Friday, January 06, 2006

Week 17: Giants 30 - Raiders 21

No, it wasn’t the prettiest game, and there were certainly some unsettling and scary moments, but the Giants managed to ring in 2006 by clinching their first NFC East title in five years, prevailing 30-21 over the lowly Raiders. The win assures them a prized playoff home game against a tough, battle-tested Carolina Panthers team that storms into the playoffs with the same record as the Giants (11-5) and on the heels of an impressive 44-11 trouncing of the Falcons, propelling them into the postseason with confidence and momentum.

But first the game itself, a rather ugly slog that was more difficult for the G-Men than it should have been. The Raiders came into the game a defeated and dead team, limping to the end of a wildly dissapointing 4-11 season that had fallen well short of considerable pre-season expectations, a season that had left their McAffee Coluseum half-empty by week 17 and rendered their coach, Norv Turner, the lamest of ducks. Surely it shouldn't have been too tough for the Giants, and things got off to a good start: Midway through the first quarter, Tiki Barber took a handoff from the 5-yard line, skated through a big, beautifully blocked seam, glided around the left bend and then continued down the sideline, patiently setting up yet another persistent escort block by Plaxico Burress before hitting a fifth gear, gone for the astonishingly easy 95 yard touchdown. The greatest year for an offensive player in Giants history continues as Big Blue stakes out the early lead.


On the next series, however, Oakland’s offense -- which has been dormant for weeks -- wakes up against the sputtering Giants defense. Kerry Collins is able to set his feet and step up in a well-protected pocket, and he fires a series of elegant passes to his stellar receiving corps, who have the Giants undermanned secondary on its heels. The Raiders march all the way down to the Giant 15, and then Collins hits Randy Moss on a skinny post for the touchdown that ties the game for the home team.

But as the first quarter gives way to the second, the Giants march right back, and Eli's beautiful, back-shoulder-pinning timing pass to Plaxico Burress gives them a 1st and goal at the Raider 10. But the Giants inability to capitalize in the red-zone -- a pronounced problem all season, including last week against Washington -- surfaces once again, as they are forced to settle for a Jay Feely field goal, with 12:41 to go in the second quarter.

Big Blue is able to get the ball back in short time, however, thanks to a Raider offense that has nakedly abandoned the running game in favor of airing it out in this, their last game of their miserable season. Shortly after the Giants take over, Eli completes a mid-range square-in to Plaxico, who outruns a wild, bumbling tackle attempt by the late arriving safety Stuart Schweigert, turning up into a wide-open field, and finding himself off to the races for another breathtaking Giants touchdown. At 17-7 midway through the second quarter, the Giants are smelling a rout. And as the half winds down, the Giants move the ball again into Raider territory, but they stall -- again -- at the 20 and have to settle for the Feely field goal. He boots it through, however, giving the Giants a comfortable 20-7 lead.

With just under two minutes remaining in the half, all they have to do is stop the predictably pass-happy Raiders in their two-minute drill to take this cushy lead into the half, but they eschew the blitz or any other form of defensive aggressiveness and let Kerry Collins methodically march his squad downfield. With all the time in the world to operate, Collins goes 6 for 9 on the drive, including an 8-yard touchdown toss to Doug Gabriel that brings the Raiders to within six at halftime.

It is a frustrated Giants team that goes into the locker room; they are painfully aware that they could have already put these Raiders away if not for their lax defensive scheme and frighteningly porous secondary, which is looking as bad in Week 17 as it did in the season’s first few weeks. As play resumes in the third quarter, the game takes on a dragging, listless quality as the Giants punt, and then the Raiders punt, and then the Giants punt, and then the Raiders punt. But on this last Raiders punt, with 4:33 to go in the third quarter, Chad Morton, after corralling the ball at his own 39, jukes, jitterbugs, and then darts his way through a tight seam, squeezing all the way down to the Raiders 3 for Big Blue’s third huge play of the night (which have accounted for a huge portion of their offense). A couple plays later, Brandon Jacobs missiles his way across the goal line for the score, and when Feely knocks in the PAT, it's 27-14 Giants.


But alas, the Giants squander their breathing room once again when rookie Corey Webster, who is replacing Curtis Deloatch and looking just as overmatched as his dissapointing usurpee, somehow loses track of Randy Moss, who smoothly gathers Kerry Collins’ pass and waltzes down the sideline and into the endzone for the quick Raiders answer, pulling them back within six.


If you’re planning on burying a dead team, it is best to do so early in the game, when the decision to play hard for sixty minutes is still being considered. But thanks to a passive Giants secondary -- which has allowed Kerry Collins to look as good as he did in his best days with the Giants – the Raiders have hung around for this long, so they might as well hang in and fight for one last quarter. The Giants are in for a scrap.

On Big Blue’s next series, they are able to march down into Oakland territory, where they face another tense moment as Jay Feely is brought on to attempt a difficult 46 yard field goal. This is a crucial kick, not only because it will provide the all-important two-score cushion in this surprisingly tense game, but also because Feely’s precarious confidence going into the playoffs might very well hinge on it. But Feely steps up and thumps it through, giving the Giants a 30-21 lead, and his psyche a boost as he heads into the pressurized world of playoff kicking.

The Giants aren’t out of the woods yet, however, and the remainder of the game was fraught with frightening moments. Earlier in the half, actually, Michael Strahan was violently poked in the eye by a pass-blocking Raiders tackle, and he spent the remainder of the game on the sidelines holding an ice-pack to an eye that was as swollen as that of a losing boxer. A few plays into the fourth quarter, Eli’s leg contorted somewhat unnaturally when he was hit while releasing the ball. Then, worst of all, Tiki Barber hurt his ankle when a Raider tackler crashed down on the outside of his leg. As Tiki writhed on the ground, the ESPN Sky Cam provided the dramatic, terrible overhead shot of what appeared to be the absolute worst-case-scenario. ESPN followed this shot with a commercial break, giving Giants fans a harrowing sixty seconds to ponder the possibilities of life without Tiki. But when the action resumed, Sam Ryan’s sideline report informed us that that Tiki had trotted off the field without a significant limp – the man will be fine. But still, this long, last quarter of this frustrating last game wasn’t over, as Nick Greisen became the next Giant man down when he suffered a neck injury while making a tackle. Yet another tense moment for the Giants, but fortunately – mercifully – all of these players will be fine for this coming week, and none of them should show any ill effects from their scary, but not serious injuries. This avalanche of injuries in the fourth quarter of this game, however, parallels the avalanche of injuries that the Giants have endured in the fourth quarter of their season. Sure, all the guys that went down in this game will be fine, but the linebacking corps remains severely depleted, the defensive line is thinned out, and Jeremy Shockey – a key target for young Eli as he enters his first playoff action – is questionable for this Sunday’s game as of this writing.

But there was still more football to be play, and it wouldn’t be easy. Down by 9 with 5:37 to go, Kerry Collins is once again able to quickly pass his team all the way downfield, taking them to a 1st and goal at the Giants 1. But with their backs to the wall, the Giants defense stiffens, albeit with the help of some remarkably uninspired playcalling by the now-fired Norv Turner. They stop three predictable dive-runs by fullback Zack Crockett before Kerry Collins fails to sneak it in on 4th and goal. A replay confirms that Collins probably did in fact push the ball across the plane, but the video evidence was apparently not “indisputable” enough for the refs to overturn their original call. The Giants D – many of whom haven’t played much with the exception of tonight or the previous couple of games – sprints off the field, elated and triumphant. And after a clutch Tiki Barber first-down on the Giants’ ensuing possession, this one is finally over. The Giants finish the regular season at 11-5, champions of the NFC East. Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora do the honors of dousing Tom Coughlin with the Gatorade bucket, and Colonel Tom cracks a smile. Hugs and good feelings abound; the Giants are ready for 2006 and the start of the playoffs.


***

It is sort of a shame that the tie breakers worked out the way they did: The Giants, the Panthers, and the Buccaneers all finished the year with 11-5 records, but the Bucs’ 9-3 conference record gave them the division over the Panthers and the #3 seed over the Giants. Had things worked out a bit differently, perhaps the Giants might be facing the underwhelming Bucs instead of this more formidable Panthers. Look at a statistical comparison between the two teams in terms of Points Scored vs. Points Allowed, and also footballoutsiders.com’s DVOA system, an advance metric that breaks down each play of the NFL season and calibrates to the league average (for my simplified explanation of DVOA, click here):

Panthers
PS-PA: 391-259
DVOA: 13.0%

Bucs
PS-PA: 300-274
DVOA: 4.6%

With all that said, however, the Giants might just want to count themselves lucky that they didn’t draw the hard-charging Washington Redskins, who, after shellacking the Giants in week 16, beat the Eagles this past week to clinch a playoff birth. They finished at 10-6, and notably lost a few close contests during the middle of the year, including one against those same Buccaneers on a since-disproved two-point conversion run by the Bucs Mike Alstott that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the ‘Skins. It is always ridiculous to play the coulda-woulda-shoulda game when it comes to NFL officiating, but in this case, it’s worth mentioning that if the referees had properly ruled that Alstott did not in fact cross the plane of the goal line, the Redskins would have won that game, and because of their 11-1 conference record, would have won the NFC East and been the #2 seed in the playoffs instead of the #6. Of course, this presupposes that the Giants would have come out as flat as they did against the Redskins in week 16 even if the game had much more relevance to them than it actually did, so you just don’t know – but still…. Here’s how their PS/PA and DVOA numbers stack up, numbers which, it must be mentioned, are better predictors of a team’s future success than won-lost record.

Redskins
PS-PA: 359-293
DVOA: 22.6%

and, for good measure...
Giants
PS-PA: 422-314
DVOA: 24.6%


So despite the relative weakness of the NFC when compared to the AFC, there are definitely some sharks in these playoff waters. And the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the Giants are not playing their best ball at this point. Their offense has been pretty steady throughout the season, with the late-season heroics of Tiki Barber compensating for the dropoff of Quarterback Eli Manning. Footballoutsiders.com has a stat called variance, which measures the week-to-week consistency of teams on offense, defense, and special teams. According to this stat, the Giants rank 27th in the league in variance for offense, which counterintuitively means that the offense has been the fifth most consistent in the league. On defense, the Giants rank 1st in the league in variance, which means, of course, that they’ve been the most inconsistent unit.

This makes sense when we think about the path of the Giants defense this year, which has careened from awful to excellent, and everywhere in between. The defense that had Michael Strahan lamenting that it was the worst group for which he's ever played after that ugly Week 3 pasting in San Diego was the same unit that, weeks later, inspired comparisons to the dominant D of the 1986 team. But in the past few weeks they have definitely fallen off: In week 14, they allowed an offense comprised of Philadelphia's second-stringers to score 23 points and accumulate 337 total yards. A week later, against Kansas City, the Giants performed better and allowed only 17 points to a good Chiefs offense, but still allowed 362 total yards, including 167 rushing yards to Larry Johnson, the second week in which this formerly dominant run defense had been rushed on at will. A week later, they allowed the middle-of-the-pack offense of the Redskins to roll up five touchdowns in that worrisome 35-20 pasting, while Clinton Portis racked up the third consecutive 100+ yard game against them, and in the season's final game, they allowed a sleepwalking Raider team to come within a hair of scoring at least 28 points had it not be for that questionable call at the goal line on Kerry Collins’ fourth down sneak attempt.

The reason for this defensive dropoff is not too difficult to ascertain: Against Philadelphia in week 14, stalwart linebacker Antonio Pierce went down with a serious ankle injury, forcing undrafted rookie Chase Blackburn into the starting lineup. A week later, solid starter Carlos Emmons went down, leaving Nick Greisen as the only starter left for the last two games (Greisen actually wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the year, but he Wally Pipped Reggie Torbor and has established himself as an integral part of this defense). The next week against Washington, Chase Blackburn went down for the season, and Reggie Torbor went down too, leaving the team to scramble from the practice squad and the unsigned scrapheap to find guys to play the position. It is staggering to think that the Giants have lost four important linebackers thus far, and their recent slump on defense can be chalked up, in large part, to this misfortune.


And going into the postseason, it’s not as if the Giants will get much healthier. Pierce, who had really come on strong as the leader of what was then a very strong defense, is still in a cast, with no timetable yet set for his return. Emmons is out for the year, Blackburn is out for the year, and Torbor is doubtful for this weekend: the Giants will enter the playoffs with only one linebacker who was even remotely close to being in the rotation at the beginning of this year, in Greisen.

The good news is that Kevin Lewis -- a solid, established NFL player who for some reason was banished to the practice squad at the beginning of this year -- stepped up and played a nice game this past Sunday. He can presumably be counted on to hold his own. And Alonzo Jackson, a third year guy from Florida State who was actually a 2nd round draft pick of the Steelers, doesn’t look like a liability either. It is unfortunate that this new linebacking corps will not have had much time to play together, but we can reasonably expect them to improve as they get more experience as a unit. Yes, the Giants have been hit hard by injuries at an inopportune time -- William Joseph and Fred Robbins have been hurt, leaving the D-Tackle duties in the capable but overextended hands of Kendrick Clancy and Kenderick Allen – but so is every team, or so we must tell ourselves.

On offense, the Giants have survived the year intact, with the possible exception of Jeremy Shockey, who is questionable as of this writing. The Giants do have enough weapons to get by without him, but his red zone adroitness is sorely needed for a team that has struggled to punch in touchdowns of late. But aside from the possible – and, one hopes, weatherable -- loss of Shockey, the Giants can expect their offense to continue to play pretty well, as it has recently and has, for the most part, all season. Eli has cut down the interceptions of late (his only recent pick was that play against the Redskins where Shockey broke off his route to plead with the referees, ignoring the ball and leaving it to be snared by the defender), and the previously frustrated Plaxico Burress had a much needed monster game against Oakland that will hopefully reestablish his confidence. And of course, Tiki, who is playing as well right now as any football player I have ever seen. The guy is absolutely unconscious, and will presumably show no ill effects from his ankle tweak this past week. Of course I’m biased, but I really can’t understand the case for Shaun Alexander for MVP. He Won the Rushing Crown, yes, but by a mere 20 yards, while Tiki outgained him in yards from scrimmage by 432 yards. With all due respect to Alexander’s touchdowns, this discrepancy in yards from scrimmage means much, much more.

It should be a good one. Right now, Vegas has the Giants favored by 3, nothing but the obligatory bounce for home field advantage: this line really means that they are equal teams. Either way, this season has been an expectation-surpassing success for the Giants, and an absolute joy for this Giant fan. To the playoffs!

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