Only one team, the New York Giants, can stop the Dallas Cowboys from capturing the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The chances are slim – it would take a 2-0 finish combined with two straight Cowboys losses – but the Giants (10-4) are finishing strong, riding a wave of momentum behind their stingy defense and exceptional play from wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. A victory Thursday night would secure a playoff berth in head coach Ben McAdoo’s first season, while wins against the Cowboys and Lions the past two weeks have earned them respectability.
Philadelphia is headed in the opposite direction, in the midst of 2-9 slog after jumping out to a 3-0 start. But while the Eagles’ playoff hopes have evaporated, this team is relishing playing the role of spoiler. They gave postseason hopefuls Washington and Baltimore all they could handle, losing both games by a combined six points. Doug Pederson’s team also is 4-2 at Lincoln Financial Field and lost to the Giants by just five points in the teams’ first meeting at MetLife Stadium in Week 9. Don’t be surprised if this game turns out more competitive than the records would indicate.
Series History: Giants lead 86-81-2 (including playoffs), but have lost four out of the past five meetings with the Eagles.
New York at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 22 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Giants -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Carson Wentz Cut Down on Mistakes?
After a solid start, putting himself out there as an early Offensive Rookie of the Year contender, Wentz has crashed back down to earth. He’s thrown an interception in five straight games (eight total), during which the Eagles have gone 0-5. He’s averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt during that stretch, been hassled in the pocket and looked more like a first-year player trying to survive than a future superstar.
Wentz will get a major boost this week with the return of right tackle Lane Johnson from a 10-game suspension. Johnson anchors an offensive line that clearly struggled during his absence; Wentz hasn’t had a QB rating of more than 100 since Johnson hit the sidelines.
“I failed the team,” Johnson told philly.com once his suspension was lifted. “That’s on me.” The team was 3-1 before Johnson hit the bench, nearly 4-0 until the Lions pulled off a late rally.
But offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Johnson is ready to make up for lost time. "I know it sounds corny, but you could feel the energy,” he said. “You could feel it bottled up. You could sense it ready to go.”
Certainly, the offense is happy to have this former first-rounder back in the fold. However, Wentz must take responsibility for his mistakes the past two months and his honeymoon period is ending. There’s clearly a learning curve involved in learning the quarterback position in the NFL, but Wentz raised expectations during a fast start. He needs two solid games with his offensive line back intact to regain confidence heading into the offseason.
The Giants should give Wentz hope for recovery. He passed for a season-high 364 yards against them earlier this season but, once again it was two critical interceptions that made the difference in a 28-23 road loss. This team can’t keep turning the ball over early on offense and expect to play from behind.
2. Can Odell Beckham Jr. be Stopped?
In one sense, the Eagles did a great job on Beckham in their first meeting. His 46 receiving yards represent his season low against NFC East teams and his second-fewest in any game. He managed just 23 against Minnesota in Week 4. But while the yards may not have been there, Beckham still caught two touchdowns against Philadelphia and was a difference-maker for the Giants’ offense when needed.
Beckham, among four Giants named to the Pro Bowl (Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Dwayne Harris) earlier this week, has come on strong over the past two months. He’s currently tied for third in the NFL in receptions (85) and touchdown catches (10), and is fourth in receiving yards (1,173). The offense really seems to thrive or struggled based on how well Beckham does, so the Eagles must find a way to keep him in check, forcing Eli Manning to look elsewhere and putting more pressure on the Giants’ nearly non-existent running game (81.2 ypg, 30th in the league).
3. Can Ryan Mathews Stay Hot?
Baltimore entered last week with the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense, but that didn’t stop Mathews from pounding out a season-high 128 yards on the ground. Those types of games from the former Pro Bowler have been few and far between this season, but maybe last week was an indication that Mathews is finally healthy and ready to be the lead back the Eagles need him to be.
This game should be good barometer to see if Mathews is peaking, since New York is sixth in the league against the run (90.1 ypg). Last week, the Giants held the NFC North-leading Lions to just 56 rushing yards, and the week before they kept Ezekiel Elliott out of the end zone. Sure, Elliott gained 107 yards on the ground, but that’s actually below average for the NFL’s leading rusher. It’s also was just the fifth game this season that the Cowboys’ dynamic rookie hadn’t scored.
Can Mathews find running room against the Giants, especially with Johnson back in the fold? Or will he be the latest running back to find the going tough against a defense that has established itself as one of the best in the league this season?
The Eagles came close to upsetting the apple cart last Sunday against Baltimore and they’re always strong at home. Carson Wentz should get it together, taking a major late-season step while edging his NFC East rival for the first time. It’s hard to imagine the Eagles going 0-6 in this division and the Giants are due for a letdown.
The wild card is Eagles’ Pro Bowl defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, who is capable of disrupting Eli Manning’s rhythm and increasing the chances of him making a mistake (or two). Manning threw two interceptions in the teams’ first meeting in early November and he’ll trip up just enough to give Philadelphia the opportunity to even the season series.
Prediction: Eagles 20, Giants 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Ryan Mathews photo by Drew Hallowell, courtesy of www.philadelphiaeagles.com)