Stumbling Into the Playoffs

manning 0 Stumbling Into the PlayoffsIf the Giants go on to win it all, their season-ending 20-19 loss to the Minnesota Vikings will be meaningless. But just in case they don’t win it all, it might be worth doing a retake of the game to see if we can find a clue as to what went wrong.

Yes, the game meant a great deal to Minnesota and nothing to New York—the Giants already had home-field advantage through the playoffs and most of the starters sat out much or all of the second half. But let’s note that except for a furious fourth quarter and overtime win against Carolina on Dec. 21, the Giants haven’t played any first-rate football since beating the Redskins 23-7 back on Nov. 30.

More to the point, except for a couple of possessions late in the Panthers game, Eli Manning hasn’t played any good football since before Thanksgiving. The Giants played their second string in the last two periods against the Vikings on Sunday, but Eli and the first team were all there for the first half, and they were lousy. Manning was 11 of 19 for just 119 yards, an anemic 6.3 yards per throw; for the record, Minnesota quarterback Tavaris Jackson, who played the whole game, was 16 of 26 for 239 yards, making this the fourth consecutive game that an opposing quarterback has out-passed Eli in the most important of passing stats.

Let’s put this in perspective. In the Giants’ first 12 games, Manning completed 230 of 371 passes (62 percent) for 2624 yards and a YPA of 7.1; in the last four, he has completed 59 of 108 (55 percent) for 614 yards and a 5.7 YPA. I’m not saying that the last four games represent the real Eli Manning, and I’m not saying that the Giants, with their terrific balance and depth, can’t go on to win the Super Bowl. I am saying that the Eli Manning of December 2008 has been as bad as the one in the first half of 2007, when the fans and press were ready to run him out of town. If the Giants do repeat as champions without Manning turning his game around, they’ll have won it in spite of, and not because of, their quarterback.

If you’re looking for something else to worry about, New York’s defense has been nonaggressive and flat for nearly a month. I don’t have official stats on this, but a friend of mine who writes for Football Prospectus believes that the Giants are blitzing just half as often in December as they were in the first three months of the season, which indicates that once the team got far ahead in the standings, Tom Coughlin cut the power and coasted home on the wind of their early momentum, which is fine if you are confident you can kick-start that momentum again when you need it.

On defense, the Giants dominated nearly every offense they faced through the first 12 games with the brilliance of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s blitzes. Then the Giants stopped blitzing, and enemy quarterbacks, delighted to discover they were no longer being harassed, began hitting on long passes. (Against the Vikings, the Giants recorded just two sacks—same as Vikings pass rushers had on Giants passers, and neither sack came off a blitz.)

The Giants can always start blitzing again, but what about the edge the offense has lost? A bright spot in the Minnesota game was Derrick Ward, coming after the only 200-plus game of his career the previous week in the big win over Carolina. Against the Vikings, Ward rushed 15 times for 77 yards in the first two quarters, which might have been an even more impressive showing than the one against the Panthers: The Vikings had the top run defense in the league (for the third straight season) and they wanted very badly to stop him.

Brandon Jacobs sat out the Minnesota game but should be at full strength in two weeks when the Giants hit the playoffs. But despite Jacobs’ 15 TDs rushing to Ward’s two, Ward is probably their best offensive threat, over the season averaging 5.6 yards per rush compared to 5.0 for the more highly publicized Jacobs. How much have the Giants come to depend on Derrick Ward? Look at it this way: Over the last four games, Ward has averaged nearly two full yards more per rush than Manning has per throw.

The Giants are still the best bet in the NFC, but if they should draw the Philadelphia Eagles as their first playoff opponent, they’ll be facing a team that is not only a bitter division rival, but one that has been moving sharply in the opposite direction of New York, winning four of their last five games with an average victory margin of 17 points—including a victory over New York in which they very nearly shut out the Giants offense. There’s no doubt that over the season the Giants have been the better team, but there’s a very disturbing possibility that right now the surging Eagles are better.