The Dallas game was encouraging for our defense because it represented a potential step in the right direction, not because it was a good defensive performance per se. Sure there were those 392 passing yards, but an optimistic take focused more on the re-emergence of the pass rush and the improvement against the run. But here's the thing: The optimistic take was contingent on the hope that the defense would build on last week and improve. After Sunday's loss to the Eagles, that optimistic take has been invalidated. Instead, here's the realistic take: The Giants can't stop an above-average offense. While there still exists a decent chance that we make the playoffs (believe it or not), our odds of winning a game in the playoffs hinge on our ability to stop a playoff team's offense. In other words, they're not very good. As for our odds of actually doing damage in the playoffs? Well, that hinges on our ability to string together consecutive performances against good and even great offenses, and that's just not happening.
Despite everything, you still have to like our odds of making said playoffs. The Coughlin-era Giants are nothing if not resilient, so we can expect a strong response to our latest awful loss. The most likely scenario in this week's games is that we beat Washington and Dallas loses to New Orleans. That would place us in the driver's seat against Dallas, who: 1) Is a bigger mess than even we are; and 2) Probably has a more difficult final two games (at WAS, PHI) than we do (CAR, at MIN). So while this loss was bad in terms of what it says about our team, it's survivable in a practical sense.
I know we're all down on this team, but here's a little perspective: Do you remember what happened in Week 14 of 2007? We gutted out an ugly 16-13 win against a flawed Eagles team that wound up going 8-8. The game ended when David Akers clanged a 57-yard field goal off the right upright as time expired, and then collapsed to his knees and clenched his facemask in what has become a (very marginally) classic image of dejection. If Akers's field goal is six inches to the left, that game goes into overtime. If the Eagles pull out that game and the rest of the season unfolds as it did, both teams go 9-7. And the Eagles, not us, get the sixth wild card spot on tiebreakers. The 2007 Giants were not a Super Bowl contender at that point in the season. They were barely a playoff team.
The win against the Eagles came on the heels of an even uglier 21-16 win against a flawed Bears team. Both wins showed our resilience, but little else. They didn't do much to erase the painful memory of our 41-17 home loss against Minnesota the week before the Chicago game. Our next game, a hideous 22-10 home loss to the Redskins, seemed more indicative of who we really were. It wasn't until the second half of our next game against Buffalo that we started to play well. And then the Pats game. And then the Bucs playoff game. And so on...
The point is this: The fickle nature of the NFL often flies in the face of bold proclamations of who teams are and what they are capable of. No, the Giants team that we've been watching for the past two months is not a Super Bowl caliber team or anything close. But neither were the 2007 Giants at this point. We're still in it. Be grateful for that and keep the faith.
What's to like:
Eli: First, the numbers, which speak for themselves: 27/38, 391 yards, 3 TDs, no INTs, 130.5 rating. And that one fumble, and that other inconsequential fumble... Now, you could point to the Nicks and Hixon touchdowns as freak plays that inflated his awesome numbers. But then you'd have to factor in all the drops, and it's pretty much a wash. Since he bottomed out in the Philadelphia game and raised concerns about a premature second-half fade, Eli has posted QB ratings of over 100 in three of his last five games. Against Dallas, he posted a rating of 88.9. Really his only subpar performance came against Denver (65.6).
When we gave Eli his big contract, we needed him to go from above-average/pretty good to very good, and to make the leap from a steward of a good offense to someone who could carry the offense by himself. He has successfully accomplished that this year, posting significantly better numbers that are more impressive considering the bottom has dropped out of the running game. He'll never be in the Peyton/Brees/Brady category, but he's settled in on the next level down. And better yet, the trend is positive. Eli's ratings since 2006: 77.0, 73.9, 86.4, 93.0.
The running game: It wasn't spectacular, but it kept us on schedule, which had a lot to do with how good the passing game was. Good job by the O-line against an Eagles team against which we've had a decent amount of success on the ground. Should we see them in the playoffs, the performance of the running game on Sunday has to be seen as an encouraging sign. Jacobs's fumble deserves mention here, but so does his bounce-back effort from that point on. As for Bradshaw, he made some big plays, including a 31-yarder on a seemingly hopeless pass play. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: Bradshaw needs to stop trying to make the huge play at the expense of the decent play. There's too much dancing, too many wasted runs.
Steve Smith: There was one bad drop, but overall he had 7 catches on 10 targets for 74 yards. Although it was pretty clearly inconsequential at the time, Boss's late touchdown was wide open because two defenders converged on Smith, who ran his patented goal line pattern (the one where he circles in front of the defender, then breaks in the direction from whence he came and turns around). This was yet another game in which I thought to myself, "Thank God Carolina took Dwayne Jarrett." Also, kudos to Smith for breaking Amani Toomer's team record for receptions in a single season. Let's hope he keeps catching balls in the next three games and beyond.
Kevin Boss: It was a quiet, good game for our quiet, good tight end. He caught 7 of the 8 passes thrown to him for 70 yards and helped set the edge in the running game. Good player.
Mathias Kiwanuka: The stats weren't great, but he has emerged as a more physical player than Osi, who does better forcing the edge. He didn't have a sack, but he applied pressure to McNabb a couple of times.
Osi: This was a tough one, because Osi made one play all night and did nothing else but circle seven yards behind McNabb. But we'll throw him on this list for the forced fumble, which could have been the biggest play of the game if Michael Boley didn't cement his first season in blue as a total washout. Of Osi's six sacks, four of them have resulted in fumbles. Pretty remarkable stat.
Jonathan Goff: Very, very strange that he didn't have a single tackle. I don't know what to make of that. However, we'll put him in this column for catching that interception. If only all of our linebackers could do that....
What's not to like:
Bill Sheridan and his defense: I covered it in the intro to this chapter, but this ghastly performance completely invalidates whatever hopeful good vibes were engendered by the Dallas game.
There were so many infuriating things about this defensive performance that it's hard to know where to begin. But I'll start with this: We let DeSean Jackson beat us. Going into the game, we knew he was their best weapon by far. Then they lost Jeremy Maclin, which reinforced that they would have to rely on him. And then Jackson torched us for 178 yards, all of which were utterly backbreaking.
The opacity of football makes it hard to criticize specific schemes. But it seems like two of Jackson's big catches - the 44-yarder on 3rd and 20 and the 60-yard touchdown - came on plays where we were either out-schemed or our players fucked up the execution. On the 44-yarder, Dockery, playing corner, passed off Jackson to the safety relatively early on. Rouse was playing safety on that side, and he seemed surprised to see Jackson running completely free down the sideline. He booked it as fast as he could, but he obviously didn't get there nearly in time. How did this happen? Should Dockery have run with him the whole way? Should Rouse have drifted over so he wasn't so far away once Dockery passed him off? Or did the scheme actually call for a massive soft spot in the zone? On the 60-yarder, Aaron Ross, who was the deep man on the play, began the play outside the hash on the other side of the field. Yes, he reacted a little late to the fact that Jackson was running in front of his face. But should he even have been responsible for a deep receiver on the other side of the field? Or did someone on the other side blow their assignment? The point is, it's hard to pinpoint where to assign blame from player to player, or distinguish between scheme and execution. The bottom line is that this defense, for the past two months, has played as poorly as any Giants defense in recent memory.
A common factor on both plays was the utter absence of a pass rush. Here's a stat that pretty much says it all: We sacked McNabb once, and we so much as hit McNabb twice. That's an absolutely terrifying stat. As much as we all love to blame Sheridan, it's hard for any defensive coordinator to work with a non-existent pass rush.
And one thing leads to another. The lack of a pass rush forces our safeties to be super-cognizant of deep routes, leaving them vulnerable to balls thrown in front of them. This in turn forces our linebackers to be super-cognizant of getting depth on their drops, which leaves them out of position to make tackles on running backs in the flats. This enables McNabb to check off his deep routes and look underneath, where he throws to running backs who have room to run. Trying to isolate a single problem misses the point. There is something rotten in the state of New Jersey.
Jeff Feagles: There's a very good chance that this is it. Feagles ranks 35th in gross punting average and 34th in net punting average. Those stats tend to undersell directional guys like Feagles, so perhaps it's best to look at DVOA, which doesn't isolate Feagles's individual contribution but looks at the whole punt team. In terms of DVOA, our punting game ranked 28th before Sunday's game and DeSean Jackson's return. Last year, we ranked 4th. The year before, we ranked 10th. It's been a great run and Feagles has been a great Giant. But sad as it is to say, it's time to find a new punter.
Mario Manningham: For the past two weeks, I've commented on the lack of crispness in his play that separates immensely talented underachievers from very good players. Last night, Manningham - and Cris Collinsworth - proved my point. To rehash, there were two end zone fades that he caught out of bounds that would have been touchdowns if not for his imprecise route-running and footwork. The first one cost us 4 points - we wound up kicking a field goal on that drive. The second one cost us valuable time that precluded any opportunity for an 11th hour comeback. I hate to say this, but when a guy scores a 6 on his Wonderlic test and gets busted for lying about getting caught smoking weed... well, that increases the odds of him becoming a space cadet. Just sayin'.
Hakeem Nicks: I love the bounce-back effort, but four drops places him in this column. We'll call it a one-game aberration.
Domenik Hixon: Again, love the big play. But like Nicks's play, in both instances the Eagles deserve more blame than the Giants players deserve credit. I decidedly don't love the two fumbles, and I'm a little worried about them going forward. He seemed to be awkwardly cradling the ball, which looked like it impacted his running style. Hopefully whatever confidence he built with his return against Dallas didn't vanish with those fumbles.
The refs: They botched a lot of shit. It's hard to say who got more screwed, so I don't think we as Giants fans should complain. But here's a non-exhaustive list of blown calls, along with the team they benefited: 1) The ticky-tack illegal contact call on Quintin Mikell on the deep-ball that Nicks dropped, which kept an eventual touchdown drive alive (Giants); 2) Not calling the pass interference on Rouse in the end zone when he utterly mugged Celek. That call wasn't a judgment call - it was blatantly obvious (Giants); 3) Not calling an equally obvious false-start on Diehl that would have pushed a 1st and goal from the 6 back five yards when we absolutely needed a touchdown to pull within a TD late in the second quarter. Bradshaw punched it in on the next play (Giants); 4) Letting time expire at the end of the second quarter, precluding the possibility of a makeable 49-yard field goal attempt (Giants); 5) The blown whistle on the fumble, which Sintim would have probably picked up (Eagles); 6) The Eli fumble, which has been talked about enough already (Eagles).