So here we are. On Sunday there will be no scoreboard watching (at least for us), no redeeming playoff run, no happy ending, and hopefully in a matter of days, no Bill Sheridan. We're left with a "meaningless game" with nothing to play for but the oft-invoked "Giant Pride." A case can be made that it would be beneficial in the long term to lose this game. That way we could emerge from the pack of currently 8-7 teams to secure an early mid-first round draft choice and take an impact defensive player who might not be available if we were to finish 9-7. (Brandon Spikes, I'm not only thinking of you, I'm actually watching you help take apart Cincinnati as I type this.) But this has to be counterbalanced with what it would say about the professionalism of our players if we were to come out flat Sunday. Also, playing spoiler is more fun when it's Brett Favre's playoff position you're spoiling.
Giants Offense vs. Vikings Defense:
Eli Manning is approaching the first 4,000 yard season of his career and just the third in the history of the franchise. He needs only 194 yards to break Kerry Collins's franchise single-season high of 4,073 set in 2002, which bested Phil Simms's previous record of 4,044 set in 1984.* He has a good chance of doing so against the Vikings, whose biggest vulnerability is their pass defense. While losing three of their last four games, the Vikes have been torched in the air each time. Overall this year, they rank 26th against the pass in terms of DVOA, a stat developed by the smart guys at Football Outsiders that adjusts for game situation and opponent, among other factors.
The Vikings pass defense has been hurt by the injuries to key players like: cornerback Antoine Winfield, who missed a few games earlier in the season with a foot injury and has looked very shaky since returning a month ago; and linebacker E.J. Henderson, whose replacement, rookie Jasper Brinkley, has been a liability in pass coverage according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
The Giants will have a harder time moving the ball on the ground. As usual, the Vikings run defense is excellent. It ranks first in the league in DVOA on the strength of the celebrated "Williams Wall" of defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams, the latter of whom just made the Pro Bowl for the fourth straight year. Williams was one of eight Vikings to make the Pro Bowl.
*(Historical digression: Collins set his Giants mark at the height of Amani Toomer's underappreciated prime. In 2002, the well-dressed one finished third in the NFL with 1,343 yards. It was his fourth 1,000 yard season in a row, and there would be one more before his deep speed started to decline and he began reinvented himself as a possession guy. Toomer was really, really good and deserves to be appreciated as the best Giants receiver ever. The crime of it was that he never made a Pro Bowl. He made his best case in 2002, but lost out to statistically inferior players like Marty Booker and Donald Driver.
Simms's original record came completely out of nowhere. The season before, he had been benched out of training camp by rookie head coach Bill Parcells in favor of Scott Bruener. When Bruener's poor play compelled Parcells to give Simms his old job back, he made it only to his second drive before a gruesome thumb injury ended his season. It was the fourth season in a row in which Simms had suffered a season-ending injury; he seemed ticketed for certain busthood. Then he exploded in 1984, with a no-name cast of receivers no less. A big reason for Simms's gaudy yardage totals was the Giants's utter lack of a running game: They ranked second-to-last in yards per attempt with 3.4 yards per, as Parcells leaned on veteran Rob Carpenter for much of the year because he didn't believe the 5-foot-7 guy named Joe Morris could be a full-time back. Morris took over as the full-time starter late in the season and then he himself exploded in 1985 behind an offensive line that finally had all the pieces in the right places. By 1985, the G-Men finally had an offense to match their consistently excellent defense. A 10-6 regular season was followed by an educational ass-whooping at the hands of the Bears in the playoffs. By 1986, the Giants were ready.)
Vikings Offense vs. Giants Defense:
Minnesota's offense hasn't slipped as much as the defense, but it has nonetheless fallen off rather drastically from its midseason peak over the past month. Going into their Sunday night game against the Cardinals on December 6th, Brett Favre had thrown 23 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions. Since then, his TD:INT ratio is 5:4 - now that's more like it. But as the second half of last week's game against the Bears proved, Favre is still capable of getting hot and lighting it up. The Vikings have to hope that that second half - during which they forced overtime after a 16-0 halftime deficit by scoring 30 points - is a sign of things to come for the offense. The Giants porous pass defense gives them a good chance to keep the momentum going.
What wound up costing them that game - adide from their horrendous pass defense - was a fumble by running back Adrian Peterson. It was a not uncommon phenomenon. Peterson has fumbled 7 times this year, tied with Steve Slaton for most in the league among running backs. The celebrated runner is averaging 4.4 yards per carry: That's pretty good, but it's worth noting that his average has dropped to that from 5.6 in his rookie year to 4.8 last year to 4.4 this year.
The Giants defense bounces back somewhat and plays with pride, but the problems of this defense run deeper than their mental makeup. In a game the Vikings need to stay alive for the number two seed, they make just enough plays. The Giants offense gives a game effort and Eli breaks the record, but the Vikings pull this out. Vikings 31 - Giants 27.