Dec 301998
New York Giants 20 – Philadelphia Eagles 10

Review by David B.

Overview: The game started out really boring. I usually sit upright and watch, however I was tired from a long weekend and was lying on the couch for the first quarter and found myself dozing off. The Giants came out flat as hell after realizing their playoff hopes were over. They looked like the old 3-and-out bunch for much of the 1st quarter. It was only in the second half that they decided they wanted to end the season by beating a team they should beat rather easily.

Quarterbacks: Kent Graham, bless his heart, had a good game typical of his ’98 performances. No flashy numbers, but no big mistakes either. He had little help from his targets who seemed intent on dropping passes all day. His accuracy was pretty good–he was off for a few, but there were certainly no “Wild Thing” over-the-backstop pitches. In fact, but for the drops he would have had better numbers. How many times have I written that over the years? Of note was that Kent certainly did his part in converting 3rd downs even when the receivers did not. Kent was facing a talented Philly secondary that features excellent CBs and very good safeties. They decided to cover the Giants WRs rather than blitz the hell out of Graham, and this strategy forced Graham to “take the underneath stuff” for most of the game. Kent did this, and since the ground game was going with both Brown and Way running well, not going deep didn’t really cost the Giants against this opponent. He used the pocket well, and didn’t face a lot of pressure. He also took off and ran a few times and continually does better at that than you think he’s gonna. But he better stop ending those runs head first.

Some BBIers thought this might have been a good situation to see a little of Mike Cherry, but it didn’t happen. The Giants were more interested in winning the game than doing player evaluations.

Running Backs: Big day for Gary Brown who got his new contract, his 1,000 yard season, and his 4th consecutive 100 yard game. Gary looked like he’s looked of late: powerful, quick in the hole, and finishing off his runs with his pads low. He reminds me of Hampton. He doesn’t have the ideal speed you want in a RB, and his hands appear to be average, but he protects the ball very well and will be an important piece to the puzzle. Signing him when they did, the Giants were able to stash 1/5 of the new contract under the ’98 cap. Nice move! Gary Brown is an excellent edition to this team who will continue to be effective as long as the Giants have some kind of threat to hurt teams with the passing game.

Charles Way had a good game too. He was lead blocking for Brown a lot and that has been very effective. With the ball, he started the game slow. He didn’t get much on his first few carries, and I think he dropped a couple, but then he regained his focus and ran well as a change-up to Brown. At one point, he looked like the Way of ’97, he broke into the open field and made some guys miss. He had one play where he carried a bunch of tacklers like Bavaro.

Tiki Barber wasn’t used much, but when he was, he was OK. I think we can say that Tiki’s head is at least half way out of his ass.

Tyrone Wheatley was inactive (I think) in HIS LAST GAME AS A GIANT.

Receivers: Not a great day for this group. Ike Hilliard’s head was not in the game. He dropped two (or was it three) very catchable balls that were on the money — including a sure TD that Calloway fortunately caught when it bounced off of Ike’s chest. Calloway didn’t look a whole lot better. He too dropped a perfectly-thrown TD pass that he should have caught in his sleep. He also missed a couple of others. Later he snapped out of it and caught a TD pass and bailed out Ike on the other. Amani Toomer had another very good game. He didn’t drop a thing, and he continues to come up big in situations where they need him to “come up big.” Alford was in the game, but I don’t think he had a catch (or a drop). Cross and Hasse had no catches or drops either. I think all three RBs had at least one drop.

Offensive Line: Too many penalties still, but not as many as in a lot of games. Kent Graham’s hard count succeeded in making Ron Stone move early. Scot Gragg decided he couldn’t end the season without at least one more False Start. They pass protected well, and run blocked pretty well.

Defensive Line: A good day for this group. The shut down the run except for one play where Staley broke off a 60+ yard TD. Koy (pond) Detmer doesn’t have his brother’s accuracy, but he gets rid of the ball quickly and doesn’t take many sacks. The Giants didn’t get to him until late in the game. Strahan picked up is 15th sack and played in the Philly backfield all day capping a well-deserved Pro Bowl season. Jones subbed in on occasion and the group didn’t miss a beat.

Linebackers: Quiet day. Armstead made a good play or two and had a nice sack, but Widmer and Buckley were largely invisible.

Secondary: Aside from Irving Fryar lighting up a play or two in his last game, Philly had almost no passing game. Sam Garnes had a pick on a ball that Detmer was trying to throw away, but instead just threw up for grabs. Percy Ellsworth won’t tackle. Hamilton was solid. Gray started in place of Sparks who was injured but I don’t think he’ll be back next year.

Special Teams: Larry McDuff’s job would not be safe if I were coach. The coverage and return teams continue to stink. Allen Rossom — a very good return specialist had 112 yards on three KRs. Their PR got 37 yards on 2 PRs. Toomer got 3 yards on one return. Brad Maynard only punted 4 times. Must have felt like a vacation day to him. Maynard had a terrific year and should only get better. Daluiso hit a 43 and a 33 and made his PATs. However, his kickoffs are no longer anything special. He’s an average kicker.

Coaching: We won, so Fassel must be a genius again. Interesting situation. The team knew they were out of it, but clearly played for the win, not to evaluate guys for next year. It seemed obvious that something got the Giants off their asses at half time and let them finish the game stronger than how they began it. Was it Fassel? He will still be questioned for some personnel decisions and some playcalling. He still likes that damned pitch out on 3rd and short. Will be interesting to see if we run up the gut when/if Brian Williams returns. Regardless, the team is behind Fassel, and so is management. His regaining control of this season and reestablishing a winning attitude at the end of the year was a major achievement, but that kind of thing is not a tangible statistic and is often over-looked by the fans. He has a big off-season ahead of him.

Dec 251998

Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles, December 27, 1998: The Giants have an outside shot at the playoffs. The Giants are hoping the Bengals beat the Bucs in an early game and that the Chargers beat the Cards in a late game. However, that isn’t likely to happen. Indeed, by the time the game starts in Philly, the Giants may already be out of the playoffs. I hope they don’t let this affect their play, but it might. It would be nice to finish 8-8 after a 3-7 start.

But the playoff possibilities are not the most important aspect of this game — it is the continuing evaluation of talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Kent Graham has played well these past two weeks and has one final audition in order to lock up a starting job in 1999. If he plays well again, the job is his. If he plays poorly, the Giants may end up being more aggressive in seeking another quarterback in the offseason. This is a very important game for Kent and the Giants as a team.

Don’t think this game will be a walkover. The Eagles have played well recently and given such teams as the Packers and Cowboys a hard time (and both those games were on the road). In addition, this is Ray Rhodes last game as Eagles’ head coach and the Eagle players will want to win the last one for him. The last time these two teams faced, the score was 20-0, but it was a much tighter game than that. Throw in the historical problems the Giants have had playing in Philadelphia and you can see why I’m worried.

I think it will be key to try to take Philly out of the game emotionally early. If the Giants don’t, they will have a tough fight on their hands.

Giants on Offense: The Eagles are tough to pass on, easier to run on. Last week against Dallas, Rhodes and his defensive staff pulled out all the stops and blitzed the Cowboys heavily. I look for the same on Sunday. Thus, the play of the offensive line and backs picking up the blitz will be decisive. So will the ability of Kent Graham and the receivers to make Philly pay for the blitz. Kent was able to do so against the Broncos and Chiefs — let’s hope he can do so this weekend as well.

As I mentioned above, this will be a very important game for Graham. It won’t be easy. The Eagle cornerbacks, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, are big and physical players. They like to play an aggressive game and the Giant wide receivers are not known for playing against the bump-and-run well. I look for Philly to attempt to jam the Giant wideouts at the line and blitz heavily in order to stop the running game and disrupt the passing game. Of course, the Eagles will also be looking to force turnovers. Head Coach Jim Fassel can help his offense out by calling plays that make it difficult to jam everyone (i.e., put Ike Hilliard in motion, run picks, etc.).

Blitz pickups by Tiki Barber, Gary Brown, and Charles Way will be crucially important. So will the blocking up front. The offensive line has played well the last three weeks. They should be able to handle the Eagles up front if they are on their game. Philadelphia is light in the front seven and I would power Gary Brown behind Charles Way and that offensive line — just like the Giants have done the last few weeks. Similarly, I would also keep to the game plan of taking some shots on first and second down in order to back up the defensive backs and linebackers. If the rush is coming hard, a screen pass or draw to Tiki will be in order. The Giants may also want to get someone like Brian Alford on a reverse.

Besides the corners, the key guy on the Philly defense is WLB William Thomas. The Giants need to get a hat on him at all times. I would try to exploit the Eagle safeties and nickel back (Tim McTyer) in coverage.

Besides Graham, this will be an important game for RT Scott Gragg and HB Tiki Barber — the Giants want to get a better read on these two who have had disappointing seasons, but who have played well of late. Amani Toomer will be a restricted free agent and I assume the team would like more to go on with him. It would also be nice to see Alford and TE Andy Haase get more involved.

Giants on Defense: Philly has been playing better offensively ever since they switched quarterbacks. Koy Detmer doesn’t have a strong arm, but he reads defenses pretty well for a young guy and gets rid of the ball quickly. Because of this, the Eagles haven’t given up a sack in three games (a team record). This will also be an emotional game for WR Irving Fryar, who reportedly will retire after the season. You know he will be fired up and his offensive teammates will be playing hard for him.

As always, the key is up front. The Giants front four must come out strong against an improved Eagles’ offensive line. DE Chad Bratzke, who is having a career year, will face tough rookie LT Tra Thomas. DE Michael Strahan should control matters when facing RT Richard Cooper. Much will depend on the play of the defensive tackles against LG Jermane Mayberry, OC Steve Everitt, and RG Ian Beckles. HB’s Duce Staley and Corey Walker ran tough last week against Dallas. Staley is a running and receiving threat. I was impressed with Walker’s quickness — he’s got some explosiveness. FB Kevin Turner does it all in the Philly offense — block, catch, and run (usually in that order). The defensive must control these three and force the Eagles to become one-dimensional. Then the Giants can focus on getting after Detmer.

Against the pass, CB’s Phillippi Sparks and Conrad Hamilton should be able to handle Fryar and Jeff Graham. The Eagle tight ends have not been productive, but given the Eagle system, you need to keep an eye on them. Philly will surely test the Giant safeties. Also watch for plays where the Eagles may try to take advantage of the aggressive Giants’ defense — screens, draws, reverses, etc.

Giants on Special Teams: Allen Rossum is a potentially dangerous punt and kick returner (his is joined by Corey Walker on kick returns). I harp on it every week, but kick and punt coverage will be crucial. Don’t give Philly any cheap field position or easy scores. Tiki Barber had a nice kick return last week, but Amani “Head for Sidelines” Toomer is regressing as a punt returner. Watch the opposing gunners on punts — notice how the Giants rarely get a hand on these guy and they are usually in Amani’s face as soon as he fields the punt. Totally unacceptable.

Since Philly has nothing to play for, the Giants should be very wary of fake field goals or punts. The Eagles may also come after Brad Maynard since he has almost had punts blocked in the last two games. Brad Daluiso was 0-2 last week on field goal attempts. A miss this week could prove crucial.

Dec 231998
New York Giants 28 – Kansas City Chiefs 7

Overview: Three over-arching impressions stick with me after this game:

  1. Head Coach Jim Fassel and his coaching staff have done a wonderful job of holding this team together after a 3-7 start. Fassel didn’t panic and start making wholesale changes. This team believes in itself again and is becoming more and more confident. Only a few weeks ago, I feared Fassel and his staff losing control of the team.
  2. I hope it has finally hit home with the players that EACH AND EVERY GAME is crucially important. The Giants most likely won’t make the playoffs this year and it will be because they needed just one more win. In the NFL, you can’t take ANY TEAM for granted. One regular season game could mean the difference in making it to the Superbowl or not.
  3. Are the Giants more settled at quarterback than most think? Or am I blinded by rose-colored glasses? I’m starting to think that Kent Graham is a viable option. At best, a quarterback taken in the 1999 draft won’t start until 2000, and most likely 2001. And there are no guarantees that he won’t be a bust. Meanwhile, Graham seems to be improving and already knows the offense. Kanell may not be an ideal starter, but he would make a decent back-up. Mike Cherry flashed some bigtime potential on his one and only pass attempt in the Kansas City game. Perhaps that number one draft pick should be spent on a linebacker, offensive lineman, or running back.

Quarterbacks: Good game for Kent (16 out-of-33 for 167 yards, 1 touchdown passing, no interceptions; 3 carries for 17 yards, 1 touchdown run) — almost a very good game. Graham started off the game particularly strong. What I liked the most is that he seemed to be very comfortable and confident out there. He looked like a guy who knows the job is his, not one who in reality is still auditioning for a job. The Chiefs came after Graham. They looked to rattle him and force him to make mistakes. But Graham stood tall in the pocket, moved when necessary, and took some shots down the field. Very impressive. Indeed, his stats would have been much better if it weren’t for some dropped balls and excellent defensive plays by the Chief defensive backs. On the negative side, Kent did cool off somewhat in the second and third quarters. He also was not particularly sharp on his short throws to the backs again. He just missed hitting Brian Alford deep on what would have been a 44-yard TD pass, but he was a tad late and short on his throw.

Mike Cherry came into the game with under seven minutes left in the 4th quarter. He was only given two chances to throw. On the first, he was smothered by the pass rush before he could set up. On his second throw, he threw a wonderfully accurate deep ball to Alford that hit Brian in the hands but the KC defensive back broke up the play. Superb throw.

Offensive Line: Aside from LT Roman Oben, the line played very well. Kudos to RG Jerry Reynolds for filling in more than adequately for the injured Ron Stone. The line once again blocked well for the run and did a decent job against the pass. Gary Brown ran for over 100 yards once again. Only on a couple of wide runs did the line get pushed off the ball. Particularly impressive was the way the line once again dealt with the blitz. On Graham’s touchdown toss, he had time to pump fake despite being faced with an all-out blitz — the credit for the touchdown must go to the offensive line and running backs who picked up the blitz. The weak spot this week was Oben who had some problems on the pass rush (though he was facing All-Pro Derrick Thomas). Where Oben really hurt the Giants was with two holding penalties and an unsportsmanlike conduct foul — the latter costing the Giants 3 points as Daluiso barely missed a 41 yarder. Both Oben and Bishop almost got Cherry killed on his first NFL pass attempt. Lance Scott was also flagged for holding. Another solid performance from RT Scott Gragg — a guy on a roll.

Wide Receivers: With Graham more willing to fire the ball down the field, the vast potential of these guys is starting to show. However, there is much room for improvement. The Giants really could have had a big day if it weren’t for some dropped passes and good plays from the Chief defensive backs. Amani Toomer (4 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown) had a good game. He made a nice catch of a high ball for a touchdown from Kent Graham on a slant-and-go route. Toomer also made a key catch on that drive picking up 14 yards on 3rd-and-8. Amani made a big play early in the 4th quarter, catching a 20 yarder on a crossing route right after the Chiefs had scored on the previous drive.

Ike Hilliard made one big play in the second quarter when he caught a short pass and juked out three defenders on a 32-yard catch-and-run. He was also open twice in the endzone on the same drive, but Graham missed him both times. Chris Calloway (4 catches for 42 yards) had a bad case of the dropsies in the game. He had a bomb knocked away by a Chiefs defender, but might have been able to outfight the defender with a greater effort. He also dropped a very catchable low throw from Graham.

The stats don’t show it, but Brian Alford made a very impressive debut. He blew past the KC secondary in the second quarter and was wide open for a 44-yard TD strike, but Graham threw the ball too late. Alford also showed his speed and explosiveness on a couple more deep routes that just missed. He did get his first catch — an 11-yard slant from Graham late in the game.

Tight Ends: Very quiet again. Added the runners, no catches in the passing game.

Running Backs: Gary Brown (25 carries for 103 yards, a 4.1 yards-per-carry average, 1 touchdown) was impressive again. He didn’t break off any big runs, but he was very quick in the hole and made some nice cuts in traffic. He is a physical presence. Brown is now only 49 yards away from a 1,000 yard season.

FB Charles Way (4 carries for 20 yards, a 5.0 yards-per-carry average, 2 catches for 14 yards) just can’t seem to get untracked with the ball in his hands. He was excellent in the run blocking department and pass blocking (as were all the backs).

Tiki Barber made a very nice run for 23 yards on a draw play in a very dangerous down-and-distance situation for the Giants (2nd-and-18). He also picked up the blitz well again.

Defensive Line: Played a very good game. Effective stopping the run and rushing the passer. The line only lost contain on Gannon once (the tackles at fault). DE Michael Strahan (2 tackles) picked up yet another sack (he has 14 on the year). DE Chad Bratzke (6 tackles) was a problem all day for the Chiefs’ left tackle in pass protection. Bratzke picked up 2.5 sacks (though one was a gift as the quarterback fell down) and was buzzing around the Chief quarterbacks much of the afternoon. Christian Peter (3 tackles) and Keith Hamilton (2 tackles, 0.5 sacks) were tough and physical inside, though Hamilton was flagged with a dumb unsportsmanlike call. The Chiefs only gained 66 yards on the ground all day. DE Cedric Jones, DT Bernard Holsey, and DT George Williams all some playing time.

Linebackers: Good game for the linebackers. Jessie Armstead (5 tackles, 1 interception) made a great play on the Chiefs’ 4th-and-inches conversion attempt in the second quarter. He picked off a pass late in the game, but also dropped an easy pick. Corey Widmer (3 tackles) made two excellent stuffs at the line of scrimmage on Bam Morris — one coming on the 3rd-and-one play right before the above-mentioned Armstead play. Either Armstead or Widmer were most likely responsible for covering TE Tony Gonzalez on his wide-open touchdown catch. Marcus Buckley (4 tackles) combined with Armstead to nail Morris in the backfield early in the game.

Defensive Backs: This group played well. They gave up a big play or two on excellent execution from the Chiefs more than anything else. FS Percy Ellsworth (3 tackles, 2 interceptions) set the tone for the game when he picked off a bobbled pass and ran it back 43-yards for the touchdown on the first drive of the game. He also was credited with another interception when he came over quickly to help out CB Phillippi Sparks on a deep sideline pass (Percy did a poor job trying to keep his feet in bounds and the pick shouldn’t have counted, but it was an excellent play otherwise). Ellsworth almost came up with the hat trick when he stepped in front of another sideline pass but this time was correctly ruled out-of-bounds. The biggest negative is that he looked like he took the wrong angle on WR Andre Rison’s 39-yard catch-and-run over the middle. FS Tito Wooten (2 tackles) was quiet and forced to leave the game early with a hamstring injury. SS Sam Garnes (7 tackles) was active in run support, including short yardage. CB Phillippi Sparks (7 tackles, 1 interception) had another good game. He did a great job covering Rison on one deep pass and then came back to pick off a pass on the next play. He did give up a 23-yarder to Alexander. CB Conrad Hamilton was beaten by Rison on his big catch-and-run, but Hamilton had good coverage on the play. Hamilton (7 tackles) was active in pass and run defense. S Shaun Williams played quite a bit and seemed to play well.

Giants on Special Teams: Very poor effort from PK Brad Daluiso (missed from 41 and 39 yards). P Brad Maynard punted very well. The Giants need to do a better job of protecting him. Once again, he almost had a punt blocked. Coverage teams were better than usual as Shaun Williams was very active. Tiki Barber had a very nice kick return for 32 yards. Watching Amani Toomer try to return a punt is comical. He’s afraid to run it up the field when he has a chance to do so. Other times, he has no chance as his blocking is piss poor.

Dec 181998

Approach to the Game – Kansas City Chiefs at New York Giants, December 20, 1998: This is going to be a tough, physical football game. Both teams play good defense. Both teams have demonstrated recently that they can pound the ball with a big back. The Giant players and coaches had better be ready for this one. If they are still dwelling on their colossal upset of Denver, the Chiefs are going to take it to them. Despite their record, Kansas City has a good football team.

Giants on Offense: The most interesting aspect of this game will be to see how QB Kent Graham performs. Will he be able to play anywhere near the level he established against Denver last week? Or will he come up with a stinker, like he did two weeks ago? This is important game for Kent’s future. All eyes within the organization will be on him to see if he can string some positive games together here at the end of the season.

If Kent is able to pull it off and look good again on Sunday, then it will have to come against one of the league’s best pass defenses. Kansas City has a very good secondary. The good news is that CB Dale Carter is doubtful. The bad news is that the remaining players are still very good. Passing against the Chiefs will be tough. Graham will have to be on his game and the receivers are going to have to play with more maturity.

The primary focus of my game plan would be to attack the Chiefs on the ground with Gary Brown. However, I think the Giants can take some shots with play action on first and second down. SS Reggie Tongue and FS Jerome Woods are very talented and aggressive young players. But the Giants may be able to use that youth and aggressiveness against them with play-action. Carter’s replacement will be CB Mark McMillian. He and veteran starter James Hasty are also aggressive players who like to take chances. Moreover, with Carter out and McMillian (the regular nickel back) now starting, the Giants might want to attack McMillian’s replacement (I think this will be Kavis Reed). Joe Jurevicius and Amani Toomer made big plays last week. Jurevicius and/or Toomer versus Reed could be a good match-up for New York. It will also be interesting to see how much playing time rookie Brian Alford gets and whether he makes an impact. Sunday will be his first NFL game.

MLB Donnie Edwards is another third-year player who plays an aggressive game. Play-faking and sneaking a guy like TE Andy Haase through his zone could pay dividends. Tiki Barber has three touchdown catches in four games. He has demonstrated solid hands recently, a more explosive burst, and excellent blitz pick-ups. I would continue to expand his role and try to lock him up on the Chief linebackers. A toss to Charles Way here or there wouldn’t hurt matters either. If the Chiefs start blitzing heavily, I’d like to see if the Giants could hit another screen pass.

But the focus should be the ground game. The Chiefs will be looking to stop the run. The Chiefs aren’t likely to give Kent much respect until he proves he can continue to hurt opponents through the air. This figures to be a defensive struggle and the Giants will need to fight for field position. I would think the Giants would be better off targeting DE Leslie O’Neal and DE/LB Derrick Thomas. Both are superb pass rushers, but both can be handled at the point of attack in the running game. It will also be important to keep DT Tom Barndt and DT/DE Chester McGlockton under control. The Giants’ offensive line has played two good games in a row — can we hope that they will do it a third time?

Giants on Defense: The Chiefs went back to the ground game big time last week in the second half of the Dallas game and it worked wonders for them. Look for Marty Schottenheimer to try to pound it out against the Giants. Bam Morris is a big, power back and the Giants don’t have a great recent history in facing these type of runners. Schottenheimer will most likely want to target DE Chad Bratzke and WLB Jessie Armstead. These two guys will be under the gun. So will MLB Corey Widmer and SS Sam Garnes. These two need to shed blocks quickly and make sure tackles. Indeed, the tackling of the secondary will be very important. The Chiefs are a little beat up on the offensive line. The Giants’ front seven will have to play tough, strong, and physical. If not, the Chiefs will control the field position battle, the tempo, and ultimately, the game. It’s as simple as that — stop the run, win the game.

The Chiefs’ passing offense has been a disappointment this season, but it is showing signs of life. WR Derrick Alexander has made a big impact in recent weeks and WR Andre Rison is always dangerous. TE Tony Gonzalez has dropped a few passes, but he has the kind of athletic-ability the Giants will be looking for at that position in the offseason. A big match-up will be the linebackers and/or safeties on Gonzalez. The linebackers also need to keep an eye on FB Kimble Anders out of the backfield. A very dangerous guy is Tamarick Vanover — the Chiefs often utilize him as their third down back and he has excellent speed.

The guy who scares me in this game is QB Rich Gannon. Gannon plays well under pressure and can make the tough throw. He also has very good mobility and hurts teams with his feet by keeping drives alive. The pass rushers must keep him contained in the pocket and make sure tackles when they get a hand on him. If not, the Giants will lose the game.

Giants on Special Teams: With David Patten out, Tiki Barber will see the bulk of the kick return duties (Brian Alford may see some action there too). Barber, first and foremost, has to keep his hands on the ball and not turn it over. Amani Toomer has stunk as a punt returner for weeks.

Once again, kick-off and punt coverage will be under the spotlight. Tamarick Vanover has a history of breaking big returns as both a punt and kick returner. Rookie Rashaan Shehee can also return kicks. Curtis Buckley hasn’t made many plays since the Eagle game — he needs to start making an impact again. Brad Maynard and Brad Daluiso are both coming off solid performance, although Daluiso has been shaky on kick-offs. The Giants had also protect Maynard better than they did last week when Denver almost blocked a punt.

Dec 161998
New York Giants 20 – Denver Broncos 16

Overview: Savor the victory Giants’ fans. Remember it well. This will go down as one of the most memorable games in the Giants’ long and storied history. Ten or twenty years from now, you will be sitting around a table or fireplace with friends and ask, “Do you guys remember the game when the mighty unbeaten Denver Broncos rolled into the Meadowlands?” They were so cocky, so sure — and just as infuriating, so was the media. It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Broncos. The Giants were supposed to be another highlight film victim for their perfect season. The game would be a cakewalk. The game would be over early. The Broncos would finish the day 14-0, off looking for more worthy opponents. Well, a strange thing happened on Sunday afternoon — the Giants beat those mighty Broncos.

It didn’t even take the perfect game by the Giants like all were calling for to beat Denver. There were costly drops and turnovers on offense and poor play in the return game. Indeed, if it weren’t for these mistakes, this game might not have been that close.

So remember this game. Enjoy it. Forget all the little problems in life for a moment. Raise your head up high and pound your chest. It is one for the ages.

Quarterback: What a marvelous performance from Kent Graham (21-out-of-33 for 265 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 3 rushes for 26 yards). With such an amazing victory, one could easily fall prey to overrating the play of the team, and the quarterback in particular. But even if one takes off the rose-colored glasses, one still sees a magnificent performance. This was Kent’s best game as a pro. And just think how much pressure was on his shoulders!!! He not only had to face a very good defensive team, but he knew if he didn’t play well or even (God-forbid) beat the Broncos, he would lose his starting job to Danny Kanell.

Kent didn’t make the costly mistake. He was at his best on third down, converting time and time again. The Giants came into the game with a league-low 25% rate on third down. They finished the game 9-out-15 (a 60% rate!!!). More notably, Graham was 7-out-of-10 when he was allowed to pass the ball on third down, picking up seven first downs (a 70% rate). And with the game on the line, with less than 2 minutes, no time outs, and 86 yards to go — Kent Graham led the Giants to the winning touchdown. Kent Graham, not John Elway, was “Mr. Comeback.”

Graham showed good pocket awareness (save for one play when he took off running when I thought he had plenty of time). His accuracy was much better, including on the short throws. His 21-yard touchdown pass to Tiki Barber was a thing of beauty as he hit Tiki perfectly while the latter was in full stride (Graham was 8-out-of-11 on that 15-play, 80 yard drive). Graham looked off defensive backs, didn’t force the ball, and went away from his primary receiver when he was covered. He also had two fantastic runs. Yes, the 23-yard scamper was huge on the final drive. But his much shorter, 2-yard, twisting, diving, desperation run on 3rd-and-2 earlier in the quarter was all heart and hustle. It also picked up another vital first down and kept the clock moving. Graham would have had a 300+ yard passing day if it were not for costly drops from Ike Hilliard and Charles Way.

Offensive Line: Strange game for the offensive line. They started off strong run blocking, then cooled a bit. Likewise, they were shaky early in pass protection, then improved dramatically as the game wore on. Indeed, in the final analysis, this might have been their best game in terms of picking up the blitz and handling pass rush games from their opponent. But like I said, things were a little rough early. LT Roman Oben and LG Greg Bishop were beaten badly on a right side twist from the Bronco down linemen, resulting in the only sack of the game. RG Ron Stone was also beaten cleanly on a play by a defensive tackle. But as the game wore on, and Denver became more and more desperate, the line did a wonderful job of handling the blitz (much credit goes to the backs too — more of that in a minute). HB Gary Brown also had an another excellent day rushing the ball and the line must receive much of the credit for his performance. The biggest negative was their inability to knock Denver off the ball late in the game when the Giants were inside the five and could have put the game away. Hate to say it Scott Gragg-bashers, but he played another very good game, keeping his man under wraps all day long.

Tight Ends: No action in their direction. Probably kept in more to help with the pass blocking. Did a good job run blocking.

Running Backs: An up-and-down day for HB Gary Brown (18 carries for 112 yards, a 6.2 yards-per-carry average, 2 catches for five yards). Brown, like last week, ran with power and authority. With each passing game, he is breaking off a number of big runs as well. Brown had a 19 yard run on the Giants’ first field goal drive and he rattled off a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter. But he fumbled the ball away twice (one luckily called back due to a Bronco penalty). His fumble in the fourth quarter was his first since 1993. He also dropped a pass from Graham. Amazingly, considering he didn’t play much in the first half of the season, Brown is nearing a 1,000 yard season. FB Charles Way (2 catches for 11 yards, 4 carries for zero yards) led the way with some excellent lead blocking, once again. But he did drop a pass on a 3rd down play where he was wide open and might have gone for big yardage. He also didn’t do much with the ball in his hands.

One of the heros of the day was HB Tiki Barber (2 catches for 29 yards, 1 touchdown). Not only did Tiki score on his third touchdown catch in four games, but he was masterful in picking up the Denver blitz all day. On one play in particular, I saw him take out two onrushing Denver players.

Wide Receivers: It seems as if Amani Toomer (2 catches for 42 yards, 1 touchdown) has one play. Send him deep and let him outfight the defender. Ask him to do anything more, and that might be asking too much. Toomer’s 37-yard touchdown catch was the type of play that Giants’ fans see other teams’ receivers make, but never our own. It was highlight reel, game-winning stuff and an amazing play in a tight situation. Now if he could just make some of the easier plays!

Ike Hilliard (4 catches for 41 yards) had a strange game. He did a nice job early in the game showing some decent run-after-the-catch ability. However, his drop/fumble (ruled a fumble) is unacceptable. Not only was a potential game-losing play, but he actually might have gotten close to the goalline or scored on the play. Chris Calloway (5 catches for 99 yards) came up big on the Giants’ first touchdown drive, making catches of 14 and 16 yards (the latter coming on 3rd-and-13). Kudos to him for not giving up and making a heck of catch (for 36 yards) on the Denver off-sides penalty.

Joe Jurevicius (3 catches for 32 yards) made a big impact in the game in terms of keeping drives alive — three catches, three third down conversions, including a critical one on the game-winning drive while playing with a bum knee. David Patten (1 catch for 6 yards) also got into the act with a nice short catch to pick up a first down.

Defensive Line: The defensive line did a nice job of pressuring John Elway, at times without any blitzes. The biggest problem was on the right side as Denver picked up good yardage by running at DE Chad Bratzke and WLB Jessie Armstead. Bratzke (5 tackles, 1 sack) came up with a huge sack on Denver’s last drive. DE Michael Strahan (2 tackles, 1 sack) picked up his 13th sack of the season by overrunning RT Harry Swayne. Inside, DT Christian Peter (1 tackle) hustled, but was held pretty quiet. His pressure on Elway contributed to Shaun Williams’ interception. DT Keith Hamilton (6 tackles, forced a key holding penalty) made some noise. Strahan and Marcus Buckley gave the offense a chance by nailing FB Howard Griffith in the backfield on third down when Denver was trying to run out the clock.

Linebackers: Strong game for MLB Corey Widmer. Matched-up with TE Shannon Sharpe on Denver’s first scoring drive, Widmer knocked the ball away on third down, forcing a field goal attempt. He was also active against the run (5 tackles). Corey did have some problems getting through garbage on the runs to his right side. Looked good on one inside blitz. WLB Jessie Armstead (13 tackles) was very active, but was handled somewhat at the point of attack. He and Bratzke (along with Conrad Hamilton) were blocked too easily on Terrell Davis’ 27-yard touchdown run (Marcus Buckley also missed a tackle on the play). Jessie also jumped off-sides twice. But Armstead made the defensive play of the game when he nailed Davis in the backfield for a loss on 2nd-and-1 when Denver was trying to run out the clock. If Denver picks up the first down there, the Giants lose the game. SLB Marcus Buckley (4 tackles) was up and down. As usual, he had some problems against the run, but he also made some plays — both against the run (he tackled Howard Griffith on the play following Armstead’s). He was solid in coverage (though he did give up a short pass on 4th-and-1) and looked decent blitzing.

Defensive Backs: This group played an outstanding game against a very tough opponent. CB Phillippi Sparks kept the highly-motivated Ed McCaffrey (3 catches for 24 yards) nearly invisible. CB Conrad Hamilton (10 tackles, 2 passes knocked down, and sack) was all over the field. Hamilton was blocked on Davis’ above-mentioned TD run and was burned deep by McCaffrey on one play, but fortunately Elway didn’t see him. S Shaun Williams (4 tackles) saved the day with his superb interception. Like a savvy veteran, he read Elway’s eyes came away with momentum-changing pick. Williams was a big factor in keeping TE Shannon Sharpe (4 catches for 25 yards) under wraps. Sam Garnes (6 tackles) and the linebackers must have been strong in coverage too. Even FS Tito Wooten (8 tackles) had a good game. His defense of a deep sideline pass was just how one draws it up in defensive meetings.

Giants on Special Teams: Extremely poor in the return game. David Patten was awful on kick-offs, making terrible decisions. Didn’t have great blocking, but he had some room to work with. Amani Toomer is getting worse as a punt returner. In recent weeks, he’s been out of position and not made a great effort to field poor punts. A good punt returner doesn’t allow a bad punt to hit the ground on astroturf (if he can help it). His costly mishandle of the last Denver punt could have meant the game. Coverage was solid on kickoffs. Brad Maynard was excellent in his two coffin corner attempts, pinning Denver back. Maynard almost did have a punt blocked due to shoddy protection up front. Brad Dalusio nailed both his field goals, but is still not getting enough depth on his kick-offs.

Dec 111998

Approach to the Game – Denver Broncos at New York Giants, December 13, 1998: I love the “David versus Goliath” role. This is the type of game that is easy to get up for. Sunday’s game could be a lot of fun, but the Giants need to play well on all cylinders — offense, defense, and special teams. The coaching staff has to pull out all the stops; the players need to play with intensity and emotion for four quarters, regardless of the score.

Giants on Offense: The game plan is simple: keep the ball out of the hands of Denver’s offense for as long as possible. Smash-mouth running game, don’t turn the ball over, control the clock, win the field position battle. Denver is going to load up against the run, but the Giants absolutely must run the ball regardless of what the Broncos do. Mano-a-Mano. Win individual match-ups up front and run HB Gary Brown behind FB Charles Way repeatedly — just like last week.

But the Denver defense isn’t the Cardinal defense. The Broncos will be ready. Just like the game against the 49ers, the Giants may want to throw Denver off by taking some shots on first down early in the game. But I’d quickly move back to running the ball.

The offensive line is the key. This up one week, down the next crap has to stop. The Giants need the line to play even better than it did against the Cardinals. Big match-ups will be LT Roman Oben versus DE Alfred Williams and RT Scott Gragg against DE Neil Smith. Williams and Smith are on the smaller side, but they are very active pass rushers. Wear them down by running right at them. Punish them. Take a little of that quickness away so when the time does come to throw the ball, they won’t be as active. Obviously, with Brown and Way carrying the ball, much of the focus of the ground game must be between the tackles. Thus, RT Ron Stone, OC Lance Scott, and LG Greg Bishop need to control DT’s Keith Traylor, Maa Tanuvasa, and Trevor Pryce. Be physical. The Denver linemen like rushing the passer a whole lot more than stopping the run.

An interesting subplot to this game is the brewing quarterback controversy. Starter Kent Graham has been told that Danny Kanell will be inserted into the line-up if he falters. Graham’s biggest problem has been hitting his backs on the short passes. That is unfortunate because HB Tiki Barber is breaking out of his slump and is starting to make an impact again. I’d get Tiki isolated on the Denver linebackers and try to make a big play down the field. That could be tough because WLB John Mobley is a very quick and fast player in his own right. SLB Bill Romanowski (one of the biggest jerks in the game) should have no problems handling Howard Cross. Does TE Andy Haase see more action his way in the two-tight end set again? The Giants have used a lot of the two-tight end set with some relatively good success in recent weeks. The good news for the Giants is that they finally executed a screen pass last week and the Bronco pass rushers will have to keep this in the back of their minds.

Denver’s secondary is the weakest part of their team. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the Giants come out throwing, but this is a risky strategy given the problems the Giants’ offensive line has had with pass protection, the quickness of the Denver defensive line, and the poor overall accuracy of both Giant quarterbacks. Regardless, the Bronco safeties are hard-hitting, tough run-stoppers who are somewhat vulnerable against the pass. This could prove to be decisive if the Giants can get the ball to Joe Jurevicius or Amani Toomer as the third receivers. I might even use David Patten deep a few times. CB Ray Crockett and Darrien Gordon are ordinary, but Gordon is capable of making big plays. The Giants need great games from Ike Hilliard and Chris Calloway. Ike, in particular, must make some noise. Throwing is risky, especially given the Giants’ personnel. If you are unsuccessful, it stops the clock, puts you in bad long yardage situations, and increases your chances of turning the ball over. But the Giants might have to take those chances. Still, let’s get that running game going.

Giants on Defense: Denver is very tough to stop. They have a veteran quarterback who knows how to make clutch plays in tight situations, the best running back in the game, an excellent offensive line, a strong blocking fullback, and a deep threat tight end. Their receivers are average, but when all the other parts are working as they are, it really doesn’t matter.

Denver is so tough because in order to stop their running game, you have to play your physical, run-stuffers and cheat up at the line of scrimmage. But as soon as you do that, TE Shannon Sharpe is running by you for a big play. Ideally, you want to keep a defensive back on Sharpe, but as soon as you do that, you are more exposed to Denver’s superb running game. So what do you do? Good question.

I think the Giants have to play Denver straight-up with their base personnel and hope that their intensity level is higher than the Broncos. The Broncos are expending a lot of energy each and every week now in order to keep their unbeaten streak alive. They might be due for a letdown, especially with the Monday night game in Miami coming up. The Giants simply cannot afford to let All-World HB Terrell Davis take charge of the game. It is a daunting task. The man in the spotlight will be MLB Corey Widmer. He has to play off his blocks quickly, watch for the cutback, and fill the hole. FB Howard Griffith will be coming at him. Widmer has been exposed somewhat on cutback runs and he can’t be overaggressive. He also needs help from fellow linebackers Jessie Armstead and Marcus Buckley. The Giants’ linebacking corps hasn’t had a good season. Much of the success of the defense will depend on them.

Does Defensive Coordinator John Fox risk putting Buckley on Sharpe instead of a defensive back when the Broncos are not in an obvious passing situation? I think he has to. The strength of Buckley’s game is pass coverage and it will be severely tested by Sharpe. The closest player to Sharpe the Giants have seen this year is Green Bay’s Tyrone Davis and Davis had a monster day against the Giants. If it isn’t Buckley, then one of the safeties such as SS Sam Garnes or SS/FS Percy Ellsworth may be the designated whipping boy. Garnes could be a huge factor in this game, both in coverage and playing the run.

What the Giants need to have is good tackling from all defenders, especially in the secondary (and from the safeties in particular). It is obvious who I am singling out here, Mr. Wooten and Mr. Ellsworth. Because of the stress that Davis and Sharpe place on a defense, the Giants have to pray the corners can handle WR’s Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith. CB Conrad Hamilton has been exposed somewhat in the last two games. Elway will test him.

The trenches. Got to take charge here. The good news is that the strength of DT Christian Peter’s game is stopping the run. That will help. Keith Hamilton needs to play as well as he did last week and not take plays off. These two will be very important in determining the outcome of the contest. Denver is smaller inside and Peter and Hamilton have to use their power and strength against their opponents. Outside, DE Chad Bratzke faces a tough test against LT Tony Jones. DE Michael Strahan will battle veteran RT Harry Swayne. That latter is a battle that New York MUST win.

The Giants have a young and aggressive defense. They will be fired up. Denver and their head coach know this. Look for Denver to try to take away that aggressiveness with some misdirection and trick plays. Watch out for screens, reverses, and draw plays.

Giants on Special Teams: Denver is very strong on special teams. New York is not. Bronco punt returner Darrien Gordon is one of the best in the game. Coverage will be key. The Giants need to win the field position battle desperately. Brad Maynard could be a huge factor in the game. The Giants need one or two big plays to win — a big return from David Patten or Amani Toomer or a blocked kick.

Dec 091998
New York Giants 23 – Arizona Cardinals 19

Overview: Strange game. The Giants came back from a 10 point deficit to win the game despite the almost complete lack of any viable passing game. The story of the game was the play of the defensive line, offensive line, and running backs.

Quarterback: Kent Graham (8-out-of-23 for 144 yards, 2 interceptions, 1 touchdown) was pretty bad. Last week, I talked about how painful it was to see him try to hit a running back out of the backfield and very little changed this week. Kent threw badly behind a back early in the game. Most of his passing yards did come on a well executed screen pass (can you believe it? the Giants finally were able to run a screen pass!) that went for 87 yards and a score. To be fair, Graham was victimized by some dropped balls, but with the benefit of an outstanding running game, I think he only completed two passes in the second half of the game. Worse, his second interception almost cost the Giants the lead. I can’t ever remember a team winning a game completing just eight passes. Accuracy, or should I say lack thereof, continues to be Graham’s biggest problem. On the plus side, Kent’s pocket presence was pretty good and he did a good job stepping up.

Offensive Line: If it weren’t for all the stupid penalties, these guys would have had a wonderful game. Granted, the Cardinals were pretty beat up in the front seven. However, the offensive line simply dominated the line of scrimmage. Indeed, it was like watching a football game from the 1930’s as the Giants practically told the Cardinals, “We’re only going to run the ball. Let’s see if you can stop us.” And they couldn’t. The guy who really stuck out to me was RT Scott Gragg. For the second time this season, Gragg shut down the first defensive player taken in the draft, Andre Wadsworth. Moreover, Gragg wasn’t penalized once in the game (a minor miracle considering all the infractions his teammates picked up). Also, let’s give Gragg some credit. Remember all those false start penalties last year from him. Well, Gragg has really improved in that department by doing a better job of playing disciplined football. I’ve also focused a lot on LT Roman Oben’s pass blocking all year, but his run blocking is coming along nicely. He controlled the corner on numerous occasions. I saw OC Lance Scott do a good job of making initial contact with a defensive tackle and then coming off and taking out a linebacker. Much of the success of the inside running game and outside pulls goes to the guards, Ron Stone and Greg Bishop. Stone made a couple of very nice blocks on Tiki Barber’s 87-yard TD, including an all-hustle down-the-field block. The only negative with Stone is that I’d like to see him sustain his blocks better. The big negative was all the penalties, with Oben and Bishop being the main culprits.

Tight Ends: Howard Cross (1 catch for nine yards) once again blocked like an extra offensive lineman. Cross is one of the few tight ends in the game who can handle a defensive end by himself. Unfortunately, Cross fumbled the ball on his only catch (a big time hustle play from FB Charles Way saved the day). Andy Haase (1 catch for six yards) made another catch and played quite a bit in a two-TE set. He is impressing me more and more and looks to have a possible bright future as a back-up. Haase has nice hands.

Running Backs: Outstanding. Back in training camp, I thought Gary Brown looked like the best of the bunch (see my old camp report). With each passing week, he is getting more and more in sync with the offensive line. What impressed me most about Brown (25 carries for 124 yards, for nearly a 5.0 yards-per-carry average) was not all the yards he picked up, but the desire he played with. He’s one tough son of a gun and wouldn’t give up without a fight. Brown ran well both inside and, on occasion, outside. He cut back well and plays a very physical game. There is something very “Giant” about the way he runs the ball — not flashy, but tough, physical, and determined. Speaking of determined, Way (13 carries for 60 yards, a 4.6 yards-per-carry average) continues to be that personified. His short run to the left side was “Bavaro-like,” dragging three tacklers with him for extra yardage. I don’t know why (perhaps a previous injury has healed), but Way has exploded in his last two games. His blocking was great and he also beat up Cardinal defenders with his bruising running style. The guy I was most happy for was Tiki Barber. I had a feeling (see my game preview) that Tiki was breaking out of his slump (it’s about freaking time). He hasn’t dropped a ball in quite a while and on the 87-yard TD catch-and-run, he showed that burst that has been missing all year. Let’s pray this bodes of things to come.

Wide Receivers: Every time I say that it’s time for Chris Calloway (3 catches for 35 yards) to step aside, he has one of those games which makes it look like he is the only competent receiver on the Giants. Calloway was the only Giants’ receiver to make a positive impact in the game. He did drop one catchable ball, but he was “Mr. Sure and Steady” for Graham, especially on his crossing routes. His catch right before halftime was huge as it set up Brad Daluiso’s 51-yard field goal. He also broke a tackle on one play and picked up some run-after-the-catch yardage. The others? Not good. Ike Hilliard (1 catch for a measly 3 yards) dropped two or three balls. Perhaps his wisdom tooth was still bothering him. Regardless, Ike has to start stringing good games together. On one play, I thought he didn’t do a good job coming back for the ball and this allowed the defender to break up the pass. On another route, on third down, he didn’t run the pattern deep enough to pick up the first down. The other receivers were invisible.

Defensive Line: These guys started off the game slow as the Cardinals moved at will on their first two drives, but they settled down after that and dominated the game. Where the Giants’ defensive line really stood out was on their goalline stand in the second half and the pressure they exerted on QB Jake Plummer on second to last drive of the game when it looked like the Cardinals might tie the game. Leading the pack once again was DE Michael Strahan (7 tackles, 1 sack) who was a terror against the run. Strahan also gave the Cardinals’ right tackle problems on the pass rush. DE Chad Bratzke was exposed somewhat against the run as usual. He picked up a big sack that was unfortunately called back due to a penalty. DT Keith Hamilton was a force inside, stuffing the run and forcing the backs to run outside as well as getting decent inside pass pressure. DT Christian Peter (6 tackles) played almost the entire game for the injured Robert Harris and played well. He’s a much better run player than pass rusher, but when he did get to the quarterback, he made Plummer pay. His hustle was most impressive. DE Cedric Jones stood out on one play where he sacked the quarterback, forced a fumble, and recovered the fumble.

Linebackers: OLB Jessie Armstead (5 tackles) played much of the game on one leg as his ankle was giving him problems again. He had one heck of a hit by filling the hole on a right side run. MLB Corey Widmer played a strong game and came up with a huge pass defense in the endzone late in the game. Marcus Buckley was solid in pass coverage, but didn’t make many plays. Ryan Phillips played quite a bit. He was beaten deep by the tight end immediately upon entering the game, but came back on the very next play with nice coverage. He also made a play or two against the run. Scott Galyon was forced to leave the game early with a broken leg.

Defensive Backs: An up and down day, especially for CB Conrad Hamilton. Hamilton (7 tackles) really stood out in run defense, being the last man to save the day on a few sweeps. He also played tight, aggressive coverage underneath (as opposed to last Monday night). However, Hamilton was beaten deep twice (luckily one ball was overthrown, but the other set the Cards up on the one yard line). CB Phillippi Sparks played a strong game, but was beaten once on a crossing route. Whenever CB Jeremy Lincoln is in the game, I hold my breath, but Lincoln didn’t really embarrass himself (despite playing a mile off the line of scrimmage) and he came up with a huge interception in the endzone on third-and-goal. S/CB Shaun Williams also came up with a big pick late in the second quarter that set up a Giant field goal. He did get flagged with a costly holding penalty late in the game however, erasing Bratzke’s sack. FS Tito Wooten is driving me crazy. Watching him trying to tackle an open field runner is like watching someone who has never played football before doing the same. It was a joke seeing him “attempt” to bring down FB Larry Centers on his 57-yard screen pass (a play where FS Percy Ellsworth made a good play to prevent the touchdown). However, on the very next play, both Percy and Tito were run over by Adrian Murrell. Tito also didn’t attack Plummer on Plummer’s big draw play that was fortunately called back. On the positive side, Tito did come up with a crushing hit on WR Rob Moore that caused Moore to drop the ball. He also showed excellent hustle on his blitz that led to an incompletion. Strangely, SS Sam Garnes didn’t seem to play much. Ellsworth saw a lot of playing time, but didn’t stand out.

Giants on Special Teams: Watching the Giants trying to cover a kick is an absolute joke. It seems as if the returner regularly reaches the 40-yard line. That’s unacceptable. Only twice during the game did the Giants solidly cover a kick, with Bernard Holsey and Shaun Williams making plays. Shaun Williams also made a heck of an open-field tackle on the punt right after the intentional safety. (Incidentally, the intentional safety was a great call by the coaching staff). Brad Maynard got off a beautiful 58-yard punt, but also shanked one. PK Brad Dalusio came through with a big day, hitting three field goals, including two long ones (one for 51 yards, another for 45). Punt returner Amani Toomer continues to head for the safety of the sidelines. Kick returner David Patten hasn’t come close to breaking one in weeks. Neither Amani or David are receiving much help from their blockers.

Dec 041998

Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals, December 6, 1998: Who would have ever guessed the Giants would be 4-8 after 12 games? The Giants’ players and coaches have nothing to look forward to except for next season.

Giants on Offense: QB Kent Graham has made quite a difference in the offense. No, the Giants aren’t really being that much more productive. But Kent is at least forcing teams to respect the deep passing game and this should help open up the running game and underneath passing game. Kent is still too inaccurate. I would like to see steady improvement in this department. Graham may be 30, but he has not started that many games in the NFL.

Last week, the main beneficiary of Kent’s willingness to throw the ball down the field was Ike Hilliard. Ike and Kent are just starting to get into sync with each other. What I really would like to see is for Kent to hit Ike while the latter is at full speed. This would enable Hilliard to use his superb run-after-the-catch ability that we really haven’t seen much of yet.

What is also clear is that the days of Chris Calloway as a starter are numbered. There is a good chance that he won’t be in the starting line-up on opening day next year. Who will replace him? Joe Jurevicius, Brian Alford, Amani Toomer, David Patten, or some new draftee/free agent? My best guess is that it would be Jurevicius or Alford. Jurevicius has shown big play ability, but he needs to be more consistent and disciplined in his route running and catching. Alford has deep speed and is extremely fluid. He has earned praise from Fassel for his work in practice, but I hear that he still has problems with his routes as well. Still, I’d like to see him some in the final four games.

At tight end, rookie free agent Andy Haase made an excellent catch last week for 27 yards. Was this a fluke or an indication of some real ability? Stay tuned.

The offense line is a mess. Roman Oben and Ron Stone have the ability to be standout performers, but the others are wanting. Oben faces DE Simeon Rice, a guy who Oben has shut down in three straight games, but a guy who is angry at the Giants for some remarks Special Teams Coach Larry MacDuff supposedly made. Stone has always played well against Eric Swann, but Swann is out of the game. Rumors are running rampant about the rest of the line. Whether these rumors have any basis in reality is open to debate. Supposedly, Scott Gragg will be moved to guard next year. Supposedly, Brian Williams is on the road to recovery. Supposedly, Greg Bishop will not be invited back.

Things are more settled in the backfield. For whatever reason, the Giants seem to be able to run well against a tough Cardinal defense. Look for more of the same on Sunday. Gary Brown is proving that he can do a steady, workmanlike job. Charles Way is coming off his best game of the season. I’d like the Giants to start working Tiki more into the game plan over the last four games. He shows some signs of getting out of his funk and it would be nice to know one way or the other before the season ends if there is still real potential there.

Giants on Defense: The defense is simply not playing that well lately. Part of it has to do with the fact that they are on the field so long. Part of it probably has to do with the disappointment of knowing they are out of it. Part of it has to do with breakdowns defensively. Tito Wooten is hurting the Giants more than helping them right now. Why is he still starting? I can only guess that the coaching staff wants to see if he can play out of his funk before making a big decision on him in the offseason. It also may be due to the fact that Percy Ellsworth simply isn’t a very fast player. Shaun Williams is waiting in the wings, but he still is making too many rookie mistakes and the safety position on the Giants is very complicated. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of Brandon Sanders on the field. The Cardinals have very good wide receivers. It will be interesting to see how CB Conrad Hamilton responds after his poor game on Monday.

The Giants have to make some decisions in the linebacking corps as well. Should they re-sign Corey Widmer, the steady, but unspectacular player? If they don’t, are Doug Colman or Pete Monty really starting caliber? Does Ryan Phillips have the ability to unseat Marcus Buckley? Who is the true Scott Galyon? The 1997 or 1998 version?

The game against the Cardinals will decided up front. The Giants need to shut down the fun and get after the passer. I’ve been disappointed in the play of Robert Harris (one of my favorites) of late. With DE Michael Strahan getting double-teamed so much, Harris should be making more plays. Keith Hamilton is also up-and-down. It wouldn’t hurt to keep giving Christian Peter more playing time. On the right side, I think the coaching staff must give Cedric Jones more of an opportunity to show his stuff. If not, how are the Giants going to know what they really have when it comes time to decide whether or not to re-sign Chad Bratzke?

Giants on Special Teams: Curtis Buckley did not play as well against the 49ers as he did against the Eagles. I hope to see better and smarter play from him, Brandon Sanders, Shaun Williams, and the backup linebackers on coverage. I would also give some punt return opportunities to Tiki Barber. Amani Toomer isn’t getting the job done.

Dec 031998
San Francisco 49ers 31 – New York Giants 7

Overview: This game was a lot closer than the final score would indicate and if the Giants would have been able to generate any positive offensive consistency, the Giants may have had a legitimate shot at the upset. But once again, the same old breakdowns occurred: the offense could not pick up first downs, the defense gave up the big play, and the special teams did not stand out.

Quarterbacks: Kent Graham (21-41, 237 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception) is an improvement over Danny Kanell. Whether that will true in the long-term is a matter open for debate, but Graham is at the very least giving his receivers a shot to make plays down the field. Graham is a fairly accurate deep passer and threw some nice looking long passes to Ike Hilliard (3) and TE Andy Haase. He also just missed connecting with Joe Jurevicius and Amani Toomer for big plays as well. Another big change is that Graham wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s an emotional guy and tried his best to get his offensive teammates pumped up (only Ike Hilliard seemed likewise fired up). The Giants don’t have enough of this fire in their bellies and we hope the draft/free agent newcomers the Giants bring aboard in 1999 have more of this quality.

Graham’s biggest weakness remains his overall accuracy, especially on short throws. Indeed, it is painful to watch him try to hit a running back on a swing pass. He also badly overthrew a wide open Chris Calloway on a play that resulted in an interception. A completion there would have probably given the Giants another score. He also should have given Joe Jurevicius some better opportunities on his passes to him in the endzone in the fourth quarter.

I doubt Graham is the answer because of inaccuracy. But if he can improve in this department, he may be holding onto the starting job a lot longer than some think.

Offensive Line: A mixed bag here. Honestly, their inconsistency is extremely frustrating. The good news was their run blocking was fairly strong. The Giants rushed for 120 yards on the ground — despite being behind the entire second half. But there were too many blown assignments, especially on runs to the outside. However, where the line really struggled was in pass protection. Once again, Giant quarterbacks didn’t have enough time to set up in the pocket. The 49ers gave the line problems with blitzes and with just rushing the down four. Scott Gragg’s poor block led directly to Graham’s fumble in the first quarter. Junior Bryant gave Ron Stone problems (Stone was also flagged for a false start). What makes all of this so exacerbating is that at times during a game, these guys play well. But playing well in small spurts is not enough.

Wide Receivers: Ike Hilliard finally had the kind of game we have been waiting for. Hilliard (6 catches for 141 yards) caught two huge passes for 50 and 48 yards (I can’t remember a Giant receiver who caught two 45+ yard catches in one game) and probably could have had an even bigger night if the offensive line had given Graham more time. Graham is starting to become comfortable with Hilliard and that is obviously good news for the team. The only real negative is that he should have scored on the first play of the game. Chris Calloway (5 catches for 45 yards) had his typical yeoman-like game. Joe Jurevicius (1 catch for 7 yards) played a lot, but Graham kept just missing him. He also inexplicably dropped another pass — Joe’s hands are MUCH better than that. Amani Toomer (2 catches for 14 yards) dropped a pass and seems to be fading — although he made a great deep catch that was ruled out-of-bounds.

Tight Ends: Surprisingly, TE Andy Haase played quite a bit and made an excellent 27 catch — an athletic, over-the-shoulder play DOWN THE FIELD, something Howard Cross doesn’t do. Cross blocked well but was a non-factor in the passing game.

Halfbacks/Fullbacks: FB Charles Way (6 carries for 53 yards, an 8.8 yards-per-carry average) played his best game of 1998. He ran with power and determination, something I haven’t seen since last year. HB Gary Brown (15 carries for 56 yards, 3.7 yards-per-carry average) ran the ball well up the gut. His touchdown run was all attitude. But he didn’t receive much blocking when running to the outside. HB Tiki Barber (2 carries for 9 yards, 4 catches for 13 yards) made a highlight-reel type catch for short yardage. He was very sure-handed catching the ball all night. Perhaps he is finally coming out of his slump.

Defensive Line: The ends had their moments. DE Michael Strahan picked up two more sacks and seemed to be one of the few players playing with emotion. DE Chad Bratzke also picked up another sack and is having a career-year. However, the 49ers were the first team I’ve seen all year successfully run on Strahan and none of the four down lineman did a great job of containing Steve Young on his scrambles (5 carries for 62 yards). DT Keith Hamilton seemed lost trying to tackle him on a couple of occasions. He had only one tackle in the game. Robert Harris has been too quiet in recent weeks. Hamilton and Harris need to play better (though to be honest, the guards of the 49ers are the strength of their line). DE Cedric Jones and DT Christian Peter saw significant playing time and didn’t play poorly. Both got good pressure on one play. DT Bernard Holsey was crushed by a double-team on HB Garrison Hearst’s 70-yard touchdown run.

Linebackers: WLB Jessie Armstead played well at times and flashed some of last year’s superb play. He only had four tackles, but was an emotional leader on the field. However, it seemed to me that he was the one responsible for covering TE Irv Smith on his TD catch. Armstead was also handled on Hearst’s TD run. MLB Corey Widmer and SLB Marcus Buckley didn’t play well, especially against the run. Widmer seems to fading. Buckley is a liability against the run — but we all knew that. Scott Galyon saw a decent amount of playing time, but didn’t make much of an impact.

Defensive Backs: Conrad Hamilton had his worst game as a Giant. The 49ers made it obvious that they were targeting him all night and Hamilton could not respond. Conrad missed a crucial tackle on a short pass to Terrell Owens that allowed him to go 79 yards for the score. But he also was exposed on slants all night. Hamilton seemed very timid to me and played far too off the ball. On the other hand, Phillippi Sparks (10 tackles) played another good game. Part of that was the 49er interest in going after Hamilton, but Sparks did a good job against Jerry Rice (3 catches for 25 yards) and that is no easy feat. SS Sam Garnes was invisible. FS Tito Wooten continues to disappoint. He dropped an easy interception, tried to tackle with his shoulders repeatedly, and took the wrong angle and missed badly on Hearst’s TD run. S Shaun Williams was burned badly on a crucial third down play that set up the 49er’s score right before halftime. CB Carlton Gray was strong for most of the game except for one big faux pas when he allowed Terrell Owens to pick up 24 yards on 3rd-and-33 — a play that allowed the 49ers to kick a field goal.

Special Teams: Not good at all. Brad Daluiso missed badly on one field goal and had another blocked. Brad Maynard seems to be kicking too many line drives again down the middle of the field. Coverage was not strong and R.W. McQuarters had too much room to run — his 26-yard punt return helped to set up the 49ers’ third touchdown (as did Shaun Williams bone-headed late hit). Amani Toomer has regressed to his old days…he’s afraid to run the ball up the middle. David Patten couldn’t break a return.