The Redskins may not have won back-to-back NFC titles, but few scenarios shape up better than Sunday’s tilt against the Giants. Their opponent, locked into the No. 5 seed in the NFC bracket has nothing to play for. Meanwhile a Washington win guarantees back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1991-92, when Joe Gibbs was still patrolling the sidelines, as long as the Packers-Lions game Sunday night doesn’t end in a tie. Current head coach Jay Gruden may wind up earning his own ticker-tape parade down the streets of D.C. if his team can take advantage of this apparent golden ticket to the postseason.
It also would give the NFC East three playoff teams, an unlikely scenario entering the season considering the Giants and Eagles were breaking in rookie head coaches (and Philadelphia had a rookie QB too). But Ben McAdoo (and some high-priced free agent acquisitions) has brought life back into the Giants’ defense, and two key wins against the Cowboys helped New York punch its playoff ticket. The focus will now be on getting Eli Manning back on track as the Giants prepare for a road game in the Wild Card Round.
Series History: Giants lead 98-67-4 (including playoffs), Redskins won 29-27 in Week 3.
New York at Washington
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 1 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Redskins -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Eli Manning Will Show Up?
While the Giants’ defense has proved unstoppable in recent weeks, their biggest roadblock continues to be their own quarterback. The numbers for Manning have been mediocre over the last month: six touchdowns, six interceptions, and a 2-2 record. His season-high three picks, including a pick-six, proved to be the difference in last week’s loss against the Eagles.
Manning, still on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards this season has 16 total interceptions, the most for him since 2013, and is averaging a career-low 10.7 yards per completion. There are times he’s looked like a Hall of Fame player and times he’s looked every bit like a 35-year-old outside his prime. But the two Super Bowls the Giants have won were clinched through Manning’s laser arm. They need him at peak performance entering the playoffs.
Perhaps that’s a reason why Ben McAdoo is going full-tilt against the Redskins Sunday. Manning is expected to play the whole game, paired with wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. as the risk of injury is getting trumped by maintaining momentum. That will make it Manning’s 199th consecutive regular-season start; he needs to utilize the moment to correct mistakes. A playoff game against strong defenses like the Seahawks or Lions (if they beat Green Bay on Sunday night) won’t give him second chances.
2. Can Kirk Cousins Keep it Clean?
Cousins, who started to turn things around against the Giants in Week 3, needs to put together a clean, efficient performance. He was 21 for 35 in that game, throwing for 296 yards, two TDs and no interceptions after throwing three picks in the first two weeks of the season. Since then, the Redskins have charged to what will be a record for total offense in a season. They’re just 83 yards away from their all-time mark of 6,253 yards set during the Joe Gibbs era in 1989.
Cousins has been efficient and effective, every bit of the franchise player seeking a long-term contract. He’s already the first quarterback since Mark Rypien in 1991-92 to guide the Redskins to two straight winning seasons while starting every game under center. Numbers such as 4,630 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions are those you look for when seeking a long-term solution at the most critical position in the NFL.
“He’s more sure, definitely confident,” Giants Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins said this week to NJ.com. “He’s trusting his arm, and trusting his ability, now.”
But much of Cousins’ future will be decided Sunday afternoon. This game is one the Redskins should be expected to win. A whiff here, under any circumstances, to send them home leaves a bitter taste and most likely a more difficult negotiation ahead. No other player has more on the line in this one than Cousins.
3. How Will the Redskins’ Defense Hold Up?
Everyone knows how good the Giants’ defense is. The Redskins? They’ve allowed 20-plus points in every game but one. They’re 23rd in scoring defense (24.3 ppg), 29th in total defense (380.9 ypg), 25th against the run (117.0) and 28th against the pass (263.9).
Those numbers need to turn around Sunday. Other than the Pro Bowler Beckham, the New York doesn’t possess a treasure trove of weapons. Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, who is tied for seventh in the NFL with 11 sacks, needs to put the pressure on Manning early and often. Cornerback Josh Norman, whose feud with Beckham is has apparently run its course, still needs to shut down the star wide receiver. ODB had seven catches for 121 yards in the first meeting back in Week 3.
This game is one the Redskins need to win. The Giants, while saying they’ll go all out for four quarters, won’t have the same sense of urgency with their playoff bid already clinched. Look for the ‘Skins to make history and put that nightmare 0-2 start behind them for good.
Prediction: Redskins 38, Giants 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.