For how wonderfully this post Super Bowl season started for the New York Giants, it is now in danger of being in serious jeopardy. It was only a couple of weeks ago that they were 11-1, the class of the league, but it seems much longer than that. A loss to Carolina this weekend could mean that they would have to go into Minnesota to just earn a bye, whereas two weeks ago the No. 1 seed in the NFC seemed like a foregone conclusion.
It seems that a lot of people don't care about Plaxico Burress. Giants fans wrote him off after his gunshot incident, saying that Big Blue was better off without his services. Comparisons were drawn to Jeremy Shockey last season—a darn good player but a cancer whose absence, despite being immensely talented, may actually be better for the team. A 23-7 handling of Washington right after minus Burress seemed to reaffirm this belief.
Not so fast. In the two games since against Philadelphia and Dallas, the offense has seemed nonexistent. They didn't show up against the Eagles, and could never get anything going against the Cowboys.
To say the Giants don't miss Burress is crazy talk. Nevermind his great talent and physical prowess; more importantly, he draws opposing defenses towards him with constant double-teams, freeing up the field for his other teammates to make plays. Without him, the defense no longer has to commit heavily to one man, making it much more effective and thus, tougher on the Giants. And what about the mental aspect? Sure, Burress was hurt and often ineffective before his gunshot injury.
But would opponents really doubt him? This was the same guy that never practiced last year because of his ailing ankle and still had a 1,000-yard season, torched Pro Bowler Al Harris in the NFC Championship Game, and caught a Super Bowl winning touchdown. But now, teams know he's gone and not coming back.
Who will earn the #1 seed in the NFC?
Another huge factor is the health of Brandon Jacobs. Getting him back at full strength is absolutely critical, because without him setting the tone of the running game, in addition to the lack of a playmaker at wide receiver, the Giants will go nowhere. Look at what happened in Dallas. The Cowboys knew that New York would be unable to establish the run game, and pressured Eli Manning all night, creating eight sacks and two interceptions in the process.
What will determine whether or not the Giants are successful in their quest for a second consecutive championship is their success in running the ball, but also the play of Manning. True, the loss of Burress will be tough to overcome, but the Giants run the ball better than anyone, taking the pressure of having to make a lot of big plays off Manning.
It's when the running game fails that it all falls on Eli, as we saw last week. The Giants are bound to face teams that stop the run, in which case Manning will have to step it up. His numbers have been better this year—completion percentage and passer rating up and interceptions down. But that's with a highly effective running game supporting him.
Manning does not need to be the team's savior like his brother Peyton is for Indianapolis. But he does need to avoid mistakes just like he did in the playoffs last year. The highest any Giant rushed for in the playoffs last year was a pedestrian 67—and they won a Super Bowl.
But that was with Plaxico Burress. If their running game gets stopped, mistakes may become unavoidable. They won't necessarily be Manning's fault—but what defense will be scared of Dominik Hixon and Steve Smith?
Carolina has a respectable defense, but nothing the Giants can't handle. New York should be able to run the ball well with Jacobs' return, and the Panthers' run defense is only 10th in the conference. Look for a lot of second-and-five situations where Manning can hit his men on short routes.
Don't anticipate the deep ball often—it won't be necessary as long as Jacobs and Derrick Ward pile up the yardage. Manning shouldn't throw more than 25 times, but his completion percentage should be high. He won't throw for a ton of yardage, maybe 200, but should find the end zone twice. As long as he doesn't make more than one big mistake, the Giants will win. I like the Giants' Steve Smith a lot—look for contributions from him.
Eli Manning has the ability to come up big when his team needs it most—we all witnessed it last year. But sometimes it takes more than one man. Will the likes of Hixon, Smith, Kevin Boss, and Sinorice Moss rise to the occasion? They better if the Giants want to go to Tampa. The road there begins tonight in New Jersey.