Thursday, October 29, 2009

Week 8 Pick: Giants (even) over Eagles

Oh, how times have changed. Before the season, the Giants and Eagles were both generally considered to be among the top 4 teams in football. Now, both of these former powerhouses are somewhat down on their luck, leading many to question whether the NFC East is considerably overrated. Still, this game features a intriguing match-up of two teams with high preseason expectations that hate each other. I also think the Giants are a great bet to win the game, making the even line enticing. Here's why:

1. The Eagles are struggling on offense, and provide a prime opportunity for the Giants to get their pass rush back on track.

The Eagles have fallen back to the pack statistically on offense, now ranking below average in both total YPG and in Advanced NFL Stats' offensive efficiency. This below-average ranking might even be generous in light of the Eagles' creampuff schedule, since excepting the Saints the Eagles' remaining 5 opponents have won a total of 7 games. As I wrote earlier, the Eagles offense generally thrives on beating up on bad teams. But in the only game against a team with a winning record this year, the Eagles were disastrous in a 26 point loss. And of course, let's not forget about the putrid and unforgivable performance they turned in at Oakland a few weeks ago. In other words, this Eagles offense has not been very good so far this year. Moreover, specifics of the match-up bode well for the Giants' chances.

The number one reason I like the Giants this week is that McNabb has struggled mightily against the blitz. He has evinced little confidence against pressure packages, looking indecisive and taking a large number of sacks against teams like the pitiful Raiders. Partly because of McNabb's struggles--and partly due to a makeshift offensive line--the Eagles should be vulnerable to a Giants' pass rush that is quite talented. Their recent struggles notwithstanding, the Giants have the exact same pieces that led a near consensus of analysts to proclaim their pass rush the most fearsome in the league. And they have run into two quarterbacks of late in Brees and Warner that are both playing well and get rid of the ball extremely quickly. McNabb does not; thus his eye-opening struggles against the blitz this year. Plus, the Giants' pass rushers have had significant success against the Eagles in the past; after all, it was the Eagles and Winston "Turnstyle" Justice who practically made Osi Umenyiora's career on Sunday night a few years ago by allowing him an incredible 6 sacks.

Additionally, McNabb's poor mechanics have been leading to significant inaccuracy of late. True, the overall stats look OK, and the Eagles did generate 27 points last week. But, despite the OK final score, the Eagles turned in an uneven performance. That game said more about the pathetic state of the Redskins and their emasculated figurehead coach than it did about the Eagles. And what we learned is that the Eagles can win in an unconvincing fashion over one of the worst teams in the NFL. Not only that, but the Eagles have not played a single good team since week 2. Thus, this week will serve as a great test of the "Danger of Four" principle that BadNFL invented in the wake of the Eagles/Raiders debacle: my theory is that it has been so long (over 4 weeks) since the Eagles have played a good team that they will struggle to adjust to the level of play against a good team.

And make no mistake, the Giants still have a good defense, ranking 1st overall and 2nd against the pass. If they have a weakness, it's their rush defense, but we all know that Andy Reid will never commit to the run. While this line is undoubtedly so low because betters have the image of Brees carving up the Giants' secondary fresh in mind, I think the Giants match up much better against the Eagles. Breaking down the film of the Giants/Saints game, the thing that surprised me was how decent the coverage was on many plays. But it didn't matter, as Brees made perfect throws to his big physical WRs who out-muscled the Giants' DBs for the ball. The Eagles' WRs are the polar opposite, relying on the speedy but diminutive DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin to generate big plays. The Giants should be able to contain the Eagles' attack better than they did the Saints.

2. The Giants are undervalued and are a good bet to fix what ails them this week.

There's no question that the Giants have lost some of their luster in recent weeks. They played a sloppy, mostly uninspired game last week against the Cardinals. But I'm still convinced that the Giants are a Super Bowl-caliber team, albeit not a dominant one, and I think they are likely to rebound in a major way this week.

This game means a ton to the Giants. Ever since McNabb's phonecall antics last year in the playoffs against the Giants, they have had this game marked on the calendar. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Giants have been looking forward to this game more than any other on their schedule. They are also somewhat flying below the radar for the first time since early 2007, which is a place that both Coughlin and the players are most comfortable. While I do admit that such psychological factors can be overrated sometimes, intensity and dedication would go far to cure what has recently ailed the Giants. The loss to the Cardinals was particularly noticeable for uncharacteristic Giants' mistakes and lack of execution, something that an intense and hate-filled week can help cure. Importantly, the Giants' peripheral statistics are still solid, especially their offensive line and their YPA on offense. In light of the recent losses, they seem like they've hit bottom and will start demonstrating again why 2 weeks ago many analysts considered them an elite team. In essence, it's the reverse of what plagued the Eagles in Oakland; the Giants have played two tough teams in a row and now play an opponent who a) is not as good as those they've been playing and b) they venomously despise. Such is the stuff of which inspired performances are made.

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT: The Eagles won 2/3 from the Giants last year, and knocked them out of the playoffs. What will be different?

Brian Westbrook. It is difficult to overstate how much trouble Westbrook has given the Giants over the years. He was the difference in the Eagles' week-14 win last year, and the Giants' biggest offseason move was designed with him specifically in mind. I doubt Westbrook will play this week, given that he suffered a nasty concussion last Monday night. Andy Reid is of course claiming that Westbrook will be a gametime decision, but Reid has been notoriously cagey about injuries in the past, and the most credible medical prognosis I've read strongly suggests that it would be a terrible idea for Westbrook to play so soon after such a severe concusion. Without Westbrook's dual-threat capabilities available, the Eagles will likely become predictably one-dimensional, enabling the Giants defense to get back on track.

Moreover, this game is in Philadelphia. These Giants earned their reputation as a superlative road team during their wild card run to the Lombardi Trophy in 2007, but more specifically, they always play well in Philly. As a case in point, they lost their 2 home games to the Eagles last year but salvaged a win in their only match-up on the road. They also won at Philly in 2007, 2006, and 2005. That stat was pretty shocking to me, but it's true that it all adds up to this: Eli Manning has never lost in Philadelphia. It seems that going out on the road, escaping the NY crowds and the home media, to a place that the Manning-era Giants always play well, is a perfect recipe for busting out of their mini-slump. Because I think the Giants are also a structurally sounder team and that they will be more motivated in this game, they seem like a good bet to win. I wouldn't be shocked if the weekend money pushes the Giants into giving points by kickoff. As such, I'm going to pick them at even money.

Check back next week to see how it went.

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