I can give you plenty of reasons why I believe the Washington Redskins will win this game over the New York Giants, but you must consider that with the Redskins already mathematically elminated from playoff contention, this may not be a good thing. For one thing, there is the highly publicized issue of draft position. A 4-12 Redskins team will pick 4th overall, if not third in the 2012 draft. A 5-11 Redskins team will likely pick (according to my own projections) 6th. That’s not a huge difference with regards to being in position to draft a quarterback. A 6-10 Redskins team may not pick in the top ten. A 7-9 Redskins team will not pick in the top 12.
Draft position is one (typically overstated) thing that rears its ugly head around now, and whether the Redskins pick 3rd or 13th probably isn’t going to determine how strong their franchise is going forward. A much more significant outcome of winning this game is the direct path to the NFC East title a Giants loss would hand to the Dallas Cowboys, and the new life it would give to the Philadelphia Eagles. There are legitimate football reasons for a Redskins fan to not want the Redskins to win this game.
But if I learned one thing at all watching the coaches’ tape from the Giants-Cowboys game it is that both teams are fundamentally flawed in a way not dissimilar to the Redskins. The best coverage unit in the NFC East right now? Sadly it’s the Washington Redskins. Sure the pass rush is not what it has been most of the year, with Ryan Kerrigan hitting a bit of a rookie wall of sorts, and Adam Carriker being glued to blocks like it is his job, but the Redskins blitzes are getting home and the only Redskins DB who is struggling in coverage over the last five games or so is DeAngelo Hall, who I don’t think will be a Redskin three months from now. That’s just my opinion.
The Giants (and the Cowboys) both routinely blow coverages in the back end that will allow any opponent with an aggressive QB, including the Redskins, to throw themselves back into the game no matter how well Eli Manning is playing. And there’s a consensus that Eli Manning has been great this year. But more than ever, the Giants have become just a two man team: 2004 first round pick Manning and 2010 first round pick Jason Pierre-Paul are driving the Giants towards the playoffs. And truth be told, neither is getting much help.
The Giants running game is not as awful as the statistics would make it seem. Ahmad Bradshaw is back, Brandon Jacobs is not running as tentitively as he was in the middle of the season, and the Giants know how to use D.J. Ware effectively. But the Giants under Tom Coughlin are clearly nearing the end of an era. Their offensive line is a sieve, and it has lost two of it’s three most consistent players to injury: tackle Will Beatty, and center David Baas. The best player on the OL is still Chris Snee, but Kareem McKenzie is in severe decline on the right side, David Diehl has been awful on the left, left guard Mitch Petrus has been overwhelmed thus far, and Center Kevin Boothe is both not really a center, and remains Kevin Boothe. Snee is still very good, but it is an advantage the Redskins enjoy in their 30 or 50 fronts that they put the Giants best offensive lineman in space.
The Giants are pulling offensive lineman in the running game more than I can ever remember. It’s not that they never did it before: man blocking schemes have always been a Tom Coughlin, Kevin Gilbride staple. But they are clearly trying to be multiple in the running game to find someway to move the ball. Uncharacteristically for the Giants, even the receivers, tight ends, and backs have been unable to move the defense off the ball. In the NFL, you need only a passing game to win, and the Giants prove that, but the running game is merely a formality to protect Eli Manning from four man upfield rushes at this point. The Giants still run outside and inside lead plays behind FB Henry Hynoski, but there is no reason to fear the running game of the Giants.
In the passing game, the Giants’ main weakness (outside of the offensive line) has been a remarkable lack of depth at receiver. It was just 500 days ago where we all sat back and watched Victor Cruz in the 2010 preseason and thought there was no way the Giants would be lacking at the receiver position at any point in the next five years. And even though the undrafted Cruz has emerged as an 1,000 yard NFL receiver after a year on injured reserve, the Giants don’t have a lot of depth. Hakeem Nicks still looks like a potential top five NFL WR, and a matchup nightmare. But Mario Manningham has not developed as the Giants had hoped, and he could be down to his last games in a Giants uniform. Ramses Barden has at least seen the field this year, but he hasn’t proven reliable. They have some guy named Devin Thomas, who can’t even make it on to the field given the circumstances of no receiving depth. Eli Manning is already beyond the 4,000 yard threshold this year. Devin Thomas (who has been active every week) has one catch for twelve yards.
The fact that Manning has taken this group and put them near the top of the league in scoring offense is nothing short of amazing.
The Giants defense is similarly a one man show, and they have to be particularly disappointed with the performance of their defensive line this year. The Giants thought their linebackers would be a problem area going into the season and they have actually held up pretty well, if only because their two established LBs, Mathias Kiwianuka and Michael Boley, are finally healthy. The secondary was supposed to be a disaster zone, and at least the return of Prince Amukamara can give the Giants two quality corners on the outside of their defense with Amukamara and Corey Webster. Safety has been a disaster zone ever since the team signed Antrel Rolle, who in my estimation continues to do nothing worthy of continued employment. Deon Grant is cooked as a pro player. And Kenny Phillips is a good NFL strong safety, but he’s not LaRon Landry or Tyvon Branch, much less Troy Polamalu. Aaron Ross might be having a better season than anyone associated with the Giants could have expected, but defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s largest challege has been to try to cover NFL offenses with only three NFL caliber players in the defensive secondary.
But the strength of the Giants DL was supposed to be a great equalizer. Dallas castoff Chris Canty has not worked out as a free agent signing. The Giants have managed to give undrafted Dave Tollefson over 400 snaps. Justin Tuck has had a shockingly weak season. Osi Umenyiora hasn’t played much in a year where the Giants have really needed him. On the other side, Linval Joseph is about where you would have expected him to be in his second year, a minor impact player with some upside. Rocky Bernard has worn down, and he is 32 years old. The defensive line has not been a good group this year.
But the key to the game for the Redskins is doing what the Cowboys and Packers have been completely unable to do: slow down Jason Pierre-Paul. I didn’t think JPP would be much of a pass rusher in the NFL when he came out of USF two years ago, though I knew he’d be a physical force and tough to move in the run game. But just 29 games in, Pierre-Paul has a set of moves that are superior to those of Brian Orakpos, and he will be tough for any team to stop. Across from him you have Willie Smith, making his first career start. That’s, uh, a mismatch. If the Redskins lose this game, it’s because they could not win this matchup. The Redskins have never been cavalier about using play action to limit the moves of opposing rushers, but this is a week where I worry that even with a Roy Helu, Willie Smith double team, the Redskins may still not have enough time to push the ball down field.
Of course, the Giants are aware that in the event that Jason Pierre-Paul shows up without his best moves, then the Redskins are probably a better than 50-50 bet to win this game. This is very much a two man team the Redskins will face in New Jersey on Sunday. And while those two players are better than anyone on the Redskins, the Giants clearly are facing depth issues as strong as the ones the Redskins are overcoming, and the Redskins could be just a draft or two away from having a stronger roster than the one the New York Giants are bringing into a critical December showdown.