The New York Giants start the last quarter of their season against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon with a lot at stake. A win puts them one step closer to securing a playoff spot and quickly erases a frustrating, disappointing defeat to the Washington Redskins on Monday night. A loss would mean the continuation of another second half slide and the potential of losing control of the NFC East if Washington defeats Baltimore at 1pm (the Giants and Saints kickoff at 4:25pm).
Let's take a look at 10 keys that will ultimately decide the outcome of this game.
Getting off to a good start is always critical in an NFL game but it is even more important considering where the New Orleans Saints are in their season. New Orleans sits at 5-7, two games out of the 6th and final spot in the NFC playoffs, which is currently owned by the Seattle Seahawks. Since the Saints and Seahawks don't play this season any potential tiebreaker would be based on conference record. New Orleans is a dismal 3-5 in the NFC while Seattle is 5-4. The Seahawks also have a very winnable game on Sunday against the offensively inept Arizona Cardinals.
In other words, if the Saints fall behind early against the New York Giants, they very well may start going through the motions, knowing that their season is all but over. This is especially true considering they are on the road away from their inspiring, loud home fans.
New York would do very well for themselves by grabbing a quick two score lead and get New Orleans thinking about their return trip to the Bayou State.
In recent weeks, the effectiveness of the New Orleans Saints rushing attack has predicted the outcome of their games.
In their last three wins, New Orleans has rushed for over 140 yards per game while averaging at least five yards per carry in each contest. Subsequently, in their last two losses they have racked up only 160 yards total on the ground to the tune of a pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry.
Overall, the Saints are 27th in the NFL with 92.3 rushing yards per game. This is not the fearsome, multi-dimensional running game that the New York Giants saw against the Washington Redskins last week, which, by the way, leads the NFL in rushing yards per game at 167.2. They should be able to neutralize this facet of the Saints offense, turning them into a one dimensional attack.
If the New York Giants can slow down the New Orleans Saints running game and force them to rely heavily on the pass it should open up some opportunities for interceptions. Drew Brees is tied for the NFL lead with Andrew Luck with 16 picks.
This stat is a little misleading since seven of these interceptions have come in his last two games and another four occurred in New Orleans' first two games of the year. That means Brees had an eight-game stretch in the middle of the season where he only threw 5 interceptions. Still, he has shown the propensity to give the ball to the other team, as he's also lost five fumbles, which plays right into New York's strength on defense. The Giants are second in the NFL with 30 takeaways, including 18 interceptions.
Jimmy Graham has struggled in his last two games, with only eight combined receptions for 92 yards and no touchdowns. He is still having an excellent season though with 59 catches, 654 yards and eight touchdowns.
It is no secret that the New York Giants tend to struggle against elite tight ends. This trend occurred most recently in Week 8 when the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Witten torched the Giants with a whopping 18 catches for 167 yards (and somehow didn't manage to score).
Graham burned Big Blue in 2011 with 84 yards and two touchdowns in the New Orleans Saints 49-24 blowout win (more on this game later). The Giants defense knows first hand what he is capable of and should make it a point to force Brees to throw elsewhere.
The New Orleans Saints don't have a good running game and their quarterback is turnover prone. So how are they tied with the New York Giants for the 5th most points scored in the NFL? Because they make big plays in the passing game.
New Orleans has 47 passing plays of 20-plus yards this season. Five players have at least five of these plays each to their credit so it is not just one or two guys that can do damage.
This unfortunately for the Giants goes right to the heart of their weakness on defense. They have allowed 44 receptions of 20-plus yards.
It is inevitable that the Giants will give up a few big plays through the air to the Saints. They must limit it to less than five, however, and, more importantly, make sure that they are for 20 or 30 yards not 40, 50 or 60.
Which simply means they need to score touchdowns on offense!
Lawrence Tynes leads the NFL in both field goal attempts with 36 and makes with 32. According to TeamRankings.com, the New York Giants have found the end zone on only 48.98% of their trips into the red zone (rhyming intended). This is good for 11th worst in the NFL.
The bigger problem is that the Giants don't score six enough when they cross into their opponent's territory, whether in the red zone or not. For instance, 13 of Tynes' 36 field goal attempts this season have come from more than 40 yards out. New York wasn't in the red zone when these drives stalled but they are disappointing nonetheless.
New Orleans will likely score at least 20 points on Sunday. They have in all but two games this season. If the Giants want to avoid another nail biting, and potentially disappointing, 4th quarter, they would be wise to execute when they cross over the 50 yard-line.
The New Orleans Saints are a bad defensive team but they are especially awful against the run. They have allowed 153.8 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry this season, both good for dead last in the league. They have also allowed 14 runs of 20-plus yards, which is tied with the Buffalo Bills for second worst in the NFL.
The Saints struggle to contain fast running backs on the edge. David Wilson is clearly the speediest back the New York Giants have, as witnessed by his first, and only, NFL touchdown earlier this season against the Cleveland Browns.
Wilson has yet to get more than seven carries in a game. Tom Coughlin would be wise to trust his rookie running back to the tune of 10-12 carries this week and see if he can break a few big plays.
For an offense that is supposed to be able to score from anywhere on the field, they sure have been lacking in long touchdowns this season. The New York Giants only have three offensive touchdowns of 40 or more yards through their first 12 games. The last one came all the way back in Week 7 on Victor Cruz's game-winning 77-yard catch in the first Washington Redskins game.
One good way for New York to overcome their red zone woes is to score well before they enter it. The New Orleans Saints defense gives up a ton of big plays, 63 over 20-plus yards to be exact. If Big Blue can't score from 40 yards or longer this week then it may not happen again this season.
Remember how the one team that the New York Giants fans didn't want to see in the playoffs last year was the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome? The reason why was because New Orleans destroyed New York at home 49-24 in Week 12 of the regular season.
This game was arguably the most disappointing of the season for the Giants (right up there with the Washington Redskins debacle at home in Week 15). They allowed 577 yards of total offense, including 372 yards passing by Drew Brees and 205 yards rushing. The Saints even rubbed it in by allowing Mark Ingram to run the ball for a 35-yard touchdown with a little over a minute left in the fourth quarter instead of taking a knee.
The Giants have been quiet this week about seeking revenge for that loss. I have to believe that Big Blue will be extra motivated though to atone for last year's defeat, especially with the Saints struggling and coming into their house.
Honestly, because it is.
With the Washington Redskins almost assured of owning the tiebreaker due to a better division record (they are 3-1 in the NFC East while the New York Giants are 2-3), it will likely take 10 wins to either win the division or at the very least grab one of the two wild card spots.
If the Giants win this game getting to 10 wins seems very doable. Split the road games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Atlanta Falcons and then beat the hapless Philadelphia Eagles at home, which seems far past playing the role of spoiler, even to their favorite divisional punching bag.
If the Giants lose this game, however, they will probably have to run the table to get in. We all know the Giants like to play without a net but winning two road games against the 9-3 Ravens and the 11-1 Falcons seems like too much to ask even for this team.
Simply put, the Giants need to win this game to have a good chance of making the playoffs.