You couldn’t ask for a better set up for this regular season showdown.
Two of the NFL’s best teams, one from each conference, each with identical 5-1 records, face each other for the first time since Week 15 of the 2004 season when both of their respective quarterbacks were starting against each other in their rookie season. In that last meeting, Big Ben Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh Steelers to an exciting 33-30 victory in the Meadowlands over the Eli Manning-led New York Giants.
It was Pittsburgh’s 12th straight victory in a regular season that they would finish with a 15-1 record. For the Giants, it was their seventh straight loss in a disappointing campaign in which they started out by winning five of their first seven games and finished by losing eight of their last nine to finish third in the NFC East with a record of 6-10.
This time around, things are going to be a little bit different.
Sure, Bill Cowher has been replaced by Mike Tomlin as the Steelers’ head coach, both teams have won the Super Bowl since their last meeting, and Plaxico Burress is on the opposite team, though he won’t be sidelined by a hamstring injury this time and will actually play in this game. But there is one big difference this time around.
The New York Giants are going to win this football game.
Reason 1: Manning Motivation Factor
Both of these team’s starting quarterbacks should be equally motivated to win this game for different reasons.
Ben Roethlisberger was the last of the “Big Three” quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft when he was picked No. 11 overall by the Steelers, yet he was the first one of those three to win a Super Bowl and he did it in only his second season in 2005.
He already has a win over the No. 1 pick in that draft, Eli Manning, but you have to believe Big Ben wants to beat him once again considering Eli is the defending Super Bowl MVP.
For Eli Manning, there might be slightly more motivation.
There is the motivation for him to go into Pittsburgh and beat the first one of the “Big Three” quarterbacks to have won a Super Bowl. There is the motivation for him to prove that he’s on the same level as Big Ben, who is considered one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks while many people still have their doubts about Eli.
A dominating performance on Sunday coupled with a win could erase a lot of the doubts that people have about Eli and his ability to perform against the best the NFL has to offer.
Eli grew up a lot last season in leading the Giants to a Super Bowl win by defying the odds every week in the playoffs. Big Ben did the exact same thing two seasons earlier when he led the sixth-seeded Steelers to the Super Bowl championship, knocking off the top three seeded teams in the AFC and the NFC’s number one seed in the process.
So as far as which quarterback will be more motivated to win on Sunday, I would call this a push. And I realize that there is more to winning football games than simply being motivated to win, but both of these players have proved that they have the talent to pull off a win in such an important early season contest. However, there are other reasons why the Giants will come out on the winning end of this game.
Reason 2: Burress Is Back in the ‘Burgh
For the first time since the 2004 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots, where he caught just three passes for 37 yards and a garbage time touchdown, Plaxico Burress returns to the city where he started his NFL career to play against the team that picked him eighth overall in the 2000 NFL Draft.
That should be motivation enough for Burress to want to play well and win this Sunday, but there’s more to it than just that. There is no question that “Laxico” is going to want to prove wrong all of the people who say he is a distraction and a detriment to the organization.
He can go a long way towards achieving that goal by showing up on Sunday and having the kind of performance worthy of a first-round pick in a game as important as this one.
Once again, there’s more to winning games than just being motivated, but any fans of either one of these teams know that Burress has the ability to make great things happen when he laces up the cleats.
Reason 3: The Giant’s Run Defense
Now I know that the Steelers have the second best rush defense allowing only 69.7 rush yards per game while the Giants, allowing only 84.5 rush yards per game, have the fifth ranked rush defense. But here’s a stat that you probably cannot find on the Internet, but that I can back up being a fan of the Giants for as long as I have been. There is one thing that this club has done better than just about any team in the NFL recently.
They have the uncanny ability to shut down a running back one game after they put up a big stat line.
Are you looking for proof? Look at last year’s NFC Championship game where they held Green Bay’s Ryan Grant to 29 rush yards on 13 carries after he went off on Seattle the week before for a franchise playoff record 201 rush yards on 27 carries (both games were in Green Bay by the way).
Seattle’s Julius Jones had 61 yards on 17 carries (less than four yards a carry) against the Giants in Week Five after rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against division rival St. Louis in Week Three (Week Four was Seattle’s bye week).
Let me throw one more in there just to avoid the arguments I will most likely get about the Giants being familiar with both players since Grant was on the Giants’ practice squad to start last season and they played against Julius Jones twice a year while he was with Dallas.
San Francisco’s Frank Gore had 19 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown (over five yards a carry) against the Eagles in Week Six. The next week against the Giants, he had 11 carries for 11 yards; a whopping one yard per carry!
Sure, Gore had 50 yards receiving on three catches, but the point that I’m making is that the Giants made San Francisco one dimensional. Brandon Jacobs had more carries, rush yards, and touchdowns in that game (17 carries for 69 yards and two touchdowns) than all of the San Francisco’s runners had combined (16 carries for 35 yards and zero touchdowns).
If Willie Parker can’t go this Sunday, Pittsburgh will need to start Mewelde Moore who, last week, logged 120 rush yards and two rush touchdowns on 20 carries against the Bengals for a whopping six yards per carry!
If recent history is any indication, the Steelers better hope that Willie Parker can go this Sunday though he more than likely won’t be in football shape and will be playing at less than 100 percent. Either way it doesn’t bode well for the Steelers' running game against the Giants’ defense.
I know that Moore and Jones put up their numbers against less than stellar defensive units, but those were both division games which are always unpredictable.
Reason 4: Underdogs n the Road Again
Going into their Monday night match up with Cleveland in Week Five, the Giants had won 12 straight games as the away team dating back to last season (Remember, even though the Super Bowl was at a neutral site, the Giants were the designated “road” team). Not only will the G-men be looking to resume their road winning ways, but they are heading into Sunday’s showdown in the Steel City as underdogs for the first time since the Super Bowl.
Remember how well the Giants performed last year in the playoffs as the underdog? Remember how once Dallas was eliminated by the G-men in the playoffs last season, people already started to christen them as 2008 champions of the NFC East and the NFC’s likely Super Bowl representative? This is a role that the Giants thrive in and one that they will thrive in again this Sunday.
Reason 5: The NFL’s Newest Shutdown Cornerback
A funny thing happened on the way to the Super Bowl. Corey Webster, who was benched early in the 2007 season for his poor play, became a shutdown corner. That tends to happen when you’re forced to cover Joey Galloway, Terrell Owens, Donald Driver, and Randy Moss twice in a five-game stretch to end the season.
This season, though he has no interceptions to show for it, Webster’s play has been nothing short of spectacular as he has been making plays all over the field.
Look at the stats that each team’s number one wide receiver per rotowire.com has put up against the Giants this season:
•Isaac Bruce—three catches for 47 yards
•Braylon Edwards—five catches for 154 yards and a touchdown (though the touchdown and 70 of his yards came while Aaron Ross was guarding him)
•Bobby Engram—eight catches for 61 yards
•Chad Johnson—three catches for 29 yards
•Torry Holt—six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown (though the touchdown, a 45-yard catch, should not have counted because I feel Holt lost possession of the ball as he hit the ground. Plus, that play was against zone coverage and Kenny Phillips was the one who was with Holt in the end zone)
•Santana Moss—five catches for 37 yards and a touchdown (the only touchdown I saw Webster give up all season though he made some sick plays on the ball throughout that game, including a touchdown saving, sprawling deflection in the end zone in the fourth quarter)
Although Webster obviously doesn’t guard each team’s top receiver on every play, he does get his share of plays against them as New York’s top cornerback on the depth chart. And, for the most part, he’s done an awesome job of keeping each of his opponent's number one receivers in check.
This week, Webster gets a very good one-on-one match up with Hines Ward which I will be keeping a keen eye on as this battle is the one that intrigues me the most about this contest. This is a battle that I think favors the New York Giants because of how Webster has stepped up his game in the past calendar year.
In conclusion, I would just like to say that I’ve never been one to use statistical guidelines as reasons that teams will win games because of the unpredictability of the NFL.
In the words of Ron Jaworski: “It’s not who you play, but when you play them.” In any given week, the NFL’s best rush defense can give up eight rushing touchdowns (see Atlanta vs. Kansas City circa Week Seven of 2004) and an NFL doormat can take out a contender (see a list of games too numerous to mention in 2008 alone).
Both the Giants and Steelers have the talent to win this football game. But after this Sunday, the Steelers are going to wish that they were playing the Giants on a different date.