A crucial early-season NFC East showdown finds the defending Super Bowl champs on life support
One year ago, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jake Elliott sent the New York Giants into a tailspin with a record-setting kick. A team-record 61-yard field goal as time expired saved the Eagles’ year, changing direction from 1-2 toward what would become a Super Bowl season. The Giants, along with former head coach Ben McAdoo, never recovered.
Did Carolina deliver a similar knockout blow to Big Blue last week? Graham Gano’s 63-yard field goal as time expired lifted the Panthers over the Giants 33-31. It was tied for the second longest in NFL history, wiping out an 11-point comeback in the fourth quarter that saw the Giants offense spark to life. Now 1-4, they’re tied for the worst record in the NFC.
We’re about to find out as the schedule still provides these same Giants an opening: none of their next six games are against a team over .500. Two of them are against the 2-3 Eagles, who enter Thursday’s game once again with their backs against the wall. Sloppy play on defense, turnovers on offense and overall tough luck leave them with as many losses now as they had throughout all of 2017.
Can the Giants become the fix the Eagles need, just like last season, to right the ship? They play them twice over a six-game stretch that also squeezes in Super Bowl contenders Carolina, Jacksonville and New Orleans. Sweeping their division games at this point is imperative if the Eagles are to even make the postseason, let alone defend their Super Bowl title.
The NFC East has thrown both teams a bone; even the Giants are just 1.5 games behind the Redskins at 2-2. It’s very much a wide open race that will receive some clarity after these division rivals clash in MetLife Stadium.
Philadelphia at New York
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 11 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Eagles -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Eagles play mistake-free football on offense?
The drama surrounding the Eagles revolves around doing the little things all wrong. They’re 29th in the NFL with 395 penalty yards. Their turnover margin is a dismal minus-four, ahead of only Jacksonville and San Francisco. Their red zone scoring percentage is just 38.5 percent in the three games since Carson Wentz returned, ahead of only four other teams. In short, this team can’t get out of its own way.
“I’m concerned,” said Eagles tight end Zach Ertz after Sunday’s contest. “It’s not where we thought we would be.”
Wentz along with head coach Doug Pederson have put emphasis on fixing these details in practice. But in the game? There’s been mistake after mistake. An inconsistent Vikings defense found their footing again last week with two crucial fumbles that altered the game’s momentum. Running back Jay Ajayi was the biggest culprit, fumbling five years from the end zone in the third quarter when the Eagles were about to make it 17-10.
That’s the last we’ll hear from Ajayi with the Eagles; he suffered a torn ACL Sunday and was put on injured reserve this week. The pending free agent joins Darren Sproles (hamstring) and Corey Clement (quad) missing significant time. But it might not be the worst news for a team that won the Super Bowl last season with role players (see: Foles, Nick) and needs an offensive spark. Ajayi’s postgame complaints about offensive play-calling were out of step with the rest of the team’s locker room.
Star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox restructured his contract amidst talk the team may trade for the Steelers star Le’Veon Bell in the next few weeks, rumors the team repeatedly denies. For now, Wendell Smallwood will step up and the hope is Clement is back by Thursday night. The duo will have to come together and produce against a Giants defense 27th in the NFL against the run. Wentz can’t do it on his arm alone.
But cleaning up the sloppy play is a stat you can’t really quantify. Some Super Bowl teams experience the hangover for a whole season; others finally have a wakeup call and get back to playing postseason football. The Eagles have many of the same pieces on the field from last year and know how to get the job done. It’s a matter of whether they can snap back together in time. The flags have to stop, false starts that feed into a failure of the offensive to produce points.
2. Can Eli Manning reassume control of the Giants' offense?
So much has been written about Manning’s decline at age 37. People have blamed a poor offensive line as a main reason he’s struggled to get on track.
But despite the addition of star first-round pick Saquon Barkley and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. back from injury Manning’s numbers are only marginally better year-to-year. Here’s a quick comparison of his last two seasons through five games.
2017: 1,338 yards, 67.8 completion rate, 8 TDs, 5 INTs, 13 sacks
2018: 1,381 yards, 71.7 completion rate, 6 TDs, 3 INTs, 3 fumbles, 16 sacks
It’s not like Manning has become a Pro Bowler again with more weapons in the arsenal. Instead, the best play from under center Sunday came from Beckham, throwing what became a breathless 57-yard TD to Barkley.
The problem with Manning these days is he has a number of young dynamic offensive talents around him but his explosive playmaking ability has declined. That’s a dangerous recipe for chemistry in this locker room, especially considering Beckham’s aggressive personality. A game-changing performance is necessary to quiet some critics and remind them Manning still controls the office, not the people he gives the ball to. Being just a game manager won’t be enough.
3. A battle of two bad offensive lines
The Eagles' offensive line, just five games removed from a Super Bowl, enters the Giants game in tough shape. Tackle Lane Johnson has gone from first-team All-Pro to also-ran, allowing pressure that led to a Wentz sack and fumble-six last week. Nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters is once again playing through injuries that have him showing his age at 36. The starting lineup has been shuffled with Isaac Seumalo inserted in place of Stefen Wisniewski at left guard. Through five games, they’ve allowed 17 sacks, fourth worst in the NFC. This unit allowed just 33 all of last season.
But the Giants, of course, are in the same boat. Manning has been sacked 16 times although the line has played better since 2015 first-round pick Ereck Flowers was finally benched. The speed of Barkley makes his blockers look a little better than they actually are.
But both sets of linemen are vulnerable, setting up opportunities for an Eagles defense ranked second against the run. For all the playmakers they have on defense, the defending Super Bowl champions have just two fumble recoveries in five games. Cox, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett and that whole defensive unit must put pressure on Manning and stuff Barkley, who for all his flair has less than 50 rushing yards in two straight games. They’re due for a few takeaways.
The same goes for the Giants on Wentz. They have just six sacks through five games and one fumble recovery of their own. That’s not going to cut it, especially in a division known for physical play. The team that gets to the quarterback quickest and most consistently Thursday night has the best chance to win.
The Eagles have the better record but this game feels like a must-win for them over the Giants. A loss drops them to 2-4 and even in an easy division the schedule would make 10 wins a near impossible task. Everything about this team has felt off, in particular Doug Pederson’s coaching decisions. The head coach has come under fire for everything from play-calling to clock management to even dissing his kicker’s range. One year after Elliott hit that game-winning kick, Pederson responded to questions about eschewing a field goal Sunday by claiming his range maxed out at the opponent’s 35-yard line. Could you imagine if they thought that about Elliott during the Giants game last year?
But the Giants have their own drama, Odell Beckham Jr. spending last week whining publicly about his role on offense. To be fair, the wide receiver addressed his team on Sunday and responded with a game ball-type performance: 131 receiving yards, a touchdown catch and that spectacular 57-yard TD throw to Saquon Barkley. But the chemistry within this team still seems off.
Even on the road, you have to give the Eagles a slight edge with Carson Wentz and his leadership ability to keep his team in check. Eli Manning has made too many mistakes in big moments lately and appears to be losing that role with the Giants.
Prediction: Eagles 23, Giants 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.