After a disheartening loss in Week 8 against rival
, the Texans (2-5) will have to be sharp as they square off against one of the hottest teams in the league, the New York Giants. Losing two of their first three games while playing in the tough NFC East seemed to be a sign of bad things to come, but the Giants have instead rebounded to win their last four games and sit alone atop the divisional standings. Playing at home in the Meadowlands will only make this matchup tougher for the Texans.
Coach Tom Coughlin has assembled an intriguing blend of stars in his locker room. With the recent news two weeks ago that Tiki Barber plans to retire at the end of the season, many expected the Giants to be distracted. Two dominating wins showed that the so-called distraction was nothing more than a figment of people's imagination. Not many teams bring to the table the balance the Giants possess, but those few that have through NFL history, have enjoyed vast success. Success Coughlin's bunch hopes to translate into a trip to
at the end of the season.
**While each member of the Giants offensive unit plays a key role in their success, down the stretch last season, fans saw that as quarterback Eli Manning goes, so goes the Giants hope to get deep into the playoffs. Manning's struggles in the final six games of 2005 (4 TD's, 10 INT's including the playoffs) put a damper on an otherwise successful season and began the off-season a little earlier then the Giants had hoped. But it also overshadowed the fact Manning took huge strides in only his second year, leading the Giants to an 11-5 record, throwing for 24 touchdowns, winning a divisional title and showing the rest of the NFL he was worth everything the Giants traded away to get him in the 2004 NFL Draft.
This season, at the age of 25, Manning is taking additional steps toward solidifying his place among the NFL elite. Through seven games, Manning has already thrown for 1,672 yards, 14 touchdowns and improved his completion percentage from 52.8 percent last season to 61.4 percent so far this year. Blessed with the Manning pedigree (brother Peyton, father Archie), Manning is solid in all of the intangibles teams look for in a quarterback with no real weakness to speak of.
When the Giants aren't airing it out, the NFL's leading rusher (715 yards, 4.6 yards per carry), Tiki Barber, is heading up the ground game. Once thought to be too diminutive to be an every down back in the NFL, Barber has been the main cog in the Giants backfield for seven consecutive seasons and is proving doubters wrong by putting up numbers that are creeping up in the NFL record books, something that will surely pad his potential Hall of Fame resume. As one of the best leaders in the league and face of the Giants franchise, Barber attacks the game prepared, with intensity and always with the team in mind. He is one of the rare backs that can beat you when taking hand offs and when catching the ball out of the backfield. Though he hasn't found the end zone yet this season, his 14,461 career yards from scrimmage and 62 career touchdowns indicate it's only a matter of time.
The possible successor to Barber is second-year back Brandon Jacobs. The 24-year old Jacobs is built more like a lineman than your garden variety running back at 6-4 and 264 pounds, however, opposing offenses should be cautioned. He can definitely perform. After playing his college ball in relative obscurity at Southern Illinois, following a stint at
Every indication so far shows the Giants got a steal. After scoring seven touchdowns as a goal line/short-yardage back in 2005, Jacobs is being integrated more into the offense this season as his powerful running style has netted him 258 yards, 5.1 yards per carry and four touchdowns.
When Manning drops back to pass, he gets the opportunity to stare down two big targets on the outside with Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. Burress (6-5, 232) is an enigma of sorts, clashing with Coughlin and questioning his play-calling one minute, pulling down another catch the next. For a player his size, he has great speed down the field and is one of the best in the league at using his body to shield himself from defenders. Toomer (6-3, 202), at the age of 32, is still capable of making big plays. While his speed may not be what it used to, Toomer gets by more now on smarts, savvy and terrific concentration in traffic. This season, Toomer (30 catches, 344 yards, 3 TD's) and Burress (31 catches, 510 yards, 5 TD's) have shown that if you pay more attention to one of them, the other one will hurt you.
Like at the other offensive skill positions, the Giants have one of the more formidable players and personalities in the league at his position in Jeremy Shockey. Bursting onto the scene in 2002 with 74 catches and 894 yards, Shockey continues to produce at a position that is continually being revolutionized by players like himself. Shockey has the speed to stretch the middle of the field, the toughness to go up against defenders to get a pass, the size (6-5, 251) to be an asset in the blocking game as well as the passing game, and a competitive spirit that is rivaled by few in this league.
On the offensive line, the Giants don't have a group of stars, but a group of hard-nosed players who work and grind it out for 60 minutes. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie (6-6, 327) , a huge free agent acquisition from the Jets in 2005, has proven to be a valuable commodity during his six-year NFL career due to his strength and consistency. Similarly, eight-year veteran and former first round pick Luke Petitgout is starting to improve as a blind-side protector to Manning after bouncing between tackle and guard for a portion of his career. Known as a better run blocker, Petitgout and the offensive line have given up 15 sacks, but they have paved the way for the fourth best running team in the league. The "swing" tackle backing up both McKenzie and Petitgout is long-time Atlanta Falcon Bob Whitfield.
The interior of the line is anchored by center Shaun O'Hara and he is joined by left guard David Diehl and right guard Chris Snee. Able to play both center and guard, O'Hara is a technically sound gamer who rarely makes mistakes and is a very smart player, an important trait for a center. 26-year old David Diehl (6-5, 319) has a long build that allows him to separate from defenders with his arms and gives him the confidence to be aggressive on the inside of the line. Snee, the youngest on the line, could wind up being the best. Picked 34 th overall in the 2004 Draft, Snee is a superb run blocker that is still improving at all facets of the game.
Beating the Giants means rattling Manning. As evidenced in his late-season performance last year, when teams began to put more pressure on him, Manning struggles if he gets rattled. A lot of this has to do with the fact he is only in his third season, but until he proves he can handle getting beat up in the pocket and continue to perform, teams should attack him. Letting Manning sit in the pocket and pick apart defenses with all of the weapons he has, could prove deadly.
**The Giants are more known for their offense, but championships are won on the defensive side of the ball. Solidifying a unit that currently ranks 14 th overall in yards allowed and has lost star linebacker Lavar Arrington for the season due to injury will be important factors in the success of the team.
It all starts up front with future Hall of Famer and the single-season record holder for sacks, defensive end Michael Strahan. Born in
Many teams still game plan for Strahan, who at 34 hasn't seen a significant drop in his ability, which has left the door open for his talented apprentices.
The largest beneficiary from the attention the opponents pay to Strahan is fourth-year player Osi Umenyiora. After two quiet seasons to begin his career, Umenyiora burst onto the scene last year with 15 sacks and his first Pro Bowl appearance. Learning from Strahan and playing on the same line as his counterpart helped Umenyiora helped record those aforementioned numbers, but don't let that fool you. He was also aided by the tremendous skills he possesses including a quick first step, good edge rush skills and solid build (6-4, 260). Along with Strahan and Umenyiora, second-year player Justin Tuck and rookie Mathias Kiwanuka give the Giants the deepest and best group of ends in the league.
Inside, the Giants have a three man rotation that doesn't boast any proven players, but gets the job done nonetheless. The group is led by seven-year veteran Fred Robbins who may not have the best skill set, but has a toughness that is needed when playing the trenches in the NFL. Next to him is one of the more surprising starters in the league, undrafted rookie free agent from
At linebacker, the loss of former Pro Bowler LaVar Arrington will hurt. While there were already whispers around the league that he wasn't fitting into the Giants scheme, its tough losing a guy that has proven to be a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. Good thing for the Giants they still have leading tackler Antonio Pierce. Pierce is one of the most athletic and aware linebackers in the league. While he may not be at the level of Brian Urlacher or Ray Lewis, he is someone that should be known by every NFL fan and anyone that wants to study how to play the middle linebacker position. Unlike last season when the linebacking corps was decimated with injuries, the Giants have established good depth. Carlos Emmons, Reggie Torbor and rookie Gerris Wilkinson should all see time and can be effective.
The trend of one old and one young continues at the cornerback position as 10-year veteran and former All-Pro Sam Madison comes over from
can still serve as a good corner and excellent tutor for the young Webster. Webster is starting to show this season that he can be a number one corner in the league. The former wide receiver at LSU has excellent size (6-0, 202), big game experience (National Championship at LSU), great athleticism and is very fundamentally sound. R.W. McQuarters serves as the nickel back and is one of those guys that seems to make plays whatever team he is on, as long as he is not relied upon to be the number one guy.
It's not often a team has a pair of safeties that are coming into their own at the same time, but the Giants have that in 24-year old strong safety Gibril Wilson and 26-year old free safety Will Demps.
The Giants currently rank in the middle of the pack in NFL defenses and are not significantly bad at either defending the run or pass. However, the teams that have been successful against them this season (
**Kicker Jay Feely has been inconsistent in the past, which doesn't bode well playing in a place like the Meadowlands where winds can swirl, but he is beginning to get the hang of it. He has good range and is automatic from 40 yards in meaning the Giants should feel very safe that they can compete in close games late in the season. Feely has connected on 84.6 of his field goals this season and has 52 points.
The ageless Jeff Feagles is in his nineteenth year and currently resides among the charts for most punts in NFL history. As one would expect, his leg is not what it used to be, but his consistency and accurate placement allow him to be a viable option for any team. Proven return man Chad Morton takes back kicks and punts for the Giants. His averages this year are well below his career numbers, but he still possesses the skills necessary to add on to his four career return touchdowns.