NFL Nation: Eagles-Giants playoffs
|AP Photo/Julie Jacobson|
|Eli Maning and the New York Giants came up short against a resurgent Philadelphia Eagles squad Sunday.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For most of the 2008 season, the New York Giants served notice they aren't a team to be second-guessed. They lost a couple of star players in the offseason, another to injury and one accidentally shot himself in the leg. And through it all, we kept remembering the team's improbable march to a Super Bowl title last winter.
But on a blustery day in early January, we learned to doubt again. The Philadelphia Eagles took a page out of the Giants' 2007 playbook and rode a wave of momentum into the NFC Championship Game. But make no mistake. The Eagles didn't sneak into the Meadowlands and steal one from the defending world champs Sunday. They beat the Giants into submission at the line of scrimmage in a 23-11 win.
If anything, the Eagles and Cardinals have shown that the regular season might be overrated. Using the parlance from my other favorite tournament, March Madness, these teams are bracket busters. As they first displayed last month in this same venue, though, the Eagles have become a superior team to the Giants.
"It's not like we came here and they just flat out beat us," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "We moved the ball, we had opportunities, we had chances, we just didn't make the plays when we needed to."
With all due respect to the Super Bowl MVP, I thought the Eagles flat out beat the Giants. And when All-Pro defensive end Justin Tuck replaced Manning on the main interview stage, he pretty much backed me up.
"Maybe we're not as good as we thought we were," said Tuck, who had to leave the game twice with injuries.
Tuck assumed a major leadership role on this team when his mentor, Michael Strahan, retired and Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora was lost to a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. Tuck sat on a stool in front of his locker for several minutes massaging his temple as if he had a migraine. As he finally walked into the frigid night air in search of his wife, he addressed a topic that he'd tried not to think about the past couple of weeks.
"If it were up to me, we would've forfeited the bye week and played last week," he said. "It was good in a way because we had guys banged up, but I don't like the bye."
Who knows? If this current trend continues, perhaps teams will start tanking games at the end of the season. Since 2005, teams with a bye in the first round of the playoffs are a combined 7-9.
|Highlights of the Eagles' 23-11 win over New York.|
Giants apologists might point to their 138 yards rushing as a sign that they controlled the line of scrimmage, but they'd be wrong. Armed with one of the most punishing runners in the game, Tom Coughlin went away from Brandon Jacobs at key moments. Jacobs finished with 92 yards on 19 carries, but too many times he tried to bounce runs outside, where Eagles defensive end Trent Cole and linebacker Chris Gocong were waiting to slam him to the turf.
The Giants waited until they were down 20-11 in the fourth quarter to start running between the tackles with Jacobs and Derrick Ward. It was too late. Coughlin needed to take that approach when his team had the ball at its 13-yard line midway through the first quarter and was headed into the teeth of 20-mph winds.
Manning instead threw a slant route off his back foot that Plaxico Burress (or the 6-foot-8 Harold Carmichael) couldn't have caught. The most prolific postseason thief in the game, Asante Samuel, had an easy interception, which set up the Eagles' first touchdown.
Manning wasn't Jake Delhomme bad, but it was certainly a forgettable day for a player who capitalized on so many opportunities in last year's postseason. Manning was 15-of-29 for 169 yards and two interceptions. His head coach tried to offer him a weather-related out, but Manning didn't take the bait.
"No, I didn't think the wind was all that bad today," he said. "We definitely played in worse cases of wind. There were times when there was a little bit in there, but I don't think it affected what we were doing or any of my throws that would have made a big difference."
Maybe Burress was the only winner in the Giants organization. No matter how you break it down, the Giants are 1-4 without him. That doesn't mean you bring back such an undependable player, but it's imperative that you quickly figure out if Burress' replacement is currently on the roster. Domenik Hixon is a talented young player, but he's an unfinished product. He dropped one Manning knuckleball, but he caught a 34-yard pass on which he beat cornerback Joselio Hanson.
The Giants were a pitiful 3-of-13 on third down and 1-of-3 on fourth. Facing a fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter, the Giants called for a quarterback sneak. It's a curious call when you have a 260-pound tailback standing a few yards behind Eli Manning. Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley blew up the play.
On the next possession, Coughlin was indecisive on a fourth-and-2 call, but decided to stick with a running play to Jacobs. Bunkley and linebacker Stewart Bradley met Jacobs at the line of scrimmage and he ended up a yard short.
"As I tell the players, the losses are mine. They are my responsibility," Coughlin said.
And on this afternoon, it was tough to argue with him.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There will be no repeat for the New York Giants. For the second time in a little more than a month, the Eagles walked into the Meadowlands and pushed the Giants around. But this victory had a lot more meaning than the 20-14 win Dec. 7.
The Eagles, a team that needed a miracle to make the playoffs, will play in their fifth NFC Championship Game this decade after a 23-11 win over the Giants. New York, considered to be the best team in the league for much of the season, will face an offseason full of questions.
For instance, why did head coach Tom Coughlin not insist that bruising tailback Brandon Jacobs hammer away at the middle of the Eagles' defense? By bouncing runs outside, Jacobs played right into the Eagles' hands. Linebackers Chris Gocong and Stewart Bradley joined defensive end Trent Cole in stretching everything outside.
|Highlights of the Eagles' 23-11 win over New York.|
And the Eagles didn't even need a big day from their most potent offensive weapon, Brian Westbrook. For one afternoon, reigning Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning looked like the guy who's been criticized much of his career. He threw off his back foot deep inside his own territory, and Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel had the seventh postseason interception of his career.
The Giants also lost the field goal battle with Eagles kicker David Akers. Pro Bowl kicker John Carney missed 46- and 47-yard field goals on a day when last year's NFC Championship Game hero, Lawrence Tynes, was on the active roster.
Sunday's outcome also supports a recent trend in which teams with first-round byes don't necessarily see any benefit. The Cowboys lost to the Giants in a divisional playoff game last year, and now the Giants have done the same.
I'm heading down to spend some time in the losing locker room. Jeff Chadiha will take care of the winning locker room. See you back here in three hours or so.
|AP Photo/Bill Kostroun|
|Asante Samuel's interception set up the game's only touchdown.|
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- We'll see what the Eagles can do in the bottom of the sixth. Right now, Donovan McNabb is doing a tremendous job of taking what the Giants are giving him. The checkdown to Brian Westbrook was the perfect play with the Giants in Cover 2.
And he's gaining a ton of confidence in Jason Avant. He's in a rhythm right now, and the Giants aren't getting close to him with a three-man rush. They brought a linebacker late on second-and-1 to help cause an incompletion. If the Eagles win this game, remember this drive. They've had the Giants on their heels from the first snap of the drive.
For the Giants, keep your eye on right tackle Kareem McKenzie's injury. He was really starting to take over in the running game.
Big, big drive to close the first 30 minutes of action. 10-8, Eagles at halftime.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
New York Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon has made peace with the fact that one painful moment in his career will follow him forever. No matter how much he continues to blossom as a starting receiver for the reigning world champs, the afternoon of Sept. 9, 2007, will be etched in his memory.
|Although they were already deep at receiver, the Giants saw enough in Domenik Hixon to claim him off waivers from Denver.|
After a remarkable senior season at Akron in 2005, Hixon was devastated when he wasn't invited to the NFL combine. He flew to Phoenix to enroll in a performance academy, and then ran a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash and recorded a vertical of 39.5 inches on pro day. Hixon felt something pinch in his left foot before he ran, but waited a couple of weeks to get it checked out. Turns out it was a broken foot, which didn't do wonders for his draft status, although a 4.34 with a broken foot seems impressive enough.
The Denver Broncos took Hixon in the fourth round and ended up putting him on the non-football injury list (didn't happen on their watch) for the 2006 season. Hixon won the kickoff return job coming out of training camp in 2007 and that's why he found himself racing up the field with the ball on Sept. 9. He remembers the collision that left Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett motionless on the ground for what seemed like hours.
"It was a hard hit," the 24-year-old Hixon told me Thursday. "I got up real slow and my shoulder felt like it was on fire."
He retreated to the sideline, where his best friend on the team, Brian Clark, kept asking him if he was OK. Meanwhile, Everett was fighting for his life. We later learned that doctors on the scene used heroic measures so that Everett would have the opportunity to walk again. At that point, though, there was a real possibility that Everett would be paralyzed for the rest of his life.
Hixon's parents were in the stadium that day. Son looked at his father and told him that he'd heard Everett wasn't moving. When Hixon returned home that night, he turned on the TV and saw a replay of the collision. He promised himself that he'd never watch it again. And though his friends kept telling him it wasn't his fault, Hixon still had pangs of guilt.
"I prayed every day for him," Hixon said. "You don't want to be part of something negative like that. People were really supportive, but things didn't feel right."
The fearless player suddenly lost his stomach for contact. A few games later, he was racing toward an opening during a kickoff return when he spotted a defender bearing down on him.
"I turned the hit down," said Hixon. "And then I coughed up the ball. For a second, I thought the guy just made a nice play. But when I looked back at it, I said, 'That's not me!'"
Unfortunately, fourth-round picks from Akron aren't afforded time off for mental healing. Hixon and Clark were out looking at motorcycles when Broncos coach Mike Shanahan summoned Hixon to his office to release him. Hixon wondered if his career was over, but a day later, the Giants claimed him off waivers.
"My agent called to tell me, so I immediately pulled up a Giants roster," said Hixon. "I saw Plaxico [Burress], Amani [Toomer], Steve [Smith] and Sinorice [Moss] and I said, 'Why in the world do they want me?' I decided right then to give it everything I had."
Hixon immediately joined the Giants' coverage units, and when Ahmad Bradshaw was injured, he took over his return duties in the regular-season finale against the Patriots. Hixon returned a kick 74 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, which helped the Giants nearly pull off the upset against undefeated New England.
"One reporter told me that as Kevin kept getting better, he felt like I was getting better," said Hixon. "My dad kept updating me on [Everett's] progress, and hearing those positive reports seemed to make playing football a little easier."
Hixon had told members of the Giants' public relations staff that he wanted to visit with Everett, but he wanted the conversation to happen on Everett's terms. After the Giants clinched a playoff berth on the road against the Bills, Everett invited Hixon to visit the owner's suite where he'd been watching the game. Hixon said he was nervous as he walked through the stadium to see Everett. He wasn't sure what to say.
"We just had a casual conversation," Hixon said. "I'd heard from some of his teammates at [the University of] Miami that he was a great guy. I just kept thanking him for taking the time to see me, and we've continued to stay in touch."
Hixon showed up in Albany, N.Y., for the 2008 training camp with a new mindset. He wanted to prove that he was more than a return man, and Plaxico Burress' absence due to injury opened the door for a lot more repetitions. Hixon said he tried to "get a couple of wins" each day against top cornerbacks such as Corey Webster, Aaron Ross and Sam Madison. Fortunately, quarterback Eli Manning saw potential in Hixon from Day 1. Hixon remembers catching an in-route from Manning in his first practice with the team.
"He's sitting there coaching me up," said Hixon, "and I'm looking at him thinking, 'I'm the last guy you're going to throw to.'"
Turns out Manning was onto something. When Burress was suspended for a game against Seattle on Oct. 5, Hixon replaced him and had four catches for 102 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game at halftime with a concussion. He replaced Burress for good following Burress' infamous shooting incident, which led to his suspension by the Giants and placement on the non-football injury list. Hixon said that Burress was one of the first players to greet him in the training room following a 23-7 win over the Redskins on Nov. 30. Burress gave Hixon a list of things to work on. That was probably the last time Burress will ever be in the Giants' locker room.
What looked like a seamless transition, though, hit a snag a week later against the Eagles. Hixon dropped a sure touchdown on a perfectly thrown deep ball from Manning, and the Giants went on to lose a home game. Even though he's bounced back in recent weeks, Hixon knows that the dropped pass is still a popular topic.
"I completely took my eyes off the ball," he said of the drop. "It wasn't about putting too much pressure on myself, though. It was just me dropping the ball."
Hixon said veteran Amani Toomer was one of the first players to offer encouragement. He advised the young receiver to "see what you did wrong, but don't let it snowball."
Former linebacker Harry Carson saw Hixon at an event a few nights later and told him about a time in the Super Bowl when he allowed a touchdown. Running back Derrick Ward wasn't quite as sensitive. During a dinner, he repeatedly said, "Catch the ball, Hixon!"
Hixon's still trying to adjust to not being able to sneak up on teams. He used to come in for one play every other series or so and go deep. Now, he's lost the element of surprise. He thinks his time in Denver going against Champ Bailey and his daily sessions with Corey Webster and Aaron Ross have been invaluable. Hixon recognizes that he's involved in a pretty stressful audition right now.
"Absolutely it's an audition," he said. "You're putting your résumé together."
Something tells me that Hixon could find room on that résumé for "starting wide receiver in a Super Bowl."
|James Lang and Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIRE|
|Andy Reid and Tom Coughlin have a good idea of what to expect from each other this Sunday.|
Posted by Scouts Inc's Keith Kidd
In my mind, nothing changes when you face a divisional opponent for the third time, which the Eagles and Giants will be doing on Sunday. Both teams will try to use some different looks and formations, but it will be difficult because these teams have already spent countless hours studying the X's and O's, personnel and tendencies of the teams in their division. Knowing the teams within your division is a major key to building a championship roster.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid and Giants head coach Tom Coughlin have also been in the same division for five years and have each put together successful programs, so they are very familiar with each other. However, there is an interesting twist in this rivalry because you have the pupil, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, versus the teacher, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
Much like Johnson, Spagnuolo builds his schemes around stopping the run and getting after the quarterback with his four-man rush, which places a lot of stress on his corners. Both coordinators will key on stopping the run and must decide whether to bring pressure or play maximum coverage in critical third-down situations. Teacher and pupil will also spend time with their offensive coordinators in an attempt to gain an edge on their opponent in terms of tendencies, alignments, stances and tight splits.
The Giants' offense will look to pound the rock and set up the play-action pass, while trying to get into a rhythm with their short, controlled passing attack to keep the Eagles' defense honest. The Eagles will continue to build their game plan around running back Brian Westbrook, while asking quarterback Donovan McNabb to take what the Giants' defense gives him in the short-to-intermediate areas in the passing game. However, the key for both offenses will be their ability to create mismatches in their spread passing attacks.
Special-teams play will be a huge equalizer -- especially due to the windy conditions in the Meadowlands. However, this game will come down to the basic fundamentals including blocking, tackling, proper assignment adjustments, critical game-changing mistakes, execution and in-game adjustments.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.