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Friday, October 24, 2008
Audibles: NFC East Week 8 preview

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

New York Giants (5-1) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1), 4:15 p.m. ET

Two of the best defenses in the league get together in what could be a Super Bowl preview. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes a lot of sacks, and Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have a blitz package that keeps him guessing.

It remains to be seen how wide receiver Plaxico Burress will be affected by a sore neck. I don't think it will keep him off the field, but you might see Domenik Hixon get more reps than usual.

Giants defensive tackle Fred Robbins has five sacks on the season, and defensive end Justin Tuck has called him the best lineman on the team. The Giants want to strike quickly with the downfield passing game, and then they'll try to gash the Steelers with Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward.

According to people I've talked to in the organization, Tom Coughlin has been trying to come up with more opportunities for Ahmad Bradshaw. Linebacker Antonio Pierce will rejoin the lineup, but Chase Blackburn proved to be an effective backup. This will be close for three quarters, but the Giants will pull away late. Giants left tackle David Diehl has been banged up this week, but there's no way he'll miss the game. Since the wildcard game in 2006, the Giants have only had one lineman miss a game. That was center Shaun O'Hara missing last season's playoff game against the Bucs.

Dallas Cowboys (4-3) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2), 1 p.m. ET

This is obviously a huge game for the Cowboys. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has spent this week tailoring the offense to help Brad Johnson succeed. And no matter what happens, the Cowboys will not abandon the run this week. The Bucs will put eight men in the box, which shouldn't surprise the Cowboys at all.

Wade Phillips has taken over the defensive play calling, and we'll see if that has any effect. The Cowboys have two rookies seeing significant time at cornerback. I fully expect Phillips to try and disguise his blitz packages a lot more in this game. Veteran outside linebacker Greg Ellis has complained about his role in the defense. It will be interesting to see if Phillips frees him up to rush more.

It's imperative for the Cowboys to get off to a fast start in this game. Johnson is not the type of quarterback who can play from behind. The Cowboys' offensive line has to do a much better job of buying Johnson some time. And the Cowboys have to let him dump the ball off to Marion Barber more in this game. There's no excuse for asking him Johnson to throw downfield more than two or three times.

Washington Redskins (5-2) vs. Detroit Lions (0-6), 1 p.m. ET

I know you're tempted to think this is a trap game, but that already happened to the Redskins. The Rams loss made them hungry again. I don't think this game will be close.

The one thing the Redskins don't want to do is wear Clinton Portis out. Giving him 27 carries is too much. He's averaging more carries than any back in football. That can't happen this week. The Redskins will try to run up the score in the first half, and then prepare for a lot of Shaun Alexander in the second half.

And watch what London Fletcher does in this game. If he doesn't go to the Pro Bowl this season, something is seriously wrong. Is this the game that Devin Thomas actually does something in the passing game? I actually think it is.

But my pick to click in this game is tight end Chris Cooley, who will go for about seven catches and 100 yards. Coach Jim Zorn has discovered a gaping hole in the middle of the Lions' defense and he will exploit it with Cooley. Odd prediction of the week: FB Mike Sellers finds the end zone.

Atlanta Falcons (4-2) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (3-3), 1 p.m. ET

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson wants to confuse Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan at every turn. You might not see six or seven sacks, but Ryan will get hit almost every time he goes back to throw. The Falcons are one of the best rushing teams in the league.

Unless you're the Redskins, though, you can't run on the Eagl
es. Philadelphia wants to make Atlanta one-dimensional early in this game. I don't like Michael Turner's chances against this defense.

Running back Brian Westbrook took full advantage of the bye week and he appears to be fully healthy. Westbrook will make a huge difference, because the offense has looked sluggish without him. Watch the first 15 plays of this game. Those are the ones that are scripted, and for whativer reason, they're the most creative. It will also help to have Kevin Curtis back from his sports hernia injury.

The Eagles have been dreadful in the red zone this season, and that's an area head coach Andy Reid worked on during the bye week. Tight end L.J. Smith was supposed to help in that area this season, but he hasn't done a lot. Quarterback Donovan McNabb will finally be allowed to run a quarterback sneak -- and that will help in the red zone.

Eagles win this game going away. They've been a nightmare for rookie quarterbacks in the past, and I smell a long day coming for Ryan.