Jan 012008
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New England Patriots 38 – New York Giants 35

by Damon Micalizzi for BigBlueInteractive.com

In Brief…

The Giants came awfully close to crashing the party on Saturday night. With about eleven minutes left in the game, the Giants were ahead of the Patriots 28-23. But following the only poor pass Eli Manning threw all game, the Patriots took the momentum of that interception and turned it into a victory. While you never want to lose a game, the Giants gained a lot more in this loss than they did in any win they had this season.  For the first time this season, fans got a glimpse of what this team might be capable of and the best part is they seemingly were firing on all cylinders against maybe the best football team anyone has seen in the last 20 years.

Sure the Giants would have loved to have knocked off the Patriots, but this was not a loss to hang your head afterwards.  The Giants gave the Pats all they could handle, and should they build on this performance, get key players like Madison, Mitchell, Dockery and Bradshaw back and with a little luck, this game might have been a prelude to a second meeting with New England in February.

Okay, that may be wishful thinking, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed because of the loss that the Giants played their most complete game of the year. A few injuries to key players may have cast a bit of a cloud over this game, but I believe the injuries suffered against New England were relatively minor and Madison, Mitchell and O’Hara should be ready to go in Tampa Bay.

Offensive Summary

It appears they finally got it.  I re-watched every throw by Manning in this game.  He was phenomenal.   Why the turnaround from the QB play we’ve seen in recent weeks?  For one, on most plays, Manning got rid of the ball within three seconds of dropping back to pass.  They used a lot more play action and even though the running game didn’t exactly flourish against New England’s stout defensive front, they ran more times on first down (at least early in this game) to keep the Pats honest, making play action all the more effective.

Manning would drop back, go through his progressions and fire more often than not, right on the money.  He spread the ball around with six different receivers catching at least two passes and threw four touchdown passes to three different Giants’ receivers. He was picked off once, slightly overthrowing Burress, who almost got his hand on the pass.

If you don’t think Manning wanted this game, all you needed to see was his eleven-yard scramble of which he dove for the first down instead of going the slide route.  When he did hold on to the ball, he bought time with his feet by moving in and out of the pocket and making several spectacular passes on the run. Yes, he fumbled a snap.  That wouldn’t be as glaring had he not had issues with the snap in recent weeks. But when it was all said and done, Manning had a very good game, stepping up in the pocket and answering the bell of a big game under the lights.   If you get another performance like this from Manning in Tampa, the Giants probably win handily.

One of the high points of this game was Brandon Jacobs running right over Rodney Harrison.  Two plays later, Harrison dove at Jacobs’ legs and the 260 pound battering ram of a runner nimbly leapt over Harrison like a gazelle. Jacobs gained 67 yards on 15 carries, and while he didn’t really run wild at all, he did do a good job of running on first and second down to keep that play action pass effective.  New England’s front seven would swarm to Jacobs and while he averaged more than four yards a carry, that stat is bolstered by a couple of long runs.  Nevertheless, New England’s plan was to stuff the run and make Manning beat them, and Jacobs was effective enough to keep the Pats’ attention while Manning had maybe his best game of the year.

I really think the Giants really missed Ahmad Bradshaw in this one. Jacobs was most effective running off-tackle and to the outside.  Bradshaw’s elusiveness, speed and cutback ability would have probably made for headaches for New England’s older linebackers.  Let’s cross our fingers and say on the bright side, New England now has less video tape of Bradshaw to study later… Okay I’ll stop putting the carriage before the horse.

Jacobs also caught five passes, and continues to be a great run after the catch guy.  However, the one pass that he dropped could have been a big gain on a drive that eventually ended up with a punt and probably left some points off the board.

He’s not Maurice Carthon, but Madison Hedgecock has been very good as a lead blocker.  New England’s front seven are some of the best in the league when it comes to shedding blocks and getting around and through blockers, but Hedgecock stood them up with great success more times than not.

Plaxico Burress put a very impressive cap on an absolutely amazing season with two TD grabs and 84 yards through the air. He almost had another TD, but was interfered with on the catch.  Needless to say, the flag wasn’t thrown either.  He looked quicker and more agile on that ankle than he has since very early in the year, with the exception of the pass that was picked.  I think a 100 percent healthy Plax gets a hand on that one and maybe brings it in.  Whatever the case may be, if the Giants and Manning are going to make any noise in the playoffs this year they’ll need Burress to be able to make plays for Manning. He gave Giants’ fans every reason to believe that he can still do it, bad ankles and all.

Another dropped pass for Amani Toomer. Much like Jacobs’ drop, that drop might have had a big impact on this game as well. He still got open and twice did so against one of the best corners in the league in Asante Samuel.  Toomer ended up with four grabs for 41 yards.  He’ll have to figure out how to rid himself of the dropsies though for the playoffs.  Simply put, that stuff cannot happen in January.

Steve Smith seems to be finding his way back into a rhythm and that could be huge if Sinorice Moss isn’t able to go next week.  Smith runs good routes, and doesn’t look like a rookie.  Manning has a lot of faith in him as well.  He should have come down with that pass on the Giants first drive that the Giants challenged.  Now that he’s been knocked around for a few weeks and gotten back into the swing of things, I think he’ll start holding onto the ball better.  The guy had great hands at USC.

If Moss can’t go, David Tyree is solid as an underneath possession guy.  He caught two passes for just three yards, but he’s rather sure handed, and doesn’t go down easily after the catch.

Kevin Boss is going to be a player in this league.  The guy has a knack for getting open and he’s a huge target.  On the TD catch in the first quarter, he not only showed great awareness by sneaking behind the defender to a spot where only he could catch the ball. He’s also got very soft hands.  Boss dropped a few passes in the pre-season.  It appears that he has gotten over that and the hands displayed in college are very much for real.  He’s caught almost everything thrown his way this year.  He’s bulked up a lot since August as well, and although he’s not an over-powering blocker, he does display good technique and seems to block with a lot of heart.

Boss had four catches, one of them going for 23 yards.  He runs the seam route like a veteran. Let’s just hope they don’t start having him running those option routes that Shockey has been running the past three years any time soon.

It was the best showing in quite a while for the offensive line, and it couldn’t come at a better time as the Giants get ready to go into the playoffs.  Manning was only sacked once, by Adalius Thomas, one of the better pass rushers in the league. For the most part, he had plenty of time, and other than Thomas’ sack, he wasn’t touched while in the pocket other than a hit coming from a blitzing Rodney Harrison that might have been a tad late…  No flag.

No, the running game wasn’t dominant.  Who in their right mind expected it to be against the hogs up front on the Pats’ D-Line and with Seau, Vrabel, and Bruschi selling out on every run, and play action fake to Jacobs.

O’Hara will probably be back for the playoffs, but to tell you the truth, in recent weeks, I have been very concerned with his play anyway, and Grey Ruegamer played well in his absence.  I’m not sure if the fumbled snap was on Manning or Ruegamer, but Manning has had some trouble on the exchange as of late.  If O’Hara can’t go, Ruegamer is not as athletic, or as quick, but he’s got a mean streak and is much more of a mauler than O’Hara.

Defensive Summary

They gave up 38 points.  They really played well.  I know that really doesn’t make sense, but I am in awe of how good this Patriots offense is.  Tom Brady is amazing.  He was only sacked once, although a ticky tack flag for illegal contact wiped out another sack, but he was hit at least a dozen times.  His ability to feel the rush and still get the ball away with precision is just unreal.  Any other QB short of Peyton Manning is in big trouble Saturday night.

How good was Brady?  He put up 38 points pretty much with no running game at all. The Giants front seven was absolutely dominant against the run allowing just 1.7 yards per carry on 26 rushes.  Michael Strahan got to Brady to ring his bell a couple of times on the day, but was a monster against the run, pushing two and three blockers back and still sliding down the line to stop Lawrence Maroney five times, two of them for a loss.  Fred Robbins had three tackles and lost his sack because of the aforementioned flag.  Barry Cofield has developed a knack for being engaged with a blocker and still being able to free a hand to make the play.  He also had three tackles.  Justin Tuck is an absolute stud.  It’s obvious that he’s a match-up problem coming after the QB from the interior on passing downs, but he’s also able to play the run from that position extremely well too.  Tuck had five tackles and hit Brady a tenth of a second after Brady zipped a pass down-field for a big gain and a first down.  Even Dave Tollefson looked pretty quick while spelling Strahan and Osi late in the game.  Osi Umenyiora got to Brady two times as well both times he was just a second late as Brady made the play.  It’s safe to say that Brady saw more heat and took more punishment in this game than he has in years.  Brady was just too damn good.

He’s been the Giants best and most consistent linebacker and biggest playmaker on the defense pretty much since week three.  I’m pretty sure Coach Coughlin pulled the plug on Kawika Mitchell to err on the side of caution and if it was a game that mattered, Mitchell would have probably been back in there.  Losing Mitchell though gave us our first extended look at Gerris Wilkinson and he didn’t disappoint.  Wilkinson is fast.  Not like linebacker fast. Like safety fast.  Wilkinson had seven tackles, shooting through the gaps and getting to the runner in the backfield two times.  He was very good in coverage as well. He did get the PI call on Moss in the endzone, but what linebacker in this league can stay with Moss on a fly pattern?  Twice, Wilkinson broke up passes to Moss in the endzone (with the one penalty) and if he learns to trust his speed and turn around to play the ball he’ll be a heck of a versatile cover man.

Antonio Pierce was very much the field general making sure Wilkinson was in the right place and several times changed the play on defense with what appeared to be some success.  The thing was, on every set of downs it seemed like the Giants would make two very good defensive plays only to have Brady somehow make a great throw just before getting smacked to keep the drive going.  Pierce also had seven tackles and for the second week in a row, he looks to be regaining some of his speed.

Reggie Torbor also has a lot of speed.  He had seven tackles, two of them in the open field where he saved a first down.  He had the one sack on Brady and knocked him down three other times.  Maybe linebacker isn’t the priority it was for this team come March and April?

You can’t help but wonder if Sam Madison doesn’t go down with an injury, if the outcome of this game would have been different.  Madison hadn’t even had his shoe untied when Moss was celebrating his record breaking TD catch.  That was a heart breaker as the Patriots took the lead and rewrote the record books on several accounts with that one play.

Aaron Ross really had a good game.  He got beat by Moss once for a TD, and had it been any other receiver he might have gotten a flag for offensive pass interference.  Another receiver probably doesn’t make that catch either.  Ross is a good tackler and ended up with six stops on the day, all of them of the solo variety.  He came in on a blitz and when Brady took the check down, Ross dove to try to get a hand on the ball screening the receiver and probably causing the drop.  He looks like he’s back to his pre-injury form.

Corey Webster did seem to get abused the most as Wes Welker was really unstoppable. Brady would buy time, elude the rush, and find Welker with a desperate pass, most of the time with Webster nipping at his heels.  Welker is a match-up problem for every defensive back he lines up against, but I’d really like to see Madison, Ross and Dockery healthy for the playoffs.

It’s never a good sign when your starting safeties lead the team in tackles, and Brady’s 356 yards through the air often ended with a James Butler or Gibril Wilson tackle.  They had eight a piece.  Though Wilson made a few plays coming up to take down Maroney.  Butler wasn’t bad although he did get beat a few times, I’d still prefer to see Michael Johnson back there instead.

Special Teams

Domenik Hixon’s kickoff return for a TD was huge.  Not only did it give the Giants the lead back, but it provides the Giants with another threat in the return game should they not want to put Bradshaw back there when he returns from injury.

Lawrence Tynes never attempted a field goal. His kickoffs were pretty good.  Jeff Feagles didn’t have his best day but he did a fine job of putting the ball in a place where the coverage unit could get to the returner and coverage on kickoffs and punts was exceptional.

To Sum It Up…

Hey what can you say?  The Giants were minus key players and went toe to toe with a team that I think anyone who watched this game has even more respect for than they did before hand.  There were a handful of what ifs, but one thing is for sure, the Giants could have won this game.  But we’ve learned some very valuable things.  For one, Eli Manning is capable of playing great, and the scheme I’ve been complaining about all year appears to be flushed, at least for now.  Secondly, we know that there is an abundance of talent amongst the younger guys on this team.  Wilkinson was a pleasant surprise, Torbor has been steady, Ross is playing at a level much higher than a rookie and Jay Alford has flashed on a few plays.

In addition a lot of the guys who have been hurt throughout the year like, Plax, Pierce, Ross, Smith and Wilson seem to be healthier than they’ve been and ready to go for the playoffs.  If some of the other guys who are nicked up like Moss, Dockery, Mitchell and Madison are able to return next week, you’ve got to like the Giants chances to advance in the playoffs this year.  In the end it will all boil down to the play of Manning.  This is the best he’s looked in week 17 since he’s been a Giant.  Please Coach Coughlin – let’s not screw this up by reintroducing the option routes and multi reads this week in Tampa.

(Box Score – New England Patriots at New York Giants, December 29, 2007)
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