The New Orleans Saints have had an ugly year on the defensive side of the ball, and it's a big reason why the team fell into an 0-4 hole to start the 2012 season. But recent improvement by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's unit will key the Saints to an upset in Sunday's make-or-break road contest against the New York Giants.
Spagnuolo will get a crack at his former team for the first time as defensive coordinator, but his side should have the advantage in that context. The Giants have had a lot of continuity on offense, while Spagnuolo's personnel in New Orleans is far different than it was in New York.
Even New York head coach Tom Coughlin admitted that he's seen improvement in New Orleans under Spagnuolo's guidance, despite the horrific stats (h/t Newsday's Tom Rock):
The only thing I'll say about their defensive team is in their loss the other day to Atlanta, they held Atlanta to 283 yards. I understand all the discussions about their defense, their stats and all that stuff, but I'll tell you, they play hard. They have good, talented people. They have definitely improved and they are a physical outfit.
Had it not been for QB Drew Brees' astonishing five interceptions in Atlanta last week, the Saints would more than likely be sitting at 6-6 still very much in the thick of the playoff hunt. But now they are on the outside looking in, and will enter MetLife Stadium in a must-win situation.
It was ironic that Brees couldn't guide the Saints to victory in Week 13 after carrying them all season despite the defense's best performance. The fact that New Orleans stayed within striking distance with all the turnovers is a great sign, though.
In recent years, the Giants have been defined by how they perform when facing adversity. The worse they look, the better they typically play.
After Monday's loss at Washington, Coughlin's bunch holds just a one game lead in the NFC East. This situation would typically lend itself to a big bounce-back game. However, Manning and Co. have had difficulty scoring touchdowns in the red zone, doing so just under 49 percent of the time (h/t TeamRankings.com).
For such a talented offense with its plethora of playmakers, that number is discouragingly low. If the Giants don't improve in the scoring area soon, it will prove to be costly.
The Saints have the league's worst rushing defense, but that is the most volatile aspect of New York's team.
Last year, the Giants finished dead-last in rushing, yet still managed to win the Super Bowl. An improved ground game hasn't translated to scores in the red zone in 2012, though.
Beyond Ahmad Bradshaw, who has had injury difficulties of his own, the Giants don't have another truly dependable back. Meanwhile, the Saints have dynamic scatback Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and improving second-year RB Mark Ingram in the fold, not to mention the punishing, powerful Chris Ivory.
What will definitely prove costly on Sunday is the team's current health. Standout safety Kenny Phillips is doubtful with a knee injury, while explosive WR Hakeem Nicks is questionable with a knee injury. Both players are key cogs to the Giants' success.
Brees will have a much easier time picking apart the opposing secondary without the impact of Phillips, and Nicks' injury-plagued 2012 has been part of the reason the Giants offense has been so inconsistent.
The truth is, it's nearly impossible to figure out the Giants as a whole week to week. A home loss here to a perceptibly inferior team would set the stage for another line of doubters to dismiss the incredibly resilient G-Men, which is where they most thrive.
With New Orleans battling for its slim playoff hopes, expect the defense to rise to the occasion and shut down the shorthanded Giants, who will likely have Nicks in a limited capacity and not be able to compensate for the points Brees will put up.