Approach to the Game – Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants, December 17, 2006: This is likely to be a very tough game. Both teams have been terribly inconsistent and this is a heated divisional rivalry that usually results in close games. While the Eagles have lost QB Donovan McNabb, his replacement is a former long-time starter who has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in relief of McNabb. While the Eagles’ defense has had some issues, it usually gives the Giants fits with Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson’s attacking, blitzing schemes.

It’s a huge game. The winner will have the inside track on a playoff spot while the loser may be left out in the cold.

Giants on Defense: McNabb is done, but Jeff Garcia is a quality reserve who has been playing pretty darn well. While he does not have a strong arm, he is mobile and has been making good decisions (8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions). Perhaps more importantly, he is surrounding with a very good supporting cast – a big and solid offensive line and some dangerous weapons at the skill positions.

I usually start off a defensive game preview by saying the Giants have to stop the run first and foremost. That’s not a big concern with the Eagles simply because they are a pass-first offense. If the Eagles are able to hurt the Giants on the ground, New York has no chance in this football game and I’m going to assume the Giants’ run defense – which has been pretty darn good most of the year – will not have problems against the Eagles.

What could be a problem is covering HB Brian Westbrook, TE L.J. Smith, and wide receivers Dante Stallworth and Reggie Brown. Since he has become a feature back in Philadelphia, Westbrook has been the heart of that offense (even when Terrell Owens was there). He’s the guy you need to control. He’s deadly catching the ball (69 receptions and four touchdowns), both out of the backfield and split out wide. In particular, he is very dangerous on screen passes. It’s going to be real challenge for the Giants’ linebackers and safeties to deal with him. Then you also have to factor in L.J. Smith (44 catches and five touchdowns). The undercoverage will really be under a lot of stress.

Also, look for the Eagles to do what a lot of opponents of the Giants have been doing lately and that is spread out Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis’ zone defense with multiple wide receiver sets. That would mean that not only will Stallworth (34 catches and five touchdowns) and Brown (39 catches and seven touchdowns) be a factor, but so could Hank Baskett and Greg Lewis. If the Eagles do this, the Giants really need to make the Eagles pay with a strong pass rush up front, combined with much tighter coverage against these multiple receiver sets. Too often, opponents have found the soft spots in these zones. The West Coast Offense that the Eagles employ is specifically designed to pressure coverage both vertically and horizontally. The Eagles probably don’t have a lot of respect for the coverage ability of the Giants’ back seven on defense. Stallworth is the homerun hitter. The Giants need a big game out of Sam Madison against him.

One huge key will be to keep Garcia in the pocket. Like Tony Romo, he is far less effective throwing from inside the pocket than when he is moving around outside the pocket. Ends Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka need be disciplined and not let him get around them.

Giants on Offense: Philadelphia has had a lot of problems stopping the run this year. I expect them to sell out against the run this week and force Eli Manning and the passing game to beat them. The Eagles likely recognize that Manning is pretty much only looking to WR Plaxico Burress and TE Jeremy Shockey in the passing game. They probably feel pretty good about their match-ups there with CB Sheldon Brown on Plaxico and the ability of the safeties, especially Brian Dawkins, to keep Shockey in check. They certainly aren’t going to fret much over Tim Carter.

If I’m Coughlin, despite the Eagles’ likely strategy, I still attempt to pound the football early and often. The real key is to get a hat on MLB Jeremiah Trotter, who has a history of killing the Giants. Trotter really shut down the Giants’ running game in the first meeting and Tiki Barber still publicly states how much he hates getting pounded by the big middle linebacker. What the Giants did late in the last Eagles game (4th quarter and overtime) was spread the field and force the Eagles to take Trotter out of the game. The Giants then ran the ball out of the shotgun. It will be interesting to see if the team does that again.

I know the Giants won’t do it, but I would be real tempted to play Brandon Jacobs a lot in this game. I think he could wear down this smaller Eagles’ defense and take the heart out of them. At the very least, Coughlin should keep Jacobs in the game for a series or two at a time and not replace him immediately after a good run. Let him get into a rhythm.

The Eagles do have some dangerous defensive linemen. DE Trent Cole gives the Giants fits and he has eight sacks on the season. He has already vowed this will be a revenge game for him against the Giants because of the earlier season loss. Both tackles will likely see him. Inside, the Eagles have a nice defensive tackle combination with Darwin Walker and Mike Patterson. Both can disrupt and penetrate. Keep in mind that the last time these two teams met, the Eagles had eight sacks – EIGHT!

If Rich Seubert fills in for Shaun O’Hara at center, this will limit the Giants some as Seubert will not be able to play his power tight end spot (this would have been a good formation against the Eagles). Also, Seubert will likely have some problems recognizing the complicated Eagles’ blitzing schemes and making the proper line adjustments simply because he is not an experienced center. Look for the Eagles to really test Seubert by blitzing a ton.

If the Giants can’t run the football, they will likely be in a lot of trouble. Manning will have to have another good game and someone other than Burress and Shockey need to step up in the pass-receiving department. That could be Barber or someone like Sinorice Moss. If Tim Carter is going to do anything this year, now is the time.

The one thing that the offense can’t do is turn the football over. Don’t beat yourself with turnovers and penalties.

Giants on Special Teams: The special teams finally put together a good game last week. The Eagles could use Westbrook on punt returns in this game as this is a must-game for them. He is obviously very dangerous in that department, winning a game against the Giants on a last-second punt return in 2003.

Keep in mind that the big play in the Giants-Eagles game last year in the Meadowlands was a blocked punt by David Tyree.