As the battle for home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs looms Sunday, the buzz around New York these days is whether or not Eli Manning and the Super Bowl champs' once prolific passing game can right itself in time for this critical game.
Don't expect Eli and the Giants to hit the panic button even after relatively pathetic offensive performances against NFC East foes Philadelphia and Dallas in which the Giants passing game was almost non existent.
The Giants have been lacking in the area of execution ever since the bizarre nightclub accident three weeks ago involving Plaxico Burress and the resulting media storm surrounding the team. I think it’s safe to say after watching this offense the past two weeks that the timing of the Burress dismissal came as a bit of a shock and at a bad time in the season.
It’s no coincidence the passing game has suffered with the absence of Burress and his 6'5" 232 pound frame and physical style of play. Without him in the lineup the past two weeks, the Eagles and Cowboys were able to stack the line of scrimmage with eight and sometimes nine in the box, and dare Manning to beat them without his big physical target there to attract attention away from the likes of Steve Smith, Amani Toomer, Domenik Hixon, and Kevin Boss.
Combine that with the ineffectiveness of the running game and ultimate loss of Brandon Jacobs for the Dallas game last week, and the Giants have been on their heels trying to sustain drives while facing constant blitzes.
What has hurt the passing game most I believe is inexplicable breakdowns of the usually top notch offensive line (namely the injury to Kareem McKenzie in Dallas and Kevin Boothe's poor performance at right tackle). Derrick Ward was unable to establish much, and without solid line play, Eli hasn't had much of a chance to find his other targets before getting engulfed.
There's no time to dwell. The Giants can take comfort knowing they are at home to put the last two games behind them and overcome the loss of Burress.
The Panthers present a formidable challenge, coming off two huge wins over Tampa and Denver to run their record to 11-3, and with a defense as hungry and fast as any in the NFC, the Giants will have a tough time controlling the line of scrimmage if the offensive line play does not improve.
Carolina is playing excellent football right now, and it all starts with their pass rush featuring Julius Peppers. Left tackle David Diehl cannot afford a repeat performance of Dallas and DeMarcus Ware against Peppers, and if McKenzie cannot play because of a bad back, Tyler Brayton, and Na'il Diggs could be coming more frequently on the right side to harass Manning.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason is a ball-hawking tackle machine (160 tackles as a rookie in 2007 - a club record), and their secondary is solid. Corners Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas are decent coverage guys, and without Burress, more attention will go to Toomer and Hixon with Steve Smith getting an opportunity to once again step up and contribute in the slot.
Rookie safety Charles Godfrey may be a weak link, but expect strong safety Chris Harris to be up near the line if the passing game is not working. He presents a challenge of knowing where the ball is at all times (eight forced fumbles in 2007).
For the Giants to have success throwing the football this Sunday night, they will undoubtedly need better play from the offensive line in first establishing the run with Jacobs or Ward. If the Giants can get something going on the ground, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride should be able to attack Carolina down the middle and deep with play action and rolling Eli away from Peppers and to the right side.
Jacobs and the health of his knee will be key to the Giants' success passing the ball. If he can be effective, the Panthers will be tired and vulnerable in the second half to the big play.
If the offensive line is not performing, Coughlin and Gilbride could be forced to bring in Michael Matthews and Madison Hedgecock more often in passing downs for support and short quick passes with three step drops to ease the Panthers rush.
I believe Eli can have a good game if he is given time, which he has not had the luxury of having over the last two weeks. Smith, Toomer, and Hixon need to step up and make plays, plain and simple. Kevin Boss needs to block better and hold on to the football, he can play much better as well. Untimely drops and missed assignments from the receivers have also hurt the passing game, and they are easily correctable.
Everyone on the offense needs to step up. These guys know it’s up to them to win this game, get home field advantage, and ultimately defend their crown, because Plaxico is long gone.
Its simple, it all comes down to execution and playing hard with a purpose, and the Giants know what’s at stake.
The loss of Plaxico Burress hurts, and it did come at a difficult time in December when injuries start to mount and media distractions are the last thing the team needs. The Giants have had more than enough of both the last three years, but last year proved that this team is resilient and two bad performances shouldn't change who they are if they execute the game plan and play like the champions they are.
We will find out who this team really is Sunday, and if the guys up front can protect and block effectively, the Giants should be able to control the clock, make some big plays through the air, and sustain drives while pulling out a tough win to clinch the top spot in the NFC.