NFC East: New York Giants
Third-down terrors: The Chargers have converted 46.4 percent of their third-down attempts this year, second only to the Broncos in that department. Giants linebacker Jon Beason specifically mentioned third-down running back Danny Woodhead as a player for whom his group would have to account. The Giants have been good all year at limiting the production of running backs, but offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said Woodhead is a different kind of back than they've faced, and that the way the Chargers use him presents different challenges. Woodhead leads all NFL running backs this year with 61 receptions and is second to the Saints' Darren Sproles among running backs with 482 receiving yards.
The turnover battle: The Chargers' defense has forced only 11 turnovers this year, which ranked them 29th in the league through Week 13. The Giants' offense, of course, has committed a league-leading 31 turnovers and at least one in every game. But while they turned it over 23 times and forced only seven while losing all of their first six games, the Giants have turned the ball over only eight times and forced 13 while going 5-1 in their last six games. So if the Chargers can't take the ball away (as they have not been able to do all year), they forego a significant potential advantage against the Giants.
Is this the week for Hakeem Nicks? This replaces our weekly "Is this the week for Eli Manning?" segment, since Manning was a cool 22-for-28 in Sunday's victory in Washington and obviously has overcome at least some of the comfort issue that arose early in the season due to the Giants' inability to protect him. What would help even more is a big game from Nicks, who was once Manning's top wide receiver but has been a shell of himself in his contract year. Nicks has yet to catch a touchdown pass this season and hasn't had more than 51 receiving yards in a game since Week 6. Fellow wideout Victor Cruz (who himself hasn't been to the end zone since Week 4) said he thought the Chargers' defense would offer the Giants opportunities to hit big plays in the passing game. What remains to be seen is whether Nicks can get open and catch the ball well enough to take advantage of those opportunities.
"He looks like he's going to be OK," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.
The Giants will be without Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) and Corey Webster (ankle) against the Chargers, while Brandon Jacobs (knee) is doubtful. Brandon Myers (groin) is probable.
Here's the full injury report:
DE Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder/did not practice)
CB Corey Webster (ankle/limited)
RB Brandon Jacobs (knee/did not practice)
CB Trumaine McBride (groin/limited)
TE Brandon Myers (groin/limited)
CB Terrell Thomas (knee/limited)
LB Jarret Johnson (hand/full)
WR Eddie Royal (toe/chest/did not practice)
OT King Dunlap (neck/full)
OT D.J. Fluker (ankle/limited)
DE Lawrence Guy (toe/full)
C Nick Hardwick (neck/full)
WR LaVelle Hawkins (knee/full)
DE Corey Liuget (knee/full)
Running back Brandon Jacobs (knee) missed his second straight day of practice and might not play either. The plan was for him to play Friday, but he was in the stationary bike area during the open portion. He was limited Wednesday.
Cornerback Corey Webster (ankle), cornerback Trumaine McBride (groin),and tight end Brandon Myers (groin) were all working. Webster and McBride were limited both Wednesday and Thursday, while Myers missed Thursday.
The news of the day: Tight end Brandon Myers didn't practice Thursday due to a groin injury, but he said it's not a real problem and he expects to practice Friday. The Giants have been using Myers more as a receiver in recent weeks, and he's caught a touchdown pass in each of the last two games. So he'd probably be missed by a passing game that hasn't been able to get going all year in terms of big plays down the field. To me, the biggest reason for that problem is the pass protection, and we've written about that extensively. But rookie right tackle Justin Pugh is one guy on that line who's definitely shown week-to-week improvement and has handled the job well in his first year in the league.
Behind enemy lines: The Giants-Chargers game Sunday may not be a real popular watch in San Diego, where the Chargers are trying hard to avoid a second straight week in which their home game is blacked out in their home market due to insufficient ticket sales.
Around the division: Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin says his team will be trying to stop basketball players when it faces off against the Bears and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on Monday Night Football. You may (or may not) remember the game against Chicago as a pretty low point for the Cowboys last season. They will need to win it this time either to assert control of the division or to keep pace with the Eagles, depending on what Philly does Sunday against Detroit.
Around the league: Join me, Chris Mortensen, Jarrett Bell and Suzy Kolber at 3 pm ET today on ESPN for "NFL Insiders," where we'll take a look at this weekend's big games and maybe throw you a Giants note or two if they'll let me. Go ahead and leave work early. Tell your boss I said it was OK.
Pierre-Paul said Wednesday that he doesn't want to end his season because of the injury, but it might be a better long-term decision for the Giants to keep him sidelined if they cannot catch the Eagles and Cowboys in the NFC East race.
Cornerbacks Trumaine McBride (groin) and Corey Webster (ankle) were limited in practice for the second straight day. McBride missed the game against the Redskins, and Webster has missed the team's previous four games. Coughlin said Webster is "working a little bit better," and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said he has his fingers crossed McBride will be able to play against the Chargers.
Tight end Brandon Myers (groin) did not practice Thursday, but expects to return Friday.
"It's nothing major," Myers said. "Came back to work yesterday and was a little sore, and giving it a little bit of rest and be back to practice tomorrow."
Running back Brandon Jacobs (knee) also did not practice Thursday. He was not scheduled to work, but plans to work Friday. He was limited Wednesday.
Here's the full injury report:
Did not practice
RB Brandon Jacobs (knee)
TE Brandon Myers (groin)
DE Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder)
CB Trumaine McBride (groin)
CB Terrell Thomas (knee)
CB Corey Webster (ankle)
Did not practice
C Nick Hardwick (neck)
WR Eddie Royal (toe/chest)
DE Corey Liuget (knee)
OT King Dunlap (neck)
OT D.J. Fluker (ankle)
DE Lawrence Guy (toe)
WR Lavelle Hawkins (knee)
LB Jarret Johnson (hand)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Victor Cruz thinks this is the week for the New York Giants' passing game. Been a tough year. Very few big plays, lots of sacks allowed. Cruz hasn't caught a touchdown pass since September. Hakeem Nicks hasn't caught one all year. But this Sunday in San Diego, Cruz says, this is the game.
"I believe this is an opportunity for us to get ourselves going again in the passing game," Cruz said Thursday after practice. "I think we see some things we can open up against. I think this week we'll get some opportunities to hit some big plays against the style of defense they run."
Hey, it's supposed to rain this weekend in San Diego, too, so anything's possible, right? The narrative around this place for months has been that the passing game would eventually get going -- that a big week was coming for Eli Manning and his receivers. Given their track records, it's not crazy to think that at some point they'll just snap out of it.
"There's still a lot of talented people on our team," guard Kevin Boothe insisted. "For whatever reason, the big, explosive plays haven't been there."
The Giants (5-7) have just five passing plays this year of 40 yards or longer, which ranks 24th in the league. They're tied for eighth with 44 passing plays of 20 or more yards, so it's not as though they never go downfield. It's just that they don't seem able to take the top off a defense the way they did when the passing game used to sizzle.
Unprecedented pressure combined, early in the season, with a complete lack of a running game set Manning down a dark path of interceptions and slumped shoulders as the Giants started 0-6. Things have picked up since, as the Giants have won five of their past six games and Manning has had three games with a completion percentage over 60 and two over 70. He was an efficient 22-for-28 for 235 yards Sunday night in Washington. But he hasn't yet strung two good games together, and part of the problem is that Nicks' play has stubbornly refused to improve along with that of the team.
Nicks is playing in a contract year, but he has performed poorly and was left inactive two games ago after his agent instructed him to get checked for a hernia earlier in the week and he had to miss practice time. Without Nicks as a legitimate big-play threat, teams have been able to double-team and severely limit Cruz. Rueben Randle has broken loose for six touchdowns, and tight end Brandon Myers has a touchdown catch in each of the past two games, but the halting progress of the passing game remains a major problem.
"You always try, and we have," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said of getting Nicks more involved. "But it's a two-way street. You still have to get open. You still have to win. The coverage has to accommodate it. Sometimes the opportunities haven't been there. Sometimes, when he's had the opportunity, we haven't always capitalized on it. Sometimes the ball has gone other places. A lot of factors come into play, and sometimes it's just luck."
Yeah, but not for four whole months, it's not. If you're into the first week of December and still waiting for your passing game to get going, there's a pretty good chance it's not going to happen.
I asked Gilbride if he felt limited in terms of what he could call and execute in the passing game because of all of the problems that have limited it this year. He didn't say no, but he bristled when I suggested he had effectively said yes. His answer was a general one about how coaches and teams always have to adjust to what they're able to do well, and as an example he mentioned the vastly improved run game since Andre Brown returned from his injury. The Giants would be foolish, he said, not to rely on that.
"There's no question you take into consideration what your strengths are," Gilbride said. "Is your strength your running game? Is it your pass protection? Is it your receiving corps? You capitalize on whatever that strength is to the best of your ability, and every game is different."
Maybe, but a lot of Giants games this year have felt very much the same. And one of the common denominators has been the inability of the passing game to effectively beat teams deep. It's possible that it'll come around at some point in these final four games. It's possible that the involvement of Myers as a receiver the past two weeks indicates an ability to stretch out a bit further down the field than the Giants could a few weeks back. It's possible that Cruz's prediction will come true, and they'll strafe the Chargers' secondary Sunday. Listen to the players, and you can almost convince yourself.
And then you go out and listen to Gilbride talk about the way the Chargers disguise blitzes.
"They do a terrific job of disguising," he said. "You have to go in saying, 'I might have to throw some hots, we're going to have to throw some sights.' Which isn't a bad thing, but normally we're able to adjust to the protections. Eli has done a good job of studying, and he's able to take the tools that we have available for him and solve more protection problems. You're just not going to get it done in this game because of their ability to disguise."
And you think that maybe this isn't the week after all. That maybe that week just isn't coming in 2013.
Moore was the Giants' third-round draft pick this year, and when they picked him they believed he was the kind of player who could contribute to the pass rush as a rookie. But while he's certainly made his mark on special teams as a blocker of punts, Moore has had trouble cracking the lineup on defense. A shoulder injury during training camp set back his progress, but the team is still high on him, and not just as a situational pass-rusher.
"He's a complete football player," Fewell said. "He's got to be able to play the run and the pass. So we'll use him as both."
It seemed Sunday as though the role Moore played was as a third-down pass-rusher, with Justin Tuck moving inside to defensive tackle. Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka each played every defensive snap, and it's likely the Giants' coaching staff would want to be able to get the veterans more rest than that in the final four games of the season. More work for Moore seems like the only way to do that.
He approves of the hire of Sarkisian, who recruited him to play at USC in the early 2000s when Sarkisian was on the coaching staff there, though Thomas wishes the school had allowed interim coach Ed Orgeron to finish the season in the role. Orgeron resigned after learning he wasn't getting the full-time job.
"At the same time, I don't really like how they did Coach 'O.' I think he should have been allowed to finish the season. You look at what he did, taking over in the middle of the season and getting the players to play. What happened there last year and early this year was about the coaching. Everybody thought it was the players, but it wasn't the players. It was [Lane] Kiffin. And Coach 'O' got them playing hard. I think they should have let him finish the season."
Thomas' impression was that the school thought it would lose Sarkisian to a potential NFL job if it didn't move to hire him now. He also named Boise State's Chris Petersen as a guy he thought deserved consideration for the job.
Though Thomas wishes Orgeron could have had a better exit, he understands why he wouldn't be considered for the job full-time.
"When you don't beat UCLA or Notre Dame, it's hard," Thomas said.
Speaking after Giants practice Wednesday, Beatty said he believed he put too much pressure on himself this year after signing his five-year, $37.5 million contract in the offseason and admitted he lets things get into his head and affect him on the field.
"I know I came into this year trying to do too much," Beatty said. "Last year was a good year for me because I was just focused on the task at hand. And then you get the contract, and you know the eyes are on you, people are expecting more from you. And I'm out there thinking, 'I want to earn that contract, I want to make sure they know I wasn't a fluke.' And I end up blowing it out of proportion."
Introspection is admirable. In order to improve, we first must understand what's going on inside of us that's keeping us from improving. Beatty appears to excel at this, and as a reporter covering the team you appreciate that, even if it ends up making you feel like his therapist.
"I've got to approach it as, I've been blessed with this contract, and then just build on the reasons I got it, rather than thinking I have to change this and change that," Beatty said. "There's just way too much stuff in my head. Last week wasn't the best game for me, but we got the win. So I have to focus on that."
“Fascinating guy, don't get me wrong. You don't hear many pro athletes talk like this about themselves. But the fact that Beatty has so many thoughts banging around like bumper cars in his head has to make the Giants wonder about the guy to whom they committed all that money last offseason as a franchise left tackle. As they head toward an offseason with tons of questions to answer at almost every position, they really can't afford to count Beatty and his mental state among their worries.
Last year was a good year for me because I was just focused on the task at hand. And then you get the contract, and you know the eyes are on you, people are expecting more from you. And I'm out there thinking, 'I want to earn that contract, I want to make sure they know I wasn't a fluke.' And I end up blowing it out of proportion.” -- Giants left tackle Will Beatty
By virtue of the position he plays, Beatty needs to be a rock. And right now, he is not. Right now, he's all over the place.
"Eli Manning, I admire him a lot," Beatty said. "Because we've all seen how great he can be with a clean pocket. And unfortunately, we haven't been giving him as clean a pocket as we have in the past, but he's still improving as a quarterback and making some great throws. As an offensive line, we know we have to give him that clean pocket. We want to give him that five-, six-game streak where he's not being pressured.
"We know what he can do when he has a pocket and we think, 'Oh, how great would it be if we could give him that pocket again?'"
Maybe it is some form of therapy for Beatty to talk this openly about his innermost football concerns. Maybe it's catharsis. Maybe he's just the kind of dude who doesn't dissemble, who answers questions when asked and has a tendency to answer them more thoroughly than his questioner might expect. But that last bit about Manning -- who was sacked twice by Orakpo in the Giants' 24-17 victory -- didn't even come off a question. I was in the middle of asking him something else, and he cut me off and started saying that.
And again, fine. Everyone's different. But Beatty's personality does sort of feed into the outside perception of him as a player. He's not a mean, mauling presence at left tackle. He's a smart, athletic, technique-oriented left tackle. And while a guy like that can be great, he needs his technique to be perfect in order to stay great. And this year, Beatty's technique has slipped.
"It's all footwork, sitting low in my stance. It's a leverage game," the 6-foot-6, 319-pound Beatty said. "Me being tall, I've got to make sure I stay low in my stance. I've got to make sure I'm eye-to-eye or lower all the time."
He has struggled with hand placement this year, too, and setting too early so he gets beaten on the inside. Overall, rough year, and he blames it on what's going on in his own head. The extent to which he gets his problems fixed will depend on his ability to control all of those thoughts and doubts and second-guesses, or eliminate them completely. Beatty believes forgetting about Orakpo over the next three games, before facing him again in the season finale, is a way of working on that.
"I get to see Orakpo again, and when you win a game, it's much easier the next week to clean up what you need to clean up," Beatty said. "So I'm going to set last week aside and save it for the last game of the regular season and just move forward."
Watch closely over the next three games to see whether Beatty can pull that off. If on Sunday he still looks like he's got too much in his head and is still upset over a bad Week 13 game, then you'll have a right to worry about his long-term ability to handle the psychological rigors of his job. And so will the Giants, who can't afford to have Beatty be one of their problems so soon after making him a huge part of their future.
In terms of other injuries, cornerbacks Corey Webster (ankle) and Trumaine McBride (groin) were both doing some work during the open portion of practice, as was running back Brandon Jacobs (knee). Cornerback Terrell Thomas was getting his weekly scheduled day off for maintenance on his surgically repaired knee, so he was off to the side. And left tackle Will Beatty, while not on the pre-practice injury report, appeared to need some extra stretching work on his back with the trainers before he could join his teammates for practice, so that's something to watch. Beatty had a rough game Sunday in Washington, but I honestly have no idea what their reasonable options are for arranging the offensive line if he were to be injured.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who missed the Week 12 game against Dallas with an abdominal injury and was limited in practice last Wednesday and Thursday, was not listed on the injury report and appeared fine during practice.
The news of the day: The Giants will return to work today to prepare for their trip to San Diego, where they'll face the Chargers on Sunday. It'll be the second game in San Diego in the career of Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who somewhat famously made it known he didn't want to play for them when he entered the draft in 2004 and they had the No. 1 pick. The Giants got crushed, 45-23, by the Drew Brees/LaDanian Tomlinson Chargers in Week 3 of the 2005 season, and Manning has not been back since. Hard to imagine there's much to dig up on that angle, but I'm sure it'll come up. We're also watching out for the status of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, whose shoulder injury kept him out of Sunday's game in Washington. I promise we will keep you all posted throughout the day.
Behind enemy lines: The Chargers are in the midst of their toughest schedule stretch of the season, as the game against the Giants will be the second of three they'll play in a 12-day stretch. They have to recover and travel to Denver to play the Broncos four days later. Both Manning brothers in less than a week for the Bolts.
Around the division: By the end of the 2013 calendar year, every English-speaking human in the Western hemisphere will have offered his or her thoughts on Robert Griffin III. Tuesday was Antrel Rolle's turn, and Rolle thinks Griffin takes too many big hits and has to accept that he always will. It's unlikely that Rolle is interested in helping Griffin with that particular problem, I'd think.
Around the league: The Giants rose one spot, back to No. 22, in the latest edition of the ESPN Power Rankings, which came out Tuesday. Their upcoming schedule offers a chance to move up and finish in the top half if they can win some games. But check out the rankings and our Spreecast video chat that goes with them. Thanks.
Preseason: 12 | Last week: 23 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002
Their past six games went dramatically better than their first six, but the Giants have settled into a steady groove in our Power Rankings nonetheless. They were No. 22 two weeks go after winning four in a row, No. 23 last week after losing at home to the Cowboys and now are back up to No. 22 after beating the Redskins in Washington on Sunday night. Jamison Hensley and I are the most generous rankers of the Giants, each listing them at No. 20 on our ballots, while Mike Sando has them the lowest of our six voters, at No. 24.
Without doing any polling of my fellow voters, I have to think one of the reasons the move up wasn't larger this week was that the victory came against the Redskins, who rank No. 30 in this week's poll and clearly aren't thought of as a very difficult team to beat at this point. The Giants' next three games are at the No. 16 Chargers, home against the No. 1 Seahawks and at the No. 12 Lions before they finish at home against the Redskins.
Join me, Mike and Jamison at 1:30 p.m. ET for a live Spreecast chat to discuss the Power Rankings. You can get there by clicking these little blue letters right here, and you can ask a question if you like. We'll do our best to answer it.
"I'm healthy," Tuck said Monday. "I was able to train completely this offseason, and that's pretty much it. Everyone knows my struggles to get healthy the previous two years and how that affected me on the football field. But this year, I stayed out of the training room and started eating the right things and started doing the right things, and I've managed to stay healthy this year. That's the biggest difference."
Tuck missed four games in 2011 and one last year due to injury. He has struggled with a neck problem, among other things, in recent seasons, and even when he was on the field his physical problems limited him. But Tuck hasn't appeared on an injury report this year, and his timing is excellent. As you may have heard, his contract is up at the end of this season. It's unclear whether the Giants will be able to afford to bring him back, but his ability to remain healthy and be productive this season may have altered their perspective in a way that makes it more likely than it once was.
The news of the day: The post-mortem on the Giants' fifth victory in their last six games was mostly positive Monday, as coach Tom Coughlin praised the ability of his team to recover from the early 14-0 deficit and comeback to defeat Washington on Sunday night. The defense was especially impressive, considering that they were playing thin in the secondary due to injuries and without starting defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, whose shoulder injury is likely to be a problem for the rest of the season. Pierre-Paul's absence left the Giants thin at defensive end, and Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka may have handle more of the workload the rest of the way if Pierre-Paul can't play or if his snaps have to be limited.
Behind enemy lines: San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is having a monster season and should pose another tough test for this improved Giants defense. But as Eric D. Williams points out, Qualcomm Stadium hasn't exactly been a tough place for opponents to play over the past few years. The Chargers are just 2-3 at home this year and 10-11 at home since the start of the 2011 season.
Around the division: Under ridiculously insane pressure, all the time, to issue definitive statements about his quarterback situation in a world and a league that defy definitive statements, Eagles coach Chip Kelly pronounced red-hot Nick Foles the Eagles' quarterback for the next 1,000 years. I think I speak for everyone when I say I'd really like to know what Kelly's putting in Foles' personalized post-practice smoothies.
Around the league: The Patriots say it's crazy to think they were spying on the Texans, as the Texans hinted after the game. Not sure where the Texans would have got the idea that the Patriots would do something like that ...
I believe that, if the officials in Sunday night's game had stopped play to figure out and correct the down-marker error in the final two minutes, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin would have been the one going ballistic on his sideline. The Washington Redskins had no timeouts, and after the game the officials explained that this was the reason they didn't stop the action. Doing so would have effectively given Washington a free timeout and created, as the officials said, an unfair advantage.
In the end, the Giants didn't care, because (a) they won the game, (b) they didn't think the Redskins had a first down anyway, so they believed the correct call was ultimately made and (c) play was not stopped and no unfair advantage created. But the NFL said Monday that play should have been stopped due to "obvious confusion," and I think I have to agree. Obvious confusion is always a good reason to stop, take a moment and look things over. This applies in our daily lives as well as in football, especially during this hectic holiday season. The NFL could call this the "Wait, wait, wait" rule and hail it as a rare bend toward common sense.
Anyway, the Redskins were probably right to be upset, since it's likely they'd have called their plays differently if they'd thought it was third and then fourth down as opposed to first and second. But it's all moot, since they converted the fourth down anyway only to see Giants safety Will Hill strip the ball from Pierre Garcon's arms and seal a Giants victory. "Obvious confusion" or no, bad things happen to you when you don't hold onto the ball.