8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Giants -3, Over/Under: 41
Kicking off the penultimate week of the Regular Season is a matchup featuring division rivals at opposite ends of the spectrum, as the struggling Philadelphia Eagles host the surging New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday Night Football. Since losing three straight games back in early October, the Giants (10-4, 2nd in NFC East) have been on a tear ever since, winning eight out of their last nine contests, while clinching their return to the Playoffs after a five-year drought, the longest such period in the long, successful history of the franchise. Despite the presence of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. (whom we’ll get into in a little bit), New York owes this prosperous run to the play of their Defense, which a year ago was arguably the worst in football. Management attacked this weakness with a particular fury in the Offseason, spending a fortune in Free Agency on the likes of key contributors such as Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (48 TKL, 3 INT, 17 PD, 1 FF, 1 SK), Edge Rusher Olivier Vernon (60 TKL, 8.5 SK, 1 FF), and Nose Tackle Damon Harrison (80 TKL, 1.5 SK, 1 FF), while placing the Franchise Tag on Defensive End Jason Pierre-Paul (53 TKL, 7.0 SK, 8 PD, 3 FF, 1 TD), and using their First Round Pick on Cornerback Eli Apple (43 TKL, 1 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF). To the delight of Ben McAdoo and his Staff, that infusion of talent has paid off several times over, as this unit has been one of the best in the league all season long; Big Blue has yielded just 17.9 points (3rd Overall) on 347.5 Total Yards per game (15th Overall), including 257.4 through the air (23rd Overall) and 90.1 on the ground (6th Overall). However, what’s made this group rather remarkable is the fact that they’ve been so staunch, particularly against the pass, despite being on the field ALL THE TIME. No team has seen more pass plays ran against them than the Giants, who have in turn made their opponents work for absolutely everything, relinquishing the second-fewest passing touchdowns (thirteen) and just 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (8th Overall), while totaling fourteen interceptions (8th Overall) and a respectable thirty-one sacks (16th Overall). Since the Eagles rang up 443 Total Yards in their previous meeting back on November 6th (a 28-23 Giants victory), Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s charges have relegated the opposition to a paltry average of 315.8 Total Yards in their last six outings, with four of those opponents held below twenty points. Spagnuolo has proven what he can do when he has the requisite talent to work with, but it should be very interesting how he adjusts moving forward without (potentially) two of his biggest contributors, the aforementioned Pierre-Paul and Jenkins. With the former in all likelihood out for the remainder of the season and any prolonged run through the Playoffs (Sports Hernia), and the latter dealing with the effects of a Back Bruise suffered last week in the 17-6 victory over Detroit, the Giants could be missing two MAJOR components of their stellar pass defense not just tonight, but for an undetermined amount of time. Of course, some support from their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball would be helpful, but then again, expecting the Offense to just flip the switch and morph into a juggernaut at this juncture of the campaign isn’t just unlikely, but delusional as well. Dreadfully one-dimensional is perhaps the best way to describe Manning and Co. this season, as New York has lived and died on the right arm of their stalwart Quarterback; only two teams have been less-productive on the ground than the Giants, who have rushed for a scant 81.2 yards (30th Overall) on 3.4 Yards per Carry (30th Overall), and ranking next-to-last in rushing touchdowns (five), as McAdoo has been stuck with a revolving door in the Backfield, and an Offensive Line that has been riddled by injuries and mired in poor play (we’re looking at you, Erek Flowers!!!). To his credit, Manning has completed 63.4% of his passes for 3,491 yards (6.36 NY/A), twenty-five touchdowns and thirteen interceptions, while taking just twenty sacks and sporting a solid 60.2 QBR. Furthermore, he’s been extremely effective in close games, leading Big Blue to five Game-Winning Drives, three of which were Fourth Quarter Comebacks. And then there’s Beckham (85 catches, 1,173 yards, 10 TD), who for all his overly-criticized antics on the field, has been historically productive, becoming the first Receiver since Randy Moss to begin his career with three consecutive seasons consisting of 1,000 receiving yards and ten receiving touchdowns.
Meanwhile, since their surprising 3-0 start to the 2016 campaign, things have really fallen apart for the Eagles (5-9, 4th in NFC East), who have since lost nine out of their last eleven contests, including each of their past five games. It’s perhaps a bit harsh to label their play earlier this season as an aberration, instead serving as a sign of what this team is capable of once they go through the requisite growing pains that come with starting a Rookie Quarterback from the beginning. We know, Eagles’ Fans don’t want to hear it, particularly given the success their hated rivals down in Dallas have enjoyed with a Rookie Signal-Caller of their own, but the fact of the matter is that what’s going on with the Cowboys is far from the norm in this situation. No, when starting an era with a highly-drafted Rookie Quarterback, it’s far more common for teams to take their lumps early in lieu of greater success later on down the road. The Colts did so with Peyton Manning. So did the Giants with Eli. Ditto for Cam Newton in Carolina. And hopefully (at least in the minds of Doug Pederson, his Staff, and everyone in their building) so will Philadelphia with Carson Wentz, whom they selected No. Two Overall after trading up over ten spots in this past May’s NFL Draft. Coming out of (perennial FCS Champion) North Dakota State, it was difficult to gage just what to expect from Wentz, but the consensus was given his remarkable mixture of size, athleticism, and intelligence, the ceiling was certainly high. Needless to say, he did not disappoint early in the season, completing a superb 67.4% of his attempts for an average of 251.8 yards (7.5 Y/A), seven touchdowns and just one interception through the first four games, guiding the Eagles to a 3-1 record in the process. Then, as is always the case, the rest of the league adjusted in kind, as defenses began to study tape and discern his tendencies. Over the ten games since, Wentz has completed just 61.2% of his passes for an average of 237.8 yards (5.9 Y/A), six touchdowns and a dozen interceptions, while taking twenty-four sacks during a dismal 2-8 stretch. Inconsistencies in his mechanics and throwing motion have contributed to his struggles, along with a dearth of playmakers in the passing game, and one major hole on the Offensive Line. Is it any coincidence that Wentz’s (and Philadelphia’s) slide occurred once Pro Bowl Tackle Lane Johnson was suspended for ten games for violating the league’s Substance Abuse Policy? Well, we’ll see what happens tonight, as Johnson has since served his ban and is expected to start on the right side of the line, affording his young Quarterback the luxury of protection for the first time in over two months. It remains to be seen though if the Receiving Corps will respond in kind, for it goes without saying that this group has failed to carry their weight thus far. Injuries (as well as drops) have hampered Jordan Matthews (71 catches, 792 yards, 3 TD), though he is expected to play tonight despite dealing with an ailing ankle all week and practicing limitedly. Nelson Agholor (34 catches, 318 yards, 1 TD) simply hasn’t developed into the player the Front Office envisioned when they took him in the Second Round last year, while Zach Ertz (63 catches, 644 yards, 2 TD) has missed three games thus far with injuries of his own. To be fair, these players may not be ideal fits for what Pederson and Co. are doing on this side of the ball, for they were all holdovers from the forgettable Chip Kelly Era, but one thing that is certainly not in question has been the play of the Defense, whether they were put in place by the previous regime or not. It’s hard to imagine a group that had benefitted more from a change in coaching style than these guys, who after three years of constantly marching back on the field for series after series, is now enjoying a much more conventional approach as Pederson’s Offense is operating at a far slower pace than his predecessor’s. In essence, less has equated to more for these Birds; Philadelphia has allowed a solid 21.4 points (13th Overall) on 344.2 Total Yards (12th Overall), including 239.3 against the pass (12th Overall) on 6.8 Net Yards per Attempt (25th Overall), and another 104.9 against the run (17th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (21st Overall), while forcing twenty-one turnovers (12th Overall), and racking up thirty-one sacks (15th Overall). Defensive Tackle Fletcher Cox (37 TKL, 6.5 SK, 1 FF) has provided a consistent push in the interior of the Defensive Line, while Safety Rodney McCleod (75 TKL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 6 PD, 1 FF) has proven to be a reliable playmaker in the Secondary after being acquired from St. Louis in Free Agency.
Predicted Outcome: Eagles 20, Giants 17