Eli Manning will start what could be his final NFL game against a longtime rival
The New York Giants play the Philadelphia Eagles with no mathematical chance to win the NFC East this season; they're down a starting quarterback, too, as Daniel Jones will sit this one out with a high ankle sprain. But the fact this team with a 2-10 record still remained in playoff contention until last week should give you a clue of how awful this division has been in 2019.
The Eagles (5-7) enter "Monday Night Football" with a tremendous opportunity, a chance to pull even with the Dallas Cowboys a second straight week and control their own playoff destiny. Last week, they had a similar setup and blew it, losing to the hapless Miami Dolphins 37-31 in their worst defensive effort of the season. Losers of three straight games, Philadelphia has been unable to capitalize as the Cowboys have suffered through an 0-3 stretch themselves.
In fact, the hapless Washington Redskins, upset winners against the Carolina Panthers last weekend, are the only team to win a game in this division since Nov. 17. Shockingly enough, that's kept them alive in the NFC East despite a 3-9 record. No team will be better than 6-7 after this weekend even if the Eagles win.
Such is life in a division whose 16 wins are the fewest in the NFL; the AFC West, next up on the list, has 22. But according to NFL rules, someone still has to come out on top and earn a playoff spot.
We'll see Monday night if the Eagles can do just that, living up to their preseason billing as NFC contenders while facing two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning for potentially the final time in his career.
New York at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 9 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Eli Manning play?
Manning returns to the field Monday night for what may be his final game as a starter in the NFL. All indications are Daniel Jones could be back as soon as next week; the goal is for the 22-year-old to get as much on-field experience as possible.
To be fair, Manning hasn't made his future clear beyond this season. October's Sports Illustrated profile, the most detailed profile of the former starting QB, reveals he's always planned to retire a New York Giant.
"You never want to try to make decisions about your future while you're still living in the present and don't know the circumstances of what could happen," Manning said this week. "I'll analyze everything else after the season."
As for Monday night, it's difficult to know what to expect. The Giants have lost eight straight since Jones' 2-0 start replacing Manning, their offensive line as porous as ever. Jones got sacked as many as eight times in a game against the Cardinals last month; he's never had top offensive weapons Golden Tate, Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard on the field for the same game once this season.
Manning will suffer through the same problem as Engram is out Monday night with a foot injury. So the load will fall to Barkley and Tate, the latter of which had three touchdowns in two games before a concussion sidelined him against Green Bay. Barkley himself remains the team's best offensive player yet has a tough assignment ahead of him; the Eagles rank fourth against the run and will likely take that weapon away, forcing Manning to beat them.
Can he do it? The quarterback's last victory against the Eagles came in 2016; the last time he beat them at Lincoln Financial Field was '13. His starts against them last year were unimpressive; one touchdown, two interceptions, no 300-yard games and six sacks.
It's a tall order. Yet the nostalgia surrounding his final start, stuck with a 116-116 career record, is the type of mental boost for the Giants that's impossible to ignore.
2. Can the Eagles' defense recover?
A look at what happened against the Dolphins is inexplicable for a defense that's kept this team in games all season. A group that limited the Patriots and Seahawks, Super Bowl contenders, to just 34 points total gave up 37 the following week to a 3-9 team trying to tank for draft picks.
"You don't want to be Captain Obvious," said team leader and safety Malcolm Jenkins. "We didn't f***ing play well. There is no need to beat a dead horse."
Journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick racked up 365 passing yards, the third-most for an Eagles opponent this season behind Aaron Rodgers and Case Keenum in the season opener. The team was 4-for-4 on red zone opportunities, the worst performance by the Eagles' defense this season. Keep in mind the Dolphins had never gone better than 2-for-2 percentagewise in any game before last Sunday.
The Giants' offense, on paper, appears the perfect remedy for the Eagles' woes. They're 25th in total yards, 25th in points per game, and their 28 giveaways are tied for the most in the NFL. It's a mismatch on paper, one where defensive linemen Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox should wreak havoc. (Derek Barnett may sit out with an ankle injury).
3. Was last week a sign the Eagles have found their rhythm offensively?
If there's any silver lining from the Dolphins game last week, it's that Philadelphia's offense finally appeared to take a step forward. Carson Wentz, facing heavy criticism entering the game, put together his best performance since September's win against Green Bay. His 310 passing yards went to seven different receivers despite most of his weapons sidelined by injuries. He was sacked only twice and didn't have a single turnover until a Hail Mary throw at the end of the game.
The running attack, despite the loss of still-hurting Jordan Howard (shoulder), seems to have stabilized behind second-round draft pick Miles Sanders. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery appears fully healthy, surging to 137 yards, nine catches and a touchdown. Tight end Zach Ertz took a step back last week but had three straight games of nine-plus catches before that.
The question is whether Wentz can sustain the momentum. He still hasn't put together back-to-back games of three-plus touchdown passes since his pre-ACL, MVP-caliber season in 2017. On paper, the Giants are the perfect team to achieve that next-level stat.
If you've noticed a theme of "on paper, it's a blowout" you've recognized the difficulty of handicapping the Eagles in 2019. The lack of team chemistry is palpable; in just two years, a franchise that thrived in the underdog role defined by head coach Doug Pedersen no longer seems to fight together.
They're slow starters, scoring a touchdown in the first quarter just twice in the past seven weeks. They can't close, scoring an average of 3.2 points in the fourth quarter during the same stretch. Against the Dolphins, they blew a 14-point lead with 11:44 left in the third quarter against a team that's literally trying to lose.
If there's any silver lining, all the stats line up in the Eagles' favor against a team they've beat up on in recent years. Eli Manning, every time he's shown up on the field, appears to have nothing left. The last time Malcolm Jenkins spoke out so passionately, responding to criticism from a former defensive player, they demolished the Buffalo Bills 31-13 the following week.
And still. If I were a betting man, I'd stay away, even with a moneyline wager. That's how untrustworthy the 2019 Eagles have been.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Giants 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.