass defense was just as good in his absence.
New England's defense improved from 26th a year ago to 6th in 2006, the best ranking they've had during the Belichick era. They also held opponents to just 237 points, a franchise low.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL The key to the Jets victory over the Patriots in November was rattling Tom Brady. They brought pressure on almost every play, sacking him four times and forcing an interception. The bad weather made it tough to throw the ball deep, and the endless wave of blitzes disrupted the timing of New England's short game.
Brady has had to adjust to the loss of his top-two receivers from a year ago, and he's done that by spreading the ball around and throw more of the short passes. His yardage total (3,533) was his lowest since his first year as a starter, but 11 different players caught touchdown passes.
The biggest strength of the New England offense is their running game. Veteran Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney combined for 1,557 yards and 19 touchdowns. At 32, Dillon can no longer carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game as he did in his prime. With Maroney spelling him throughout the game, Dillon can be very productive in shorter bursts. He didn't have a 100-yard game this year, but Dillon tied a team record with 13 touchdowns.
The final numbers show that the Jets ranked 20th in overall defense, but that doesn't tell you how much this unit improved as the year progressed. After giving up an average of 24 points a game in the first half of the season, Gang Green held seven of their last eight opponents to 14 points or less. Three young players have keyed the turnaround: linebacker Jonathon Vilma, safety Kerry Rhodes, and defensive end Bryan Thomas.
KEYS TO THE GAME All the focus will be on Tom Brady, but for the Jets to win they need first to stop the Patriots running game. It's something they struggled to do over the last month of the season, and New England would love to control the tempo of the game by keeping it on the ground. Because the Patriots are so tough against the run, the pressure will be on Pennington to make big plays while avoiding mistakes. He needs to play a perfect game for the Jets to win.
Lahman's Pick: Patriots 21–17