Sunday, November 8, 2009

Catching Up With The G-Men

In their final game of the 2008 season, the Yankees fell to the Red Sox 4-3 in 10 innings at Fenway Park. It was the only time in the previous 14 years that combination of events wouldn't have meant a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the ALCS, but since only one of those teams was going to the postseason, it didn't much matter how the game ended.

Earlier that day, Mike Mussina had won his 20th game of the season for the first time in his career so in the later game, Joe Girardi gave most of his regulars the day off. Sindey Ponson was the starting pitcher and the line up featured Cody Ransom, Wilson Betemit, Juan Miranda and eventually, Chad Moeller. The Yanks had played their last "meaningful" game of the year a week earlier, when they closed down the Old Stadium against the Orioles.

At that point, the Giants had begun their Super Bowl Title defense 3-0 and were sitting through a very early bye week. The fact that the G-Men had just pulled off a miraculous championship run and started off the new 2008/9 season on the right foot, it was easy to move past the forgettable campaign the Yankees just completed. Plus, it was apparent since the middle of August that a postseason berth was unlikely for the Yanks, so the process of detachment had begun long before October began.

While the Giants actually started off with a better record this year than last (5-0 to 4-0), it was apparent that the 2009 version wasn't as balanced as the previous year's.

Just as the Yankees were heading out to Anaheim for Game 3 of the ALCS, the Giants took their perfect record into the Superdome and watched Drew Brees and the Saints walk (or more appropriately, pass) all over it.

As the Yanks continued the march to the World Series, the Giants dropped two more games; a tough one to the Cardinals that took place at the same time at Game 6 of the ALCS and a blowout at the hands of the Eagles.

Although Big Blue is still in relatively good position to make the playoffsat 5-3, it's apparent that they are not the offensive force they were last year. Much of their success in 2008 revolved around their seemingly unstoppable rushing attack which netted them an average of 157 yards per game (5.0 yards per carry) last year.

The rushing attack has slowed to 141 YPG (4.4/attempt). Much od this can be tied to Brandon Jacobs', who had seen more carries per game, but gained fewer yards 83 to 68. His average per carry has dropped a full yard and looks to be lacking the explosiveness he had last year. Ahmad Bradshaw has kept the running attack afloat by averaging 5.3 yards/attempt and picking up and gaining nearly as many yards as Jacobs despite receiving 63% as many hand-offs.

Bradshaw has helped replace Derrick Ward in the ground game, but hasn't been able to imitate him on the screen passes and dump-offs that netted Ward an extra 25 yards a game at 9.4 yards per catch. These short passes were an effective third option the Giants offense employed last year, but have been largely absent 8 games in 2009. However, the rest of the Giants passing game has been a pleasant surprise.

Despite all the hand wringing over the wide receiving corps coming into the season, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks each have 4 touchdowns and are on pace to combine for nearly 3,000 yards receiving. Eli Manning is averaging more yards through the air than he did last year (or any other year of his career), but that might be more of an indictment of the running game since he already has almost as many interceptions (8) as he did last year (10) and the schedule is only half over.

Defensively, the Giants have been slipping as well. They didn't allow any team to score more than 35 points against them last year but the Saints and Eagles both eclipsed the 40 point barrier in the last three weeks. Jerry Reese made steps to shore up the defensive line with the additions of Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard but Canty has appeared in a grand total of one game while Bernard has been a relative non-factor in the 7 he's made it into. Their other major defensive free agent acquisition, Michael Boley, has played in only 3 games at linebacker.

The secondary is the Giants' most glaring weakness on either side of the ball. Kenny Phillips' season-ending injury was the most devastating, as his absence paved the way for "Bad, Bad C.C. Brown". Due to his flagrant suckitude, Brown has been relegated to third safety duties in favor of Aaron Rouse, a waiver wire pick up from the Packers. Cornerback Aaron Ross hasn't played a game all year with a hamstring injury and won't start today.

The Giants also have an uphill climb remaining. In addition to playing the second half of their divisional schedule, they'll face the Falcons at home and the Broncos and Vikings on the road.

More immediately, they'll try to snap a three game losing streak at the Meadowlands today against the Chargers before a much needed bye week.

In baseball, it's foolish to make a big deal out of one regular season game, but not in the NFL. If the Giants lose to (4-3) San Diego today at 4:15, they will likely have to win at least 4 but probably 5 of their remaining 7 games to make the playoffs. That will be a tall order considering those opponents are currently a combined 14 games over .500.

Conversely, if they manage to pull this one out, they'll be 6-3 heading into the the bye week on a positive note and will have two weeks to prepare for the match up against the Falcons, a team they are likely to be fighting for a Wild Card spot with.

Given the year the Yankees are coming off of, I'm not going to be crushed if the Giants turn in a disappointing campaign. But another trip to the playoffs would most certainly help bridge the gap until pitchers and catchers report. And a win today would be a big step in the right direction. Let's go G-Men.