Let’s get this out of the way up front: if the absence of Plaxico Burress and the so-called distractions surrounding his legal problems were the reasons the Giants played their worst game of the year against the Philadelphia Eagles, then Plaxico is a much bigger influence out of the lineup than he ever was in it.
It would have been difficult for New York to have been beaten in more ways by a mediocre team – the Eagles were 6-5-1 going into the contest – than they were on Sunday. Domenik Hixon, Burress’s replacement, dropped what would have been a 60-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter on a pattern that left him more isolated than Pat Buchanan at the Village Halloween parade. It was the play most featured in the highlight films, but it was merely the most memorable in an effort that scarcely featured a good play all day except for a blocked field goal run back for a touchdown that kept the Giants in the game for three quarters.
Eli Manning, except for the single on-the-mark pass to Hixon, was terrible, just 13 of 27 for 123 yards, and he had no one to blame but himself. The winds were swirling at the Meadowlands Sunday afternoon, but they blew equally hard at balls thrown by Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who, playing behind inferior blocking, was 19 of 30 for 191. The Giants’ offensive line didn’t allow a sack on Manning all afternoon, and they opened enough holes on the ground for Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward to combine for 91 yards on 18 carries, so it wasn’t their fault. Jacobs and Ward’s yards per rush average against Philadelphia, 5.1, was actually 0.2 higher than the Giant’s league-leading average; given Eli’s horrendous accuracy, you wonder why the Giants didn’t spend the entire game just running the ball on the ground.
But Eli Manning doesn’t play on defense, and neither does Plaxico Burress, and that’s where the Giants really stunk. They allowed an outweighed Eagles line to push them off the point of scrimmage all afternoon. The Giants’ listless pass rush (just one sack for a four-yard loss against a gimpy McNabb) and sluggish surge on running plays, which let a banged-up Brian Westbrook squirm for 131 yards, gave the Eagles the freedom to call their own shots all day.
New York’s defense, which most observers — including myself – were calling the best in the league, forced no fumbles, made no interceptions, and had only one tackle on the green-and-white side of the ball. Philadelphia’s time of possession, 34 minutes and 54 seconds, would have made Linda Blair envious.
Certainly the game couldn’t be taken as an indication of how important Burress was to the Giants, and it doubly certainly couldn’t be taken as an indication that Philadelphia was in New York’s class. But what, then, are we to take it as an indication of? That, perhaps, the Giants, after maybe their most impressive performance of the year against Washington two weeks ago, were due for a letdown? Maybe. That the Eagles were desperate (which they were) and caught the Giants in a complacent mode? Both are more likely scenarios than that they were distracted by the Burress mess.
Or could it be that the Giants, for some as yet unexplained reason, can’t focus at home and can only play well on the road, away from the intense local fan and media scrutiny? Judging from the radio talk shows, that’s a popular answer, but it doesn’t have much to support it. In Week 5, the Giants ran the Seattle Seahawks out of the Meadowlands, 44-6, a victory that doesn’t seem all that impressive now as the Seahawks are 2-11, but it was precisely the kind of game in which the Giants didn’t need to dominate. The Giants could have let up in that one and didn’t; they played as if they were out to make a statement to the rest of the Eastern division: “This is what we do against a team we don’t hate — imagine what we’re going to do to you.” And up to the Eagles’ game last week that attitude has held. In two games against the Redskins and in one each against their Eastern rivals, the Cowboys and Eagles, the Giants were 4-0 and outscored their opponents by 51 points.
The fact that the Giants’ two worst games of the season came right after two great performances probably tells us all we need to know about the reasons for the colossal fluke last Sunday. The loss to the Eagles hurt the Giants in the standings not at all; as it turned out, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory over Dallas clinched the NFC East for the New York anyway. But what it says about the loss of their competitive edge will only be determined at Dallas next Sunday. The Cowboys, realistically, are playing for little but pride at this point, and, in truth, that’s what the Giants are mostly playing for, too.
After Dallas, they return to the Meadowlands to play the Carolina Panthers, currently 10-3 and just one game over their own division rival, the Tampa Bay Bucs, after their victory on Monday Night Football. The game against the Giants may well be one which the Panthers will need to win, while New York will probably be in a position where they can coast, if they want to. But that would be a heck of a bad attitude to take going into the playoffs, especially when one of the teams you may have to face is those same Panthers.