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Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Blogger Debate: Eagles vs. Giants


 
 Larry French/Getty Images
 The Giants and Eagles split their regular-season series, with Philadelphia taking the latest matchup on Dec. 7.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

The Eagles and Giants will participate in what could be one of the best NFC divisional playoff matchups in years. And that's just one of the reasons I plan to file 67 blog entries on the game before Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

The Eagles are talking about being the New York Giants of 2007, and they appear to be hitting their stride at the right time. The Giants are also hoping to be the Giants of 2007 -- albeit from a different starting point.

Podcast: Football Today
Jeremy Green talks NFC playoffs with Matt Mosley, those dangerous wild-card teams with Len Pasquarelli and reacts to the latest coaching news.

In the past, we've staged debates with award-winning writers such as Pat Yasinskas (NFC South) and James Walker (AFC North). For this week's debate, we racked our (immense) brains for the perfect foe. Recognizable names such as Philadelphia Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann and New York Daily News columnist Gary Myers were early candidates, but they didn't have the proper blog software. In the end, we chose the one man at ESPN.com who really seems to get me:

Me.

So let the debate begin:

Will the bye week help or hurt the mighty Giants?

Matt Mosley: The Giants used last season's regular-season finale against the Patriots to jump-start their Super Bowl run. This year, the Giants already knew they would have the bye heading into the last game against the Vikings. Tom Coughlin wisely rested Eli Manning and some of his key players in the second half, so the last-second loss didn't really affect the team's psyche.

Coughlin did a nice job of having some full-speed workouts during the bye week to try to keep the team's physical edge. Mentally, the Week 16 win over the Panthers did wonders for this team. On paper, you see that the Giants have lost three of their past four games. But that's not something they see as an issue. With a healthy Brandon Jacobs, this offense takes on a much more physical identity. He'll give the Giants the edge they didn't have against the Eagles in a loss in the Meadowlands on Dec. 7. This team will come out fresh and the combination of Jacobs and Derrick Ward will be a lot for the Eagles' defense to handle.

Mosley: The Eagles might be the most dangerous team in the playoffs right now. They weren't supposed to be here, and that seems to have a calming effect on the team. Yes, the team is banged up right now, but the players seem to be in a nice rhythm. As Andy Reid was quick to point out Monday, recent trends show that the first-round bye isn't quite as beneficial as we once thought. The Cowboys certainly clocked out early last season and the Eagles are hoping to do that to the Giants.

The Eagles don't have any reason to be tight going into this game. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is playing some of the best football of his career and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson loves facing this offense without Plaxico Burress. And that leads us to our next topic.

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How much of a role will Plaxico Burress' absence play in this game?

Mosley: Though he might not admit it, Johnson can be a lot more creative with his blitz packages when Burress is out. It allows him to play a lot of man coverage and there's not as much pressure on his short cornerbacks. That played a big role in the Eagles' 20-14 win over the Giants last month. At 6-foot-5, Burress required constant attention from the Eagles, and he'd put up great numbers against them over the past seven or eight games. He had four 100-yard games and was a constant threat in the red zone. Johnson would've put Asante Samuel on Burress and then shaded a safety over the top. He won't need to do that against Burress' replacement, Domenik Hixon.

It also allows Johnson to sell out to stop the Giants' running game. Did you see how they turned everything back inside on Adrian Peterson in the second half last Sunday? Against Brandon Jacobs, they'll try to never let him get a head of steam. And with big Victor Abiamiri possibly returning to the lineup, the Eagles have the type of run defense that can give the Giants problems.

Matt Mosley: The Giants have had plenty of time to adjust to life without Burress. After a shaky start, Hixon has settled down and he's making plays again. Hixon's explosive in his own right, and Eli Manning thinks the Giants can exploit the Eagles' blitz. If the Giants can protect Man
ning, he'll have a chance to make some big plays in the passing game. The absence of Burress also has allowed tight end Kevin Boss to become more of a factor. He was an afterthought early in the season, but now he gives Manning another reliable target in the red zone. Burress wasn't putting up great numbers before he was suspended and put on the non-football injury list. Tom Coughlin doesn't believe in excuses and that's why his team has moved on without Burress.

 
 Evan Pinkus/Getty Images
 Brian Westbrook had over 200 total yards and two TDs in the Eagles win over the Giants in December.

Will the Giants allow Eagles running back Brian Westbrook to exploit them again?

Matt Mosley: When Westbrook exploded for a huge game against the Giants in the Meadowlands last month, Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce was coming off an emotional couple of days. He'd met with the New York police to discuss his role in Burress' accidental shooting, and that had to serve as a distraction. Coughlin said Monday that the Giants simply called the wrong defensive play when Pierce got matched up with Westbrook one-on-one on a little wheel route that resulted in a long touchdown. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will make sure that doesn't happen again. He will know where Westbrook is at all times, and you'll see 11 guys running to the ball. Some teams like to allow Westbrook to catch the short ones and then surround him with defenders. You just can't allow one of those screens that helped bring down the Vikings.

Mosley: The Eagles want to get Westbrook at least 25 touches Sunday -- and that's a conservative estimate. He banged away at the Giants' defensive line for 33 carries in that December game. Reid blamed the uncharacteristic game plan on high winds inside Giants Stadium, and I'm sure some Eagles fans are hoping for similar conditions. But both of these teams are used to playing in the elements. It will come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes.

Both quarterbacks do a nice job of limiting their mistakes, although Manning has the edge in that category. And one last thing: This game could come down to a special-teams play. The Giants blocked a David Akers field goal and returned it for a touchdown in the last game. And keep your eye on DeSean Jackson in the return game. The rookie was a huge part of Sunday's win over the Vikings. If Jeff Feagles outkicks his coverage or if the unit allows any type of seam, Jackson will make them pay. The Eagles have the edge on special teams because of Jackson.

How long will it take Andy Reid to abandon the run?

Mosley: Reid at least made a good-faith effort to run the ball against the Vikings. And though the Eagles didn't have a lot of success on the ground, it allowed them to help control clock and keep Adrian Peterson off the field. In the Eagles' nine wins, running back Brian Westbrook has averaged 18.9 attempts and nearly 80 yards per game. He's averaged 4.2 yards per carry and picked up six rushing touchdowns. In the team's six losses (and the tie), Westbrook barely averaged over three yards per carry. And Reid only called 13 runs a game in those losses. It seems pretty simple that more attempts seem to translate to more success, but Reid's a stubborn man. Still, I think he'll be smart enough to stay with the running game in the frigid Meadowlands on Sunday.

Matt Mosley: It's hilarious that people now think Reid's found religion in running the ball. He's still going to end up throwing the ball about 65 percent of the time. In the West Coast offense, he thinks you should aim for a 60-40 pass-to-rush ratio, but that's not Reid. The funny thing is that Reid admitted in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer last week that he used to become frustrated as an offensive lineman at BYU when Lavell Edwards refused to run the ball. Now, he's the one causing the frustration. The criticism is that Reid abandons the run if the first three carries or so don't yield any significant yardage. That's actually a fair criticism. But in the Meadowlands last month, Westbrook gained nine yards on his first eight carries. Reid stuck with him and he ended up with 133 yards on 33 carries. Will Reid have that type of patience Sunday? Well, a lot of it will depend on what the wind is doing.

I encourage you to join the debate in the comments section. I'll be in there a little later.