|Tom Coughlin faces off against Rex Ryan for both a playoff spot and bragging rights. (Getty Images)|
It is the biggest game of the season for the Giants and Jets, and not because it's the Battle for New York but because it's the Battle for Survival. The winner of Saturday's Jets-Giants game almost surely goes home for the playoffs, though it's possible neither makes it when we're through.
It is, as one New York tabloid proclaimed this week, all about "Gagging Rights." Someone has to suffer, and, as far as New York is concerned, that someone is America's Biggest Loser.
"You know that whoever loses is going to get killed in the paper," said one coach. "They're not going to be writing stories. They're going to be writing obituaries."
But whose? For an answer, I consulted several former coaches familiar with the teams and asked them to assess their talent. The Jets have the better record, and coach Rex Ryan insists they have the better team -- and have had the better team the past three years. Maybe. But do they have the better players? The better coach? The better shot at the playoffs?
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Eli Manning is 7-7 but leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passing; Mark Sanchez is 8-6 and won three of his last four starts. Sanchez is 4-2 in playoff games, all on the road. Manning not only has been to a Super Bowl; he won it. In fact, he was the game's MVP.
"When it comes to pure talent," said one coach, "Manning's way ahead."
Manning's completion percentage this season is higher than Sanchez's. He has more touchdown passes. He has 1,300 more yards. And he has a better passer rating. Plus, there's that one line on his resume you can't ignore.
"I like Manning better because he's the more disciplined of the two," said one former AFC coach. "I think he's more conscious about not throwing the picks. Even though he had trouble last weekend, one interception bounced off a guy, and the other looked like a miscommunication in the end zone.
"Anyway, I think he's really conscious of [not throwing interceptions], especially after last season, and for the most part this season he's been good at it. But with Sanchez, I just don't think he has the same discipline or is programmed to think about it as much as Eli does. One's going to try hard and one is going to try, but he just doesn't have the same discipline."
The Jets are all about "Ground and Pound," with the club perking up after coach Rex Ryan renewed his commitment to the running game. But the attack that two years ago ranked numero uno and last year was fourth hasn't gotten out of neutral. In fact, the Jets rank 21st and have four games where they didn't run for 100 yards.
Of course, the Giants aren't much better. In fact, they're much worse. They rank dead last in the NFL, averaging 86.1 yards per game and a league-low 3.4 yards a carry. Plus, they have eight games -- or, over half the season -- where they haven't gained 100 yards, including five of the past eight.
Their leading rusher? It's Ahmad Bradshaw, ranked 35th among the league's backs and behind quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. The Jets' Shonn Greene is 16th. I think you get the idea. When it comes to running the football, these guys are better off passing.
"I like the Giants' running backs better," said an AFC coach, "but they're running game hasn't been that impressive. With Shonn Greene, I get the feeling that he's a middle-of-the-road back who's not very good in the passing game. So he's a little bit one-dimensional.
"Nevertheless, the Jets have to ... have to ... have to commit to the running game, even if it's not giving them big chunks. Because if they don't, and [the Giants] are teeing off with the defensive line it's going to be a problem. If the Jets commit to the running game, those play-action passes are a lot better for them, and that's when Sanchez is at his best. They have to stay with that not just because of what it does for Sanchez but because it will slow down the pass rush."
The Giants have two receivers (Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks) with over 1,000 yards each in receptions. The Jets have none. The Giants have two receivers in the league's top 12. The Jets have none. The Giants have two receivers who average over 15.5 yards per catch. The Jets have none. In fact, their leading pass catcher isn't a wide receiver at all; it's tight end Dustin Keller.
Yeah, OK, so Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress each have more touchdowns (8) each than any of the Giants. Still, the Giants' cadre of receivers is stronger and deeper. The problem is: Someone always seems injured, with tight end Jake Ballard and wide receiver Mario Manningham among this week's casualties.
"Cruz is like a human highlight film," said a former NFC head coach. "He's part of every good play and every bad play. Every time I watch a highlight it seems like he's either part of an interception or part of a touchdown. Nicks is another pretty talented guy, but Holmes, Plaxico and Keller ... that's a really good and talented group.
"It's tough one to say who has the edge. I do like the Giants overall, and I want to say they're more disciplined. But part of that is because Tom [Coughlin] is more disciplined. There's such a big difference between Revis, Cromartie and Wilson and the Giants' cornerbacks that I can see the Jets having a bigger day."
Maybe, but the consensus seems to be the Giants are ahead in this department.
"I don't know how you separate these guys from the quarterback," said an AFC coach. "So I go with the Giants because Eli has the experience and he's shown it in critical situations -- where I think that's still a challenge for Sanchez."
The Giants are better protecting the pass. The Jets are better blocking for the run. Both lines, though, have been disappointing, with the Giants having to move guard Dave Diehl back to left tackle after the loss of Will Beatty, and the Jets having to live with right tackle Wayne Hunter -- beaten for three sacks last weekend by Jason Babin.
"Wayne Hunter is a huge liability," said one coach, "and what I don't understand is why they aren't consistently helping him more than they do. They help some, but knowing that he's going to be the root of another sack, you have to say, 'OK, we're going to park a tight end over there or do something to help this guy as much as possible.' But it looks like people keep rotating pass rushers over there.
"Where I've seen D'Brickashaw Ferguson have problems was in the Denver game where both Hunter and he set so deep that defensive linemen would sprint upfield to get them to set light -- essentially, to get them to play an athletic game -- then power them into the quarterback. I was disappointed with Ferguson playing like that because he's so athletically gifted he can go out there and play without having to give up much ground.
"Still, with Ferguson, Nick Mangold and Brandon Moore -- combined with Bill Callahan, who is one of the best offensive line coaches anywhere -- I'd probably tilt a little toward these guys."
Giants center David Baas returned to practice this week and may return to the starting lineup. But the Giants had their best three-game stretch running the ball with Kevin Boothe at center and Mitch Petrus at right guard, so stay tuned.
The strength of the Giants is, was and always seems to have been their defensive line -- particularly their edge pass rushers. The Giants are renowned for collapsing the pocket and annually are among the league leaders in sacks ... except for this season. They rank 10th.
Granted, Jason Pierre-Paul has been marvelous, leading the team in that department with 13.5 and saving the Dallas game by blocking a last-second field-goal attempt. But he needs help. Justin Tuck is hurt and limited. Osi Umenyiora has been outstanding when he plays, but he hasn't played much -- missing six games and almost certainly out for Saturday.
Tackles Chris Canty and Linval Joseph have been effective, but you never have the feeling that the Giants can take over a game with their front four as they did in the past.
"The Jets are OK up front, but not great," said a coach. "But the Giants? They have some serious players on their defensive line. I don't know if Osi is going to play [he is not expected to], but he and Pierre-Paul create a lot more problems -- especially if Osi is healthy -- than the Jets will.
"The Jets really aren't getting it done with rushing three or four, and that's a huge edge for the Giants. But the thing that frustrates me about them is that those guys should control games. That is by far the strength of the defense, yet it feels like they let the game unfold instead of taking control of it. There are very few groups that can match up player-by-player with the group that the Giants have, but it's almost like they're underachieving.
"It should easily be their strength because they have veteran guys there. But I look at Philly's defensive line, and it's gotten a lot better, and it does affect games. The Giants should, but they don't. I don't think there's any position on that team that's as talented, but you'd never know it. You don't walk away from games, going, 'Wow, that was impressive.' "
For years, the Giants were built around a strong pass rush and punishing running game. Only now the running game is gone, and the pass rush isn't what it was. In fact, the entire defense isn't, ranked 22nd vs. the run, 29th against the pass and 28th overall. Nevertheless, if the Giants are going to cause trouble it's here. They can pressure the pocket and create more havoc than the Jets.
"But that's been the problem with the Jets all year," said another coach. "If they're going to produce pressure they have to bring six or seven guys."
The Giants haven't been right here for a couple of years. They've been short, either because of injuries or a lack of talent. The Jets are loaded at the position, if only because they have David Harris here. But Harris isn't alone. There's Bart Scott ... and Calvin Pace ... and Jamaal Westerman.
"I'd give the Jets the edge just on David Harris alone," said a former NFC coach. "If he doesn't go to the Pro Bowl it's ridiculous. He's the most underrated player on that team.
"You hear people talk about other guys, but it seems like David Harris makes every tackle. Does Bart Scott still play for that team? Calvin Pace? Do you hear their names called? Nope, it's like tackle, David Harris; tackle, David Harris; interception, David Harris; batted ball, David Harris; sack, David Harris. But because he doesn't say two words and isn't a self-promoter he doesn't get the attention he deserves."
This is where the Jets hold the greatest advantage -- particularly at cornerback. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie might be the best tandem in the NFL, despite what Mario Manningham says, while nickel back Kyle Wilson is solid off the bench. But the loss of safety Jim Leonhard hurts the Jets at that position, not so much because he's a terrific athlete but because he's a terrific communicator -- a traffic cop who keeps people moving.
The Giants, meanwhile, have been crippled here since the beginning of the season by injuries. First-round pick Prince Amukamara is back, but he's struggling -- and rewind the videotape to last week's loss to Washington if you don't believe me. There are holes everywhere, with safety Antrel Rolle calling out some of those teammates last week for not pulling together.
If this is where the game is decided, the Giants are in trouble.
"It's a slam dunk for the Jets on the outside," said one coach, "but they have issues at safety. Eric Smith and Brodney Pool are both bright and make adjustments, but they're both really quiet. Jim Leonhard would get guys lined up and give Rex a lot of flexibility by putting people in the right spots, but I'm not sure that's happening now.
"It's not that Smith can't do it; it's that he's just not all that assertive. Plus, he's not a great blitzer. You saw that against [Tim] Tebow, where he comes clean off the edge and takes the wrong angle. That's him.
"Revis nails it at corner, and while Cromartie's not a good tackler and doesn't have a great change of direction he does have really good ball skills. So he can make you pay for a mistake.
"When I look at the Giants, I listen to what Antrel Rolle said, and there's a lot of truth to it. He wasn't saying that to motivate guys. I think he was saying it because he really feels like some guys are dogging it.
"All I know is that if I were the Jets I'd do a lot of things to force communication because it's a mix of guys with the Giants -- a lot of people playing in a lot of different spots in different packages -- and now they're not playing together. Go to bunches, stack your receivers and put them in hard-to-adjust formations, and see if they can figure it out ... because they won't."
The Jets have one of the game’s premier coordinators in Mike Westhoff, and his teams annually rank among the best in the league. Westhoff’s coverage and return teams normally are a strength, but his return teams have been plagued by a rash of turnovers, and his punter and field-goal kicker are little more than average.
Nick Folk’s .783 field-goal percentage puts him in the league’s lower third, and he has half as many touchbacks on kickoffs (16) as the Giants’ Lawrence Tynes (33). But Tynes’ percentage (.800) isn’t much better, and he’s only 4 of 8 on field goals of 40 yards and beyond, including 1 of 3 from 50-plus.
The Giants have the edge in punters, with former Jet Steve Weatherford ranked seventh in net average (40.0), while the Jets’ T.J. Conley is tied for 17th. Conley does, however, have fewer touchbacks and more punts inside the 20.
Still, Westhoff makes up for any shortcomings here and levels the playing field.
Tom Coughlin has one Super Bowl ring as a head coach. Rex Ryan does not, but he's come close. In two years with the Jets he's been to two conference championship games, and he's promising a third -- saying to blame him if his club fails.
"Talk is cheap," Coughlin said.
I agree. Still, Ryan's players believe in him, and they respond to him. The same goes for Coughlin. But where the Jets make late-season runs the Giants are known for their late-season collapses. With the club losing five of its last six it looks like déjà vu all over again, and people want to know why.
"I've been saying all along that the Giants are mentally tougher," said one coach, "and that's because of Coughlin. But this last game [the Washington loss] really surprised me. Maybe the emotions of all this is wearing them out; maybe it's the pressure they're carrying around that's hurting them -- and that may be because of Coughlin, I don't know.
"I've said I think the Giants are going to rebound, but they may be emotionally spent. They just may be emotionally worn out."
Coughlin’s teams have responded in tight situations in the past, as they did in the Dallas game two weeks ago. But look at Ryan’s record: He went into Indianapolis and New England in last year’s playoffs and won in both places. In fact, he’s 4-2 on the road in postseason play
"Rex is going to do a good job in terms of the defense, but I don't think he'll have a handle over the big picture," said a former AFC coach. "That said, no one is better at producing a game plan than Rex ... and his players respond to him.
"I like Tom, but sometimes his conservative nature can get in the way of winning games. I relate to him because I like his discipline, but he's made some calls lately -- as we all have --- where you think, 'Oh, why did you do that?' "
Trust me, people will ask one of these coaches after Saturday.