BY SAM HITCHCOCK
The lens that everyone living in the New York media market is looking through shows the New York Giants blowing the opportunity for postseason play. They suffered their yearly second-half swoon, again. Once more, the NFL diabolically gave them a very difficult slate of final eight games, and this year it appears the Giants will be unable to will themselves into the playoffs.
Ironically, if they win Sunday’s final game against the Philadelphia Eagles, they will finish with the same overall record (9-7) as they did last season, along with the same record within their division (3-3).
And here's the scenario needed for the Giants to make the NFL playoffs: New York must beat the Eagles ... and the Vikings, Bears and Cowboys all must lose their games.
In their last two rodeos, the Giants have lost by a combined score of 67-14. In the Big Apple fishbowl, everyone’s gut reaction is to disparage all facets of the team. Eli Manning is no longer elite! The defensive line stinks! Our receivers are overrated and we have no running game! Corey Webster is a bum! Our offensive line couldn’t protect a D-list celebrity! These are all explosive reactions, but while there is partial truth in their fanatical rage, their opponents, the Falcons and Ravens, both played excellent games.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco were first-rate. Their receivers (Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Roddy White, and Baltimore’s Anquain Boldin and Torrey Smith) showed up and dominated. Their defenses played aggressively, and forced the Giants into long third-down conversions while disrupting the flow of Manning’s receiving targets.
Now that sufficient credit has been given to the Giants’ last two adversaries, it is time to examine the patellar reflexes (scientific parlance for knee-jerk reaction) of the Giants’ incensed fans.
Eli Manning is No Longer Elite!
Eli was not just a game manager for two Super Bowl teams, he was a tremendous asset in both Super Bowl victories. Eli is a great quarterback and a future Hall of Famer, but 2012 will not go down as one of his best seasons. Eli has not been proficient lately, and for the Giants to win they need to generate substantial points. When the Giants score more than 21 point per game, they are undefeated. When they score less than 21 points, they are winless.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Manning has had three calamities this year. It started in Week 9 (the beginning of the season’s second half) where he posted a ghastly -4.6 rating against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and subsequently rated a -1.2 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
These back-to-back defeats started a precipitous decline as New York fell from 6-2 to 6-4. Eli’s next and final negatively rated game came in Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons, when he finished with a macabre -3.1 rating. At that time the G-men held a one-game lead in the NFC East, with the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys surging, so a playoff-worthy effort was mandated. Instead, Atlanta stepped up and shut them out.
The biggest problem for the Giants in their last seven games compared to their first eight has been their pass offense. New York is used to having two big play threats at receiver in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, but the production of these two wideouts has fallen off steeply in the team’s 2-5 slide. In their 6-2 start, Eli could count on the pair for a quick strike, extend-the-field touchdown.
When healthy, Nicks presents the secondary with concern along the outside numbers because of his vertical prowess. A healthy Cruz works the slot and reigns terror in the middle of the field. Plainly, that has not been true lately. Here are the duo’s totals in receiving highs in the last seven contests (the higher of the two being displayed). Week 9: Cruz 67 yards; Week 10: Nicks 75; Week 12: Nicks 77; Week 13: Cruz 104; Week 14: Cruz 121; Week 15: Nicks 40; Week 16: Cruz 21.
Both had notable lapses in the Giants’ last two losses. Cruz had 3 receptions for 15 yards against Atlanta, and Nicks had no catches against the Ravens’ very poor secondary. Cruz is a very precise route runner, and as good as they come for slot receivers.
Yet, Cruz has also taken some very big hits this year, and cumulatively that appears to have him disjointed (he’s definitely playing injured). Nicks is also not healthy, and looks to be a shell of his normal, high-leaping self. In the Giants’ first eight games, they were an above average team in yards per pass on first-and-10 plays. Now, they are near the basement of the league, and are averaging nearly three fewer yards per play on third downs in two-score situations (per Grantland’s Bill Barnwell).
Teams are taking away the big play, and are roughing up New York’s two hobbled playmaking targets. With a stunted running game, the danger of play-action has also gone by the wayside. The result is a Manning that has to rely more on his No. 3 and No.4 options, Domenix Hixon and Rueben Randle, to find separation.
The Defensive Line Stinks
New York’s once redoubtable defensive line increasingly looks long in the tooth. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Giants rate 16th in the NFL in pass rush. Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck were once prime pass-rushers; now they have a combined nine sacks. Jason Pierre-Paul has ten less quarterback takedowns than he did last season. Also the team’s linebackers are looking increasingly problematic, as Keith Rivers, Michael Boley, and Mathias Kiwanuka’s statistics on PFF are so in the red for run defense, pass rush, and pass coverage, they would have filed for bankruptcy if they were a business.
If the Giants are not bringing down the signal-caller (they had zero sacks against Flacco), their suspect run defense can get really ugly. Despite the fact they employed a 4-4 (four linebackers) look against Baltimore to attempt to stop the run, the Ravens had two 100-yard running backs.
Our Receivers Are Overrated and We Have No Running Game!
Cruz, Nicks, Hixon, Randle, and Martellus Bennett are, when healthy, one of the best receiving corps in the game. But they are not healthy. When Ravens’ safety Ed Reed stuck Cruz with that jarring hit last Sunday, Cruz reacted like a receiver who had taken one too many punishing blows throughout the course of a season. Cruz staggered away, and it would be of no surprise if he added to his sizeable drop total this Sunday.
Opponents got better at limiting the over-the-top throws from the Giants, forcing them to move more slowly down the field. For a Giants team that is ranked 20th in the NFL in Red Zone Scoring Percentage, that is going to take a lot of points off the board.
With their running game, it seems quite clear they sorely miss Andre Brown who was lost for the season with a broken fibula. Ahmad Bradshaw is battered and damaged (he quite literally never practices anymore), and when David Wilson was asked to fill in and be the Giants’ reliable production back, he stumbled. Wilson was electric against New Orleans (especially on special teams returns), but was unable to accrue consistent yardage against Atlanta. Wilson had a big gain of 25 yards in the loss to the Falcons, but excluding that run he could not manage an average of three yards a carry (2.7).
Kregg Lumpkin would share carries with Wilson, but the two were unable to find any form of continuity in the ground attack. Against Baltimore, Coughlin did not even allow Wilson enough carries to redeem himself, as he was given just three rushing opportunities.
The vanishing running game is a big reason why in the Giants’ last two games their opponents have combined to run 56 more plays than they have. If the Giants cannot sustain long drives and punch it in when entering the red zone, then their explosive offense is defused. New York is a grounded opponent these days.
Corey Webster Is a Bum!
When ProFootballFocus.com ranks every cornerback who has played 25% or more of his team’s snaps, Webster does not fare well. There are 114 corners who qualify, and his pass coverage is ranked the very worst. He does have a familiar companion at 110th, and that is fellow Giant Jayron Hosley. Both corners have had trying seasons, and their last two games have seen them be exploited by good quarterbacks and adept wideouts.
This Sunday against the Eagles, New York will likely use zone coverage. Avoiding man-to-man corner coverage on the outside with deep threats like Jeremy Maclin would be wise, because burners like Maclin have torched the G-men the past two Sundays.
Our Offensive Line Couldn’t Protect a D-List Celebrity!
The Giants’ offensive line last year was the worst in the NFL per ProFootballFocus.com, and one of the worst they had ever graded historically. This season, New York’s big men in the trenches showed impressive stability for most of the season (before the Baltimore game they only surrendered pressure on 29.7% of Eli’s drop backs), keeping Eli from too much heat in the pocket. (Remember the dominant performance they put forth against the San Francisco front four?)
That all changed. Manning faced pass rush heat on 15 of his 32 drop backs when facing the Ravens, and right tackle David Diehl was the worst offender. Diehl was overmatched, conceding three hits and four hurries. In the prior game against the Falcons, Manning was under duress on 38% of his throws. The Giants’ offensive line has been a constant for most of the season, with left tackle Will Beatty leading the way.
Unfortunately, against two mediocre pass rushing defenses, the offensive line allowed excessive pressure on Manning. The stalwarts along the o-line may be fatigued, and Sunday they are facing a Philadelphia defensive line that has shown closing burst off the edge, and through the inside gaps. (Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Cullen Jenkins, and Fletcher Cox have played splendidly in the Eagles’ last handful of games.)
Judgment on the Giants vs. Eagles
Embattled Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is going to play instead of Nick Foles, who suffered a broken hand in last Sunday’s game. This will be Andy Reid’s last game as Philadelphia’s head coach, and will be an audition for Vick on whether he can be a starting quarterback in the future for an NFL team (the Eagles’ offensive line is in shambles, so Vick needs to release the ball quicker on his drop backs).
The Giants have hit the snooze button and the Eagles’ pass rush is looking the best it has all season. This loss to Philadelphia will fuel an offseason of speculation and “what if’s” for a team that should look different next year.
Eagles 21, Giants 20