With just a week to go before the start of the season, it's time to bring out the crystal ball and take a look at what might happen in 2009.
Prediction No. 1—The Giants' offensive line will not be healthy all year.
Over the last five years, the one constant for the New York Giants has been the health of the offensive line. This consistency has produced consecutive 2,000+ yard total offense seasons for Tiki Barber and team rushing titles over the last two years.
The Giants have been both good and lucky to avoid a major injury to this unit. For a history lesson in how quickly an offensive line can go from good to bad, take a look at the Jaguars from last season.
Over the course of the pre-season the starters—David Diehl (29), Rich Seubert (30), Shaun O'Hara (32), Chris Snee (27) and Kareem McKenzie (30)—have had an assortment of minor injuries, limiting them in practice and in game situations. Given the age of the line, this may be the first chinks in the armor.
In 2009, I expect to see rookie offensive tackle William Beatty and center/guard Adam Koets to play significant time this season. How the back-ups play with extended time will be the deciding factor for the Giants playoff aspirations.
Prediction No. 2—Mario Manningham will lead the Giants in receiving yards
Manning to Manningham will be a phrase heard early and often this season. Operating mostly out of the slot, Manningham will finish the season with 70 receptions for 875 yards and a 12.5-yard average. His ability to run after the catch will be the difference, as he'll take several short passes to the house for scores.
Steve Smith (750 yards), Ahmad Bradshaw (600 yards) and Kevin Boss (570 yards) will finish behind Manningham in yardage. The Giants will stay true to their goal of spreading the ball, with six players accumulating more than 300 yards receiving. Hakeem Nicks will on strong late in the season and becomes a true deep threat.
Prediction No. 3—Dominik Hixon will lose his starting job
Dominik Hixon became a Giants receiver because of his special teams ability. In his two years on the team, Hixon has found the end zone seven times on kick and punt returns.
When pushed into a starting role, Hixon's effectiveness as a special teams weapon decreased.
This preseason, the Giants tried out a number of replacements. The returns have been poor: punt returns averaged an anemic 5.6 yards; kick returns averaged only 23 yards.
As the season progresses, Tom Coughlin and the coaching staff will recognize the need for a special teams spark. Quite simply, the Giants will be better with Hixon leading specials and Manningham, Nicks, or Barden stepping up to earn starter's minutes.
Prediction No. 4—The Giants will start the season no worse than 4-1
In the NFL, momentum is as critical to team success as any other factor. The Giants should be heavily favored in four of the their first five games. Elite teams use these opportunities to build confidence and send a message to the rest of the league.
A quick start will go a long way to quite the critics of Kevin Gilbride's playcalling and the perception of the Giants' new wide receiving corps.
Prediction No. 5—The defensive line will live up to the hype
The axiom that you can never have enough pass rushers will prove true yet again this season, as the Giants' defensive line will become the top unit in the league. The numbers will back it up, as the Giants will lead the league in sacks and finish near the top in interceptions.
Justin Tuck will line up all over the line to allow Mathias Kiwianuka, Clint Sintim, and Osi Umenyiora the freedom to rush the passer. He along with the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware and the Texans' Williams will be in the final discussion on defensive MVP.
Umenyiora, when paired with Tuck or Chris Canty on the right side of the line, is impossible to stop. A return to the Pro Bowl will be secured with a 16-sack season, along with two defensive scores.
The interior line will battle through injuries to start the season, but their depth is rewarded with a top eight run defense to end the season.
Prediction No. 6—The Giants will send seven players to the Pro Bowl
Defensive ends Tuck (all pro) and Umenyiora, cornerback Corey Webster, safety Kenny Phillips, guard Chris Snee (all pro), fullback Madison Hedgecock, and punter Jeff Feagles should all go to Miami for the Pro Bowl in February.
Prediction No. 7—The Giants will win the NFC East and earn a first round bye
The Eagles cannot overcome the losses on defense, and the Vick experiment will end in a full-blown quarterback controversy. They'll finish 8-8.
The Cowboys open a new palace and generate lots of excitement, but stumble again down the stretch, with an 0-3 stretch against the Giants, Chargers, and Saints that effectively ends their season. They'll finish 9-7.
The Redskins will start strong with a 5-2 record but the post-bye week schedule is too tough. They'll finish 8-8.
The Giants will finish with records of 4-2 against the NFC East, 4-2 against the rest of the NFC roster, and 3-1 against the AFC to end the season at 11-5. Their record against teams with winning records is a pedestrian 3-3.
This will be a down year for the NFC East, but the Giants remain a contender for the Super Bowl.