Feb 242009
Philadelphia Eagles 23  – New York Giants 11

By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com

Game Overview: The Giants shut down Brian Westbrook.  New York had more total yards (307 to 276) and rushing yards (138 to 59).  The Giants had fewer penalties (6 to 8).  Time of possession was virtually identical.  Both quarterbacks threw two interceptions.  But the Giants were 0-and-3 in red zone opportunities, couldn’t run during crucial stretches, missed two field goals, and handed the Eagles a touchdown due to a bad decision by Eli Manning.

For the Giants and their fans, the 2008 post-season was a brutal reminder just how precious the Championship and the 2007 post-season were.  In football, nothing is given.  It is earned.  Every playoff game is a season in itself and if you do not out-play your opponent on that given day, you go home.  It hurts, but that is the reality of post-season football.  #1 seeds fall all the time in the playoffs.  It’s not a rare event.

The 2008 season will be a bittersweet one for the New York Giants.  For most of the season, the Giants were clearly the dominant team in the NFC and arguably the most well-rounded one in the NFL.  The Giants accrued 12 wins, an NFC East title, and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

So why weren’t the Giants playing their best football at season’s end?  We can only speculate.  Sometimes it just happens in sports.  Some teams simply peak too early.  The loss of Plaxico Burress – one of the team’s best players – not only hurt on the field, but was a distraction.  Injuries and fatigue began to mount on the defensive line – the strength of the defense.  And Eli Manning picked a bad spot to play perhaps his worst game of the season.

It’s not so much that the Giants lost to the Eagles that hurt, but that they lost period.  The Championship Door is wide open for the Giants right now.  The Giants have moved beyond division rivalries.  It’s a time to collect trophies.  The Giants had put themselves in excellent position to win their eighth NFL title and they blew it.  Those opportunities don’t come around all that often.  Just ask the Eagles.  Philadelphia last won an NFL Championship half a century ago.

Quarterback: Before launching into my criticism of Manning, fans need to gain some perspective here.  The Eli bashers have come out of the woodwork, using this game as proof-positive that Manning is a liability, not an asset.  These people conveniently ignore that it was Manning who carried the offense during the Giants’ unbelievable 4-0 playoff run in 2007.  The Giants not only were road underdogs in all four of those games, but the team trailed in each of those contests.  AND the Giants’ running game sputtered in all four of those playoff games.  These “fans” also ignore the fact that Manning legitimately earned his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2008 by playing his best, most consistent football of his still young career.

What happened against Philadelphia?  The unsatisfying answer is that Eli had a bad day.  It wasn’t just the wind.  Eli made some poor decisions and some poor throws.  Was he hurt by the absence of Eagle-killer Plaxico Burress?  Certainly.  Was he hurt by some of the play calling?  In my opinion, yes at times, but not as much as some of his advocates contend.  Though I usually despise over-simplifying a game, the difference in this contest was that Donovan McNabb made more plays and fewer bad throws than Manning did.

Manning’s stats (15-of-29 for 169 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) were dreadful.  But I still wonder if all of the incompletions were really on Eli.  For example, Eli’s first throw looked to be a very errant deep pass to Steve Smith, who was wide open between the corner and the safety.  I wonder if it was Smith who made the mistake on the play.  Eli threw to the wide open spot in the defense.  Had Eli thrown to where Smith was running, the pass (and receiver) would have been in the area where the safety was closing.  Did Eli expect Smith to adjust his route?  Or was it simply a bad throw?  I’m not sure.

I think the most damaging play of the game – by far – was the colossal mistake Eli made on the first play of the Giants’ second possession.  The Giants were up 3-0 and the defense impressively shut down the Eagles on their first possession.  Momentum was on the Giants’ side.  Coughlin and Gilbride called a relatively safe pass play – a play-action rollout to the right, a short pass play intended for Kevin Boss.  However, the Eagles were not fooled and the defender stayed with Boss.  Manning had two Eagles immediately in his face and instead of throwing the ball away, he took a big risk by throwing the ball up for grabs in the direction of inexperienced Domenik Hixon.  The ensuing interception was returned to the Giants’ 2-yard line and set up an easy touchdown.  The Eagles did NOTHING on offense at all in the first quarter of the game, but still led 7-3.  Worse, the turnover and ensuing lead boosted Philly’s confidence and provided them with hope.  The throw by Manning was the kind of mistake that he pretty much eliminated in 2008.  Unfortunately, he picked a terrible time to make one of his worst plays of the season.  It’s the kind of play that loses ball games.

On the ensuing possession, the Giants committed to running the football, but were stonewalled.  Manning did convert a 3rd-and-8 with a nice pass to Smith for the first down.  But his 3rd-and-9 pass three plays later was a terribly wobbly effort that sailed out of bounds in the direction of an open Amani Toomer (I think the pass rush affected Manning’s throw more on this play than the wind, but too many of Eli’s passes were very wobbly).  When the Giants got the ball back for the fourth time, two runs again picked up very little yardage.  On 3rd-and-7, Manning impressively scrambled away from pressure and threw a nice deep ball to Smith and just missed him.  Really, this game was a series of “almosts” for the Giants – but that can be said of almost any game too.

In the second quarter, with the wind at his back, a 21-yard throw from Manning to Kevin Boss gave the Giants a first-down at the Eagles’ 28-yard line.  After Jacobs was stuffed for no gain, Manning just missed hitting Hixon deep – the pass was a tad too long.  His 3rd-and-10 pass to Boss was very much off the mark.  Carney missed the ensuing 46-yard field goal effort.

On the Giants’ next drive in the second quarter, the running game finally came to life.  Jacobs broke off a 24-yard run.  Ward followed this up with a 5-yard effort.  Manning hit Boss for 25 yards off of play-action.  With two minutes left in the half, the Giants are moving!  Finally!  But here is where the play-calling combined with Manning’s poor play sabotaged the Giants.  Facing a 1st-and-5 from the Eagles’ 21-yard line, with the ground attack finally coming to life, and Eli demonstrating that he is not at the top of his game, Coughlin/Gilbride decide on three straight pass plays OUT OF THE SHOTGUN.  It’s the latter point that bothered me the most.  Granted the Giants have had success all season long with running plays to Derrick Ward out of the shotgun.  But I just don’t like this formation in this type of down-and-distance situation.  The shotgun is usually a pass play.  The drive predictably stalled when Eli was terribly off the mark on his first two throws and the third resulted in a 4-yard dump-off to Ward.

As pissed as I was about use of the play-calling/use of the shotgun in at the end of the second quarter, I turned livid about it at the start of the third quarter.  Fred Robbins had just intercepted McNabb.  Jacobs followed this up with runs of 11 and 5 yards.  The Eagles are back on their heels.  The ground game is going.  The crowd is into it.  2nd-and-5 from the Eagles’ 17-yard line.  What do Coughlin/Gilbride call?  A 5-wide, empty-backfield, shotgun set!!!  What the f#@*?!!  Pass dropped by Ward – incomplete.  3rd-and-5.  Pass thrown behind Boss – incomplete.  36-yard field goal and the Giants’ last points of the day.  I think Coughlin and Gilbride did a wonderful job of play-calling most of the season, a season where the Giants’ offense excelled.  But even going back to the time when John Hufnagel was the offensive coordinator, I feel the Giants have overused the shotgun.  And I don’t think Coughlin has ever gotten a good feel for playing the wind at the Meadowlands.  Parcells knew the wind would affect his game plans and adjusted accordingly.  One almost gets the sense that Coughlin thinks the wind is something that can be overcome with strong willpower.  Beyond all of that – 2nd and 5, empty backfield???  You are telling the team that you are finally running the ball against that a pass play is coming.  Why would you do that?  If you want to pass, fine, but don’t advertize the pass to the opposing defense in this situation.  You take away the guesswork.  Strange!  No, make that stupid.

Final Giants’ possession in third quarter and the final moments the Giants will have the wind at their back in this game:  Eagles ahead 13-11.  On 3rd-and-5, Manning throws one of his prettiest passes of the season – an absolutely perfectly thrown 34-yard deep strike to Hixon giving the Giants a 1st-and-10 at the Eagles’ 30-yard line.  Manning throws high to Hixon – incomplete.  Jacobs stuffed.  On 3rd-and-9, Manning tries to dump the ball off short to Ward, but Ward is stripped of the football before he can secure it.  47-yard field goal attempt no good.  God damn it!!!

The exclamation points on an overall crappy day for Manning were his piss-poor effort on the failed 4-and-inches quarterback sneak (he should have been lower) and his poorly thrown pass intended for Steve Smith that was intercepted late in the game.  One final note on Manning:  Manning has enough experience now for him to be having so many problems with managing the play clock.  Eli continues to waste timeouts with his lack of attention in this crucial phase of the game.

Wide Receivers: The games between the Giants and Eagles have always been very, very tight.  And in recent years, the difference in games the Giants have won has often been Plaxico Burress.  He’s proven to be an Eagle-killer.  And Burress was sorely missed in this game.  The Eagles play tight, aggressive man coverage.  Burress is the only receiver the Giants have who can consistently make the opponent pay for playing that style of defense.  The Eagles very much appreciated his absence.

“Well when he isn’t there, there is a huge part of their offense taken away,” said Eagles’ safety Brian Dawkins. “The ability of him and Eli to be on the same page, sometimes playing playground ball on the weak side, if he has a one-on-one over there, they feel he is going to win that battle nine times out of ten. As a defense you don’t have to be as concerned about roaming from one guy to another because you can’t play Plaxico one on one without expecting him to have a huge game.”

“We probably played a lot more roll-up coverage to his side, no question about it,” said Eagles’ Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson after the Eagles beat the Giants in the regular season at the Meadowlands.  “He’s always been a big-play guy against us, and we always felt because of the matchup we had to roll the coverage to his side. So that makes you play a little bit more of seven people in the box.  But when he’s not there you say, ‘Hey, we can play a lot more of eight people in the box.’ We probably would’ve done it a little bit more anyway because we didn’t do a good job against the run last time, but still it was a comfort thing.  Remember, Burress – especially in the red zone – is such a great player who comes up with big plays. It gave us a little more chance of playing safeties up in the box.”

So the absence of Burress not only affected the passing game, but also the running game.

Against the Eagles on Sunday, Giants’ receivers only caught six passes for 80 yards and no touchdowns.  That’s pathetic.  Were the receivers so unproductive because of the quarterback or was the quarterback so unproductive because of the receivers?  Probably both.  Domenik Hixon (2 catches for 37 yards) and Steve Smith (2 catches for 17 yards) have bright futures, but both are still green and learning.  And Amani Toomer (2 catches for 26 yards) was a virtual non-factor for most of the season despite being a starter.  None of these three scared the Eagles’ quality cornerbacks who play in-your-face coverage.  The only big play made was the 34-yard reception by Hixon in the third quarter.  Steve Smith fumbled the ball away late without being touched.

Running Backs: The Giants out-gained the Eagles on the ground 138 to 59.  The rushing statistics don’t look bad against a very good defensive opponent, but the Giants’ ground game really let the team down during crucial stretches, particularly in the first and early second quarters.  For example, on the first possession, facing a 1st-and-10 at the Eagles’ 11-yard line, two carries by Jacobs only picked up two yards, creating a 3rd-and-8 situation.  On the third drive, four carries by Derrick Ward picked up three yards, creating 3rd-and-8 and 3rd-and-9 situations.  On the fourth possession, two carries by Jacobs picked up three yards, creating a 3rd-and-7 situation.  Eli Manning was in 3rd-and-long too often against a defense with a superb pass defense.  Of course, this is tied into the fact that the Eagles were not afraid of the Giants’ receivers so they often crowded the line with a safety, creating match-up issues in the ground attack.

The ground game finally started to come to life late in the second quarter.  Behind excellent block from Kareem McKenzie, Kevin Boss, Shaun O’Hara, and Madison Hedgecock, Jacobs (19 carries for 92 yards) broke off a 24-yard run and was just tripped up or a 56-yard touchdown would have been the result (another “almost”).  Jacobs also picked up 16 yards on two back-to-back carries early in the 3rd quarter before the Giants got pass happy.

Jacobs really looked uncomfortable on running plays out of the shotgun formation.  Jacobs was sluggish on all of these unproductive plays.  Ward and Bradshaw are better suited for this formation, though truth be told, most of the shotgun running plays were defended well by the Eagles.

Derrick Ward (12 carries for 46 yards; 5 catches for 24 yards) played decently, but couldn’t handle two passes thrown in his direction.  His best effort came in the 4th quarter after the Giants fell behind 20-11.  He had three consecutive tough runs for 14, 9, and 5 yards.  One of the dumbest play calls of the game was the 3rd-and-2 direct snap to Ward in the 4th quarter.  The “brain trust” called on Domenik Hixon to block a defensive end in the direction the play was run.  Of course it was blown up, and on the very next snap Jacobs was stuffed on 4th-and-2 and the Giants turned the ball over on downs.

Tight Ends: Kevin Boss (3 catches for 52 yards) made two big pass receptions in the second quarter: one for 21 yards and the second for 25 yards.  He also made a really nice block on Jacobs’ 24-yard run that almost went the distance.  Darcy Johnson (1 catch for 13 yards) flashed on his one catch on the first drive of the game.

Offensive Line: A solid job against a very good and confusing defense.  The Giants rushed for 138 yards and did not allow a sack.  However, as pointed out above, Manning was put in far too many 3rd-and-long situations by the inability of the offensive line to create sufficient running room for the backs early in the game.  In addition, the middle of the offensive line did not get a lot of movement on Manning’s failed 4th-and-inches sneak or Brandon Jacobs’ failed 4th-and-2 run.  In both cases, it looked like the Eagles wanted it more.

The offensive line excelled in pass protection.  The Giants did a very good job of blocking the Eagles’ quality pass-rushing defensive linemen and picking up blitzers.

Defense: The defense played great for almost an entire half, allowing only 11 yards of offense at one point midway through the second quarter.  But the defense let its guard down at the very end of the second quarter, allowing the Eagles to drive 68 yards in 1:33 to regain the lead.  The defense came up with an interception to start the third quarter, but then allowed three scoring drives in the next four possessions, salting the game away for the Eagles.  Fatigue is not an excuse.  Time of possession was relatively equal.  Truth be told – the defense also deserves a lot of the blame for this painful defeat.  Football is a 60 minute game.

The damage was done through the air.  The run defense was excellent.  Brian Westbrook was held to 36 yards on 18 carries (2 yards per rush).  Correll Buckhalter had even less success, gaining 7 yards on 5 carries.

Defensive Line: The defensive line played well against the run but was lacking on the pass rush.  Injuries to Justin Tuck (multiple leg injuries, including his knee), Fred Robbins (shoulder and broken hands), Mathias Kiwanuka (ankle) were exacerbated by the lack of quality depth.  Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan were not missed early in the season, but they were missed late.

Tuck (5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 quarterback hit) did not generate as much heat as hoped against a banged up right tackle, but his pressure did cause McNabb to intentionally ground the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a safety.  In the second quarter, he stuffed Buckhalter for no gain.  But a killer sequence occurred in the third quarter.  On 3rd-and-20, Tuck got to McNabb but could not bring him down.  Mathias Kiwanuka also failed to coral the elusive McNabb, who made a superb play by breaking away from a sure sack and spotting wide open receiver on the opposite side of the field.  The play was a momentum changer.  Instead of punting near their 10-yard line, the Eagles ended up driving 58 yards and regaining the lead.  In addition, the Eagles converted on 3rd-and-10 on this drive after Tuck left the game for a play (he had aggravated his knee injury).  Without Tuck, McNabb had all the time in the world in the pocket and found Buckhalter for a first down.  Tuck’s pressure two plays later however prevented a touchdown as McNabb missed a wide-open Westbrook in the end zone.  Tuck nailed Westbrook for a 1-yard loss near the goal line late in the game.

As for much of the season, Kiwanuka (0 tackles, 1 quarterback hit) played the run well by holding his ground, but did not apply nearly enough pass pressure.  Jerome McDougle saw some meaningful playing time but did nothing against his old team.

Barry Cofield (5 tackles), Fred Robbins (0 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 interception), Jay Alford (3 tackles, 1 TFL) all did a nice job against the run.  Robbins made a wonderful play by picking off a deflected pass and returning it 17 yards.  He just barely got tripped up or a 50-yard touchdown return may have been the result (yes, yet another “almost”).

Linebackers: Along with the defensive line and defensive backs, the linebackers did a nice job against the run.  Antonio Pierce (10 tackles) was active.  He had good coverage over the middle on an incomplete pass intended for DeSean Jackson in the second quarter.  However, Pierce was flagged with an illegal contact penalty.  Later, he was also flagged with a costly 15-yard face mask penalty on the Eagles’ lone, long TD drive.  It’s tough to blame Pierce for the 19-yard pass reception on 3rd-and-10 in the 3rd quarter by Buckhalter as McNabb had way too much time on the play.

Chase Blackburn (5 tackles, 1 pass defense) deflected a pass that was intercepted by Fred Robbins.  Blackburn did miss a tackle on a pass to Kevin Curtis that picked up 15 yards.  Danny Clark (5 tackles) stuffed Westbrook on the goal line, momentarily preventing a touchdown.  Someone screwed up by not covering TE Brent Celek on his 1-yard touchdown catch.  It may have been Clark as James Butler stayed with Westbrook.

Defensive Backs: Corey Webster (5 tackles, 1 pass defense) did not have one of his better games.  In fact, it may have been his worst game of the season.  He expertly stayed with Kevin Curtis on an incomplete 3rd-and-16 crossing pattern.  But he was also very lucky that Kevin Curtis dropped a deep pass in the third quarter as Webster was badly beaten on the play.  Curtis then beat him for a 15-yard completion over the middle two plays later.  Despite tight coverage, he also allowed an 8-yard reception to Curtis on 3rd-and-5 on the Eagles’ second-half TD drive though he did a nice job of forcing an incompletion with tight coverage on the next play.  In the 4th quarter, Webster did an outstanding job of tackling the dangerous Westbrook short of the first down on 3rd-and-5.  But he was later burned deep by DeSean Jackson for a 48-yard gain down to the Giants’ 1-yard line.

Aaron Ross (2 tackles, 1 TFL) kept his opponent quiet.  He was flagged with bogus illegal use of the hands penalty.

Kevin Dockery (4 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception) picked off an errant throw by McNabb in the second quarter.  He seemed to match up well with the elusive DeSean Jackson.  He also caused Buckhalter to lose a yard on a run in the 4th quarter with his penetration.

Terrell Thomas (4 tackles, 1 quarterback hit) played well and really flashed on the blitz.  He blew up a Westbrook run for a 3-yard loss.  Later in the first quarter, his pressured McNabb on a blitz, leading to an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-10.  (This was another one of those “almosts” as Thomas came damn closing to stripping the ball out of McNabb’s hands near the goal line.)  In the second quarter, it was Thomas’ pressure on McNabb that led to a bad throw that Dockery picked off.

James Butler (6 tackles) made a nice play in run defense in the third quarter by stuffing Buckhalter for no gain.  Michael Johnson (5 tackles, 2 TFL) flashed.  He nailed Buckhalter for a 3-yard loss after a short pass and stuffed Westbrook for a 1-yard loss.  But he also was flagged for a defensive holding penalty on 2nd-and-goal.  Kenny Phillips (3 tackles) got beat by Westbrook out of the slot on a play that should have resulted in a touchdown had the pass been on the mark.

Special Teams: John Carney had missed only one unblocked field goal all season.  He missed two on Sunday, finishing 3-of-5.  He made his kicks from 22, 34, and 36 yards out.  He missed from 46 and 47.  Yes, those are long field goal attempts in less than ideal weather conditions, but Carney did have the wind at his back on both.  The misses were a significant contributing factor to the loss.

Jeff Feagles punted twice, the first for 45 yards (Chase Blackburn and Zak DeOssie making the tackle for no gain on the dangerous DeSean Jackson) and a second time also for 45 yards with Terrell Thomas expertly preventing the ball from reaching the end zone.  The ball was downed at the 5-yard line, leading to a safety two plays later.

Kickoffs and kickoff coverage continued to be a problem. Lawrence Tynes’ kickoffs were field at the 17, 4, 1, and 1.  The kickoff to the 17 was not good and neither was allowing a 46-yard return.  The usually reliable Chase Blackburn missed a tackle.

Ahmad Bradshaw returned six kickoffs, including the game’s opening play – a 65-yard return to the Eagles’ 35-yard line.  His subsequent returns went for 25, 12, 23, 27, and 28 yards.

Domenik Hixon returned three punts.  His first return of 16 yards was wiped out by an illegal block by Chase Blackburn and an unnecessary roughness penalty by Kenny Phillips.  His second return of seven yards was wiped out by an illegal block by R.W. McQuarters.  Hixon’s third return picked up eight yards.  Too many penalties!  The one by McQuarters was particularly bad as it changed field position from the Eagles’ 47-yard line to the Giants’ 36.

(Box Score – Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants, January 11, 2009)

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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