For Super Bowl champions, life has been pretty easy for the New York Giants.
They have coasted to a 7-1 start. They rank second in the NFL in rushing and third for overall defense. Quietly, Eli Manning has been masterful running the offense. He's completing 61.2 percent of his passes and has thrown for 12 touchdowns. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress shows up late for meetings, pays his fines and the team moves on with barely a hiccup.
The second half of the season truly will challenge the Giants, and Sunday night's game against the Philadelphia Eagles could be the biggest hurdle. If the Giants win, they put the Eagles three games behind them in their rearview mirror and then only have to worry about the Washington Redskins, and maybe if the Dallas Cowboys make a rally. Lose, and the reality sets in that it's not easy to be Super Bowl champs.
Their closing schedule features opponents whose combined records are 41-25, and that's one of the toughest second-half slates in football. Starting with the Eagles, they play three NFC East games on the road during the final eight. All eight games are against teams with 4-4 records or better.
Tom Coughlin has done a remarkable job of keeping the Giants focused week to week. With no bye weeks ahead, the grind begins.
Still, the pressure in this game falls upon the Eagles. It hurt their confidence losing a 23-17 home game to the Washington Redskins on Oct. 5, a loss that has kept them in third place in the division and put them at a serious disadvantage in trying to catch the Giants.
Their inconsistency in goal-line situations has cost them games. Had they scored a touchdown in a goal-line situation against the Chicago Bears in a Sunday-night game in September, they would be in second place. Through the season, the goal-line dilemma has plagued them.
The good news is the Eagles are tied with the Cardinals for the lead in goal-line opportunities. They've been in goal-to-go situations 21 times in eight games. But they only scored 13 touchdowns in those situations. They've settled for seven field goals. Against Chicago, they were stopped at the 1 and lost the ball on downs. Coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb know the Eagles must do a better job of finishing drives.
Since the Redskins' loss, the Eagles slowly have regained their swagger. They've won three games against the
San Francisco 49ers,
Atlanta Falcons and
Seattle Seahawks. Halfback Brian Westbrook regained his health after battling an ankle sprain and two broken ribs. The receiving corps healed from early-season injuries. On defense, coordinator Jim Johnson has been able to get a good pass rush, and the Eagles have done a great job of stopping the run, allowing 89.0 rushing yards per game, eighth-best in football.
Coughlin will bring a no-nonsense scheme into the game. They will try to use their power running game led by Brandon Jacobs. The Giants hope his size and their offensive line can overpower the Eagles' defense. If the running game is effective, Manning should continue to do an excellent job of managing the game without turnovers.
Entering the season, many contended the Eagles could be a sleeper challenger for the NFC East crown. If they wake up Sunday night, that prediction has a chance of coming true.
1. Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: Dick Jauron has to be concerned heading into this critical road game. The Jets showed the formula of how to beat the Bills last week. They doubled wide receiver Lee Evans, leaving Trent Edwards lost in trying to find a second option. They stacked up against the run and took away that part of the Bills' offense. Brett Favre followed the lead of other teams of late and worked a quick, short passing game, which minimizes the effectiveness of the Bills' quickness on defense. And let's face it, the Bills' defense isn't the same without their best pass-rusher, defensive end Aaron Schobel, who is out indefinitely with a foot problem. After leading the AFC East with a 4-0 start, the Bills could fall into the afterthought category if they lose to the Patriots. Bill Belichick knows the game won't be easy. No Patriots game is easy without Tom Brady, because the Patriots struggle to get touchdown drives. Matt Cassel is getting better, but no one fears the Patriots' passing offense. Still, if the Patriots win Sunday's game and beat the Jets next Thursday night, they re-establish themselves as the team to beat in the AFC East.
2. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: Plenty of fans in Minnesota want to run Brad Childress out of town. His tenure as head coach remains defined by picking Tarvaris Jackson as his quarterback last season and sticking with him two losses into this season. Childress can win back a lot of fans this Sunday if he can beat the Packers. It won't be easy. Defensive end Jared Allen has a third-degree shoulder separation and isn't sure he will be able to play. Losing one of the best pass rushers in the league could damage the Vikings'
ability to put pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. With defensive tackle Pat Williams and Kevin Williams expected to play this week, Childress can take away the Packers' run and force Rodgers to beat the Vikings through the air. That's where the loss of Allen hurts. For the past couple of years, opponents gave up on the idea of running on the Vikings and just tried to beat them through the air, figuring their defense couldn't get to the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier might have to try a few blitzes to pressure Rodgers. With the teams tied at 4-4 behind the Bears in the NFC North, this might be one of the most pressurized games of the day.
3. Tennessee Titans at Chicago Bears: Sure, quarterback Kyle Orton is going to go out there despite a right ankle injury and try to avoid the inside rushes of Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Give Orton credit. He is showing he is now the true leader of the offense, and he wants to be with his teammates regardless of the pain. Knowing this is a four-week injury and he's going to have to deal with pain, Orton is just trying to get the jump on what will be a painful November. I wouldn't be surprised if he is ready for the Week 11 game against the Packers. Barring a medical miracle for Orton, Rex Grossman will start, and Bears fans fear what might happen. Grossman is a more gifted thrower than Orton, but he lost his starting job because of untimely interceptions and dumb fumbles. The Titans are unbeaten, but they still look beatable because they don't blow out many teams with their offense. Jeff Fisher manages a power running game with the explosive burst of Chris Johnson. Kerry Collins remains steady at the helm at quarterback.
Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers: Perhaps the best part of the Steelers' "Monday Night Football" victory over the Redskins was the performance of backup quarterback Byron Leftwich. Coach Mike Tomlin knows he has an ace in the hole. Leftwich can be a winning starter for a lot of teams in this league. He was able to come off the bench and pull out the victory. Ben Roethlisberger still might be able to play Sunday despite banging up his slightly separated right shoulder, but even Big Ben knows his shoulder isn't going to be right the rest of the season. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning probably will repeat the strategy that beat the Patriots in Week 9. He needed seven possessions to pull out an 18-15 victory. By keeping the possessions low, Manning can keep his defense off the field and not let them wear down against the Steelers' running attack. The key for him is not making any turnovers or having more than a pair of three-and-outs. This figures to be a low-scoring game.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: Thanks to Matt Ryan's on-the-field leadership and Mike Smith's solid coaching, the Falcons were one of the surprise teams in the first half of the season with a 5-3 start. Over the next three weeks, we'll see if the Falcons are for real. They have three consecutive home games, two of the next three coming against NFC South rivals the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers. The way things are going this season, the Falcons probably will win six or seven games outside the NFC South. They are 5-1 outside the division already. But they have to show they can win in the division, where they're 0-2 thus far. Despite Ryan's presence, the Panthers, Saints and Bucs are considered more talented than the Falcons. Thanks to Ryan and the way this team is being rebuilt, the Falcons will be major factors in the NFC South for years to come. They could establish themselves this season if they can win at least a few games in the division.
6. San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals: Mike Singletary, the 49ers' fiery interim coach, gets a chance to show his skills along the sidelines in the stadium in which former Cardinals coach Dennis Green had his own news conference meltdown following an Oct. 16, 2006 "Monday Night Football" loss to the Bears. You remember, the "They-are-who-we-thought-they-were'' news conference after the Cardinals blew a big lead with mistakes. This marks Singletary's first game since his infamous motivational ploy of dropping his pants during a
halftime locker-room speech. His method apparently did little to inspire his team, which still lost to the Seattle Seahawks 34-13. With the bye week behind him,
Singletary can show whether his controversial methods are sinking in with the 49ers or if they're turning them off. The Cardinals, meanwhile, continue to tweak their starting lineup to improve as they pursue the NFC West crown. Rookie Tim Hightower has now replaced Edgerrin James as the starting halfback.
Baltimore Ravens at Houston Texans: This is the game rescheduled from Week 2, when Hurricane Ike damaged Reliant Stadium. Unfortunately for the Texans, the postponement hurts them because of injuries. Quarterback Matt Schaub is out with an MCL tear. Linebacker Zac Diles blew out a knee in Wednesday's practice and is done for the season. Ahman Green is still banged up. The Texans have played decently at home and might have a chance with Sage Rosenfels at quarterback filling in for Schaub. The Ravens desperately need to win this game, or their season could rapidly slip away from them. Four of the next six games are against NFC East teams, starting with next week's game against the Giants. That's not the type of schedule you want for a rookie quarterback like Joe Flacco.
8. Seattle Seahawks at Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins quietly are hanging around in the AFC East race, and they should be able to take advantage of the cross-country travel problems of the Seahawks, who find it almost impossible to win a 10 a.m. East Coast start. So far this season, West Coast teams are 0-10 when they travel three time zones to play a game. Next week, the Dolphins play host to the Oakland Raiders. They could be 6-4 going into a Nov. 23 home game against the Patriots.
9. St. Louis Rams at New York Jets: Even though their records are the same, the Jets moved slightly ahead of the Bills in the AFC East race by winning in Buffalo last week. Favre still scares the Jets' coaches with his tendency to throw interceptions. The Jets must not look ahead. They visit the Patriots next Thursday in what should be their most important game of the season.
10. Carolina Panthers at Oakland Raiders: Al Davis came to the office Monday with a list of more than a dozen players he would consider cutting. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was the first to go. More might follow if the Raiders play as flat against the Panthers as they did last week against the Falcons. Of course, some of those overpaid players might see being cut as freedom. Davis talks about commitment to excellence. Raiders players just want to leave.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.