Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Let's admit it. The NFC East hasn't exactly provided us with great theater through five games of the '09 season. You could argue that Chiefs-Cowboys was an instant classic -- as long as you skip the first three quarters. But on Sunday, the Beast emerges from its five-week slumber with a matchup between two heavyweights in the NFC.
We pretty much assumed the Giants were going to be in the Super Bowl conversation heading into the season, but the Saints were a different story. For all their prolific offensive numbers, they had not been a good defensive team under coach Sean Payton. But after winning a bidding war for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams this offseason with some of his own money, Payton and the Saints appear to have as good a chance as anyone from the NFC.
Could this be a preview of the NFC Championship Game? It's hard to say at this point, but it should be an entertaining matchup. The Beast blog now presents my five favorite storylines heading into Sunday's game in New Orleans:
1. Eli Manning is going home to play in the Superdome for the first time. It's hard to believe that the youngest Manning boy grew up in New Orleans, hung out with his father at Saints games, but has never played in the Superdome. Brothers Peyton and Cooper played high school games in the famous stadium, but the one NFL game Eli was supposed to play in New Orleans was moved to Giants Stadium in 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina.
Manning hasn't lost his "aw, shucks" demeanor, so it's hard to tell how much this game means to him. I think he'll take a moment before the game to sort of soak everything in -- and then he'll go about his business like any other road game. The outcome of this game isn't going to determine whether the Giants make it back to the Super Bowl, but it will give them a great idea of how they stack up against a pretty impressive team. The Giants have devoured the dregs of the league (Bucs, Chiefs, Raiders, Redskins), and that's why it's hard to truly know how good they are at this point.
Manning has thrown 10 touchdowns against only two interceptions this season and he's kept his passer rating over 100 the past four weeks. He's certainly right in the middle of the MVP conversation and a big game in front of a hostile crowd would only enhance his chances. A lot of folks have him trailing big brother Peyton right now, but I think a win on Sunday would put Eli in front. Williams has done a tremendous job with the Saints' defense, but so far this season, Manning has been unflappable. I don't see that changing.
2. The Giants will see an old friend in tight end Jeremy Shockey. I realize this storyline is getting a little tired, but we're not going to run from it. Earlier in the week, Shockey told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he still had a "bitter taste" in his mouth about his very public split with the Giants. The reality is that Shockey acted like a baby when the Giants didn't coddle him leading up to Super Bowl XLII. Like many injured players, he felt estranged from his teammates down the stretch -- but a lot of that was his own doing. Payton has a good understanding of Shockey because he once served as offensive coordinator for the Giants. He knows how volatile Shockey can be and I think he'll do a good job of trying to prevent the tight end from going overboard Sunday.
Shockey's a very talented player. He's also incredibly childish. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Giants' defenders try to bait him a little bit during the game. Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce has been very complimentary of Shockey this week, but I wouldn't be shocked if he changed his tune after kickoff.
3. Can the Giants' front four get to Drew Brees? Quick, name the Saints' starting left tackle. Unless you follow this team on a weekly basis, you'll have a hard time coming up with Jermon Bushrod and his understudy Zach Strief. The Saints lost Pro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown for the season -- and it hasn't mattered. Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at getting the ball out quickly. Payton has provided the perfect system for Brees' skills -- and he takes advantage of some tremendous weapons. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas has even tried to make the argument in the past that Brees is the best quarterback in the league. I think this will be a fascinating cat-and-mouse game between Giants defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and Payton. Here's where I think the Giants can hurt Brees: Players such as Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka have enormous wingspans. They're not always going to get to Brees, but I think you'll see them bat down some passes.
I think the Giants will move defensive end Justin Tuck inside even more than usual Sunday. The Giants want to bring pressure up the middle in an effort to force Brees out of the pocket. He can move around a little bit, but it's not as if he's great at throwing on the run. I also think you'll see the Giants bring some pressure from their cornerbacks and safeties. I like the way Pierce checks into different calls right before the snap. He did that against the Cowboys and it paid off with an interception return for a touchdown by Bruce Johnson. The Giants will do everything they can to make Brees uncomfortable.
4. With linebacker Michael Boley out with an injury, how will the Giants account for the Saints' RBs? This is the topic that's not getting enough play nationally. The Saints finally have all their running backs healthy. Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush pose a serious threat to any defense -- but especially one that has had trouble covering running backs in space. That's what Boley was brought in to do after Brian Westbrook exposed Pierce last December. Just as he did in 2006, Payton uses Bush as his primary receiving back. He'll use him in a variety of ways in the passing game -- and occasionally he'll even hand him the ball.
Thomas and Bell probably will end up splitting the carries. Thomas may be the closest thing to a feature back that the Saints have -- and he's been excellent lately. Bell was really good early in the season and now he's ready to go again. I guarantee you that Sheridan's almost as concerned about the backs as he is about the Saints' wideouts. Chase Blackburn's a solid replacement for Boley against the run, but he could struggle trying to cover Bush. Someone should be spying on Bush at all times.
5. Manning has to know where Darren Sharper is at all times. If Manning has a nemesis, it's this guy. Sharper's one of those crafty safeties who seems to constantly lure quarterbacks into mistakes. And he's driven Manning nuts in the Meadowlands. Sharper has picked off Manning four times, returning two of those for touchdowns. Manning joked this week that he has single-handedly kept Sharper going to Pro Bowls.
Like his brother, Manning does an excellent job of making pre-snap reads. He rarely checks into the wrong play. And he'll know where Sharper is at every moment Sunday. The crowd noise is going to be a factor and I think the Giants will be ready to go with a silent count if they need to. Manning's been superb on deep balls through five games. I'd look for him to try to hit Mario Manningham or Hakeem Nicks on a double move early in the game. He'll try to take advantage of Sharper's daring ways.
The Beast has reserved a seat in the Superdome press box Sunday, so make sure you join me for all the action.