The opponent the Saints face this weekend may be the most formidable of this season, and the consensus—here and elsewhere—seems to be that this game will answer the question: are the Saints for real? But it will also answer another question, every bit as much up in the air and being studiously ignored by the national media: are the Giants for real?
When you watch the New York Giants play, you come away with the overwhelming conviction that this team is really good: talented, aggressive, disciplined, and supremely confident. They've been to the mountain before, and they see no reason why they shouldn't return. They're the darlings of the media, of course (they're from New York), which makes them the default media favorite to return to the Super Bowl.
When you look closer, though, it seems as though something just doesn't add up. And the more you look, the more questions you come away with. Are the Giants really this good...or have they feasted on a weak schedule?
That, of course, is precisely what the Saints have been accused of in some quarters. But if you start your statistical enquiry with a stat the NFL doesn't keep track of—quality of wins—you find that the Giants are far and away the luckier team. Their five opponents so far have a combined record of 6-19—a .240 win percentage! Granted, part of that was damage done by the Giants themselves; but if you account for that by subtracting five losses, a 6-14 combined record (.300) against opponents other than New York still doesn't look too good. By contrast, the Saints' four victims so far have a combined record of 8-11 (.421). Take away those losses to the Saints, and they look much better: 8-6 (.571). We have, after all, beaten the Eagles and the Jets. By contrast, the Giants seem to have based their reputation on dispatching the hapless: Washington, Tampa, Kansas City, Oakland, and Tony Romo in a big game.
Still...they do have one hell of a pass defense. They're only allowing an average of 105 yards per game. But again, look who they've played. The 0-5 Chiefs gained only 88 yards through the air; the 1-4 Raiders gained 64; and the 0-5 Bucs gained just 58 yards. The Giants have held opposing quarterbacks to an average passer rating of just 60.4, third-best in the league (in first place, at 51.3, is...New Orleans). But Matt Cassel actually played very close to his average against the Giants, and Jamarcus Russell actually had his best game so far this year against New York!
The real difference-maker was Romo, who stunk up the joint with a putrid 29.6 rating—his worst outing since 2007. But a lot of people believe Romo to be overrated: not really a top-notch quarterback. How the Giants' secondary will fare against a top-notch quarterback is one of the season's unanswered questions...because they haven't faced one yet.
Then again, neither have the Saints. Matt Stafford, Kevin Kolb, Trent Edwards, and Mark Sanchez aren't exactly Murderer's Row. And even if you're like me, and still not sold on Eli Manning, you have to admit he's a solid step up from what the Saints have faced so far. He's even having a Peyton-like year so far: 10 TDs, 2 interceptions, a passer rating of 111.7, which blows away his career average (78.1) and his best previous year (2008, 86.4). Of course, it helps when you have Steve Smith to throw to...apparently, even if it's not that Steve Smith.
But the Saints don't give away much statistically. New York has nine yards more per game through the air; but the Saints have a higher completion percentage. The Giants have a better percentage of first downs; but the Saints have a better percentage of touchdowns. Drew Brees has a better passer rating; Eli Manning has been sacked less. When you ask who has the better pass offense, overall it's a wash...except that the Saints have a longer history of excellence. If one team is fated to cool down, you wouldn't expect it to be New Orleans.
So Manning assuredly represents the toughest test the Saints' secondary has faced so far this season. But there's an unanswered question here, as well, because he's suffering from the sort of nagging injury that has the potential to wreck this game for him...if not the entire season.
"Plantar fasciitis" is what's it's called; and what it is, is a very sore foot. It hurts every time you take a step, every time you shift your weight, every time you push off or land on it. It changes your mechanics, even if only slightly and subtly. A single flinch, and the 50-yard pass only goes for 48...into the waiting arms of Darren Sharper? Maybe.
Against the Raiders, Eli looked efficient. But he only played the first half; and in the second half, David Carr didn't look nearly as sharp. If Manning's injury affects him to the point where Carr has to quarterback for the Giants in the Dome, they might as well just run the ball.
Can the Giants run the ball? That sounds like the sort of question a crazy man would ask. They're ranked 4th in the NFL right now, and under Tom Coughlin they've always been a run-oriented team...and usually one of the best. But bear with me a moment.
We know the Saints can run the ball well; we've seen them do it. And they've done it against a couple of good teams, too: the Eagles and Jets are ranked 13th and 14th in rushing defense (yards per game). The best rushing defense the Giants have faced belongs to the Cowboys, who are ranked 17th. The Chiefs, Bucs, and Raiders are ranked 25th, 28th, and 31st respectively.
Yet even against such inferior competition, the Giants rank only 4th in rushing yards per game. I say only, because while 4th place seems pretty good, the Saints rank 2nd. Once again, the Saints are better at something than the Giants are, and against better competition, too.
There's also the matter of Brandon Jacobs. If you check out any of the Giants' blogs (such as Big Blue View), you'll see there's a controversy brewing over whether Jacobs should continue to be the official "starter" (for however much that terms counts anymore). Jacobs is way off his average of the past couple years—he's dropped from 5.0 per carry to 3.6. Sounds like someone who just signed his big contract.
Meanwhile, Terry Bradshaw's cousin Ahmad is torching the competition with a 6.5 average. That includes a 7.4 ypc against...wait a minute, the Chiefs, and a 10 ypc against...wait a minute, the Raiders. How would Bradshaw fare against a better defense? Well, against the 22nd-best (the Redskins) he gained 5 yards per carry. Against the 17th-best (Dallas), he gained 4.1. Against the 7th best (New Orleans)? I guess we'll see. But once again, it looks as though the Giants have been getting fat off a steady diet of bottom feeders.
And this brings us to the most puzzling aspect of the Giants: can they stop the run?
Until they played the Raiders, the Giants were tied for 31st—last in the league!—for average yards per rush allowed: 5.5. Somewhere, somehow, the picture of the bruising juggernaut that wins championships by rushing and stopping the rush seemed to have totally broken down.
But a closer look at the stats turns up something a bit different. First of all, playing Oakland helped the Giants zoom upward in the rankings: they're now a middle-of-the-pack 16th, with a 4.8 ypc. And what puts them even that low is the game against the Cowboys.
Romo may have been inept, but Dallas' running game torched New York for 251 yards—an 8.7 ypc. But even that is deceiving. Nearly half their output—111 yards—came on three long runs. Take away those runs, and the Cowboys averaged only 3.9 ypc. Take away the Cowboys game, and New York has averaged 3.4 ypc...good enough to make them the 9th-place run defense.
Two slots below the Saints, at 7th.
Who will be King of the Hill?
The picture that develops is that of a complete team, a team better in almost every category than its upcoming opponent. Better at running the ball and stopping the run; better at passing the ball (by some measures, anyway) and (again, by some measures) stopping the pass. And that team isn't the Giants...it's the Saints.
This is not at all meant to dismiss New York: they remain perhaps the most formidable opponent left on the Saints' schedule, including New England. (And the Saints may very well be the most formidable opponent the Giants face for the rest of the year...including those NFC East tilts.) But it's difficult to make a case that they remain on a plateau above the Saints, a plateau the Saints must reach over the defeated bodies of the Giants. Rather, both teams are now on the same plateau; and Sunday, one of them is going to get kicked over the edge.
I don't often add to something after it's already been published, but in this case I'm going to make an exception.
I'll admit that in writing this I had hoped to get a rise out of Giants fans—which strategy seems to have worked. What I didn't expect was for everyone to miss the fact that all I did to the Giants was what everyone else is doing to the Saints right now: asking "Are they for real?"
What more do the pundits want? The Saints have beaten better teams than the Giants have, and they've done so in convincing fashion. They're ahead of the Giants in many statistical categories. If you have to ask, "Are the Saints for real?" why don't you have to ask the same thing regarding the Giants?
The consensus among New York fans seems to be, "Because of our history." This is one of those instances where Henry Ford was right: history is bunk. The Giants' record last year has no effect on this year's standings; and the fact that they beat up on teams last season doesn't mean they have a better chance of beating up on the Saints Sunday. The Giants are a different team; their roster has experienced a certain amount of turnover, and some players have regressed (Brandon Jacobs) while others have improved (Eli Manning). Some aren't even on the team anymore...either on IR (Kenny Phillips), on another team (Derrick Ward), or removed from the general population (Plaxico Burress).
The Saints, too, are a different team. They're no longer the poncy passers who finesse the weak teams and get smashed by all the others. So far this year, they've been one of the smashers. So why all this talk of "Aints," except to get a rise out of us? It may be fun...but it's not an argument.
I can't help but feel the answer is that New Yorkers feel like football royalty...as though the Giants have proven, for good and all, that they deserve to be respected as an elite team. That also, of course, is bunk: no team is either permanently good, or permanently bad. It's not only bunk, it's obnoxious bunk, which New Yorkers understood viscerally when the Patriots were universally anointed as the official team of the Archangel Michael before Super Bowl 42. We know how that one turned out. Kudos to the Giants: they proved my point. Were the Patriots for real? Did they not have certain chinks in their armor that made them, after all, not perfect? The answer, of course, was "yes."
Why be so affronted, then, when the question is turned against their own team? Is it possible that there are chinks in their armor that might be exploited by a team several notches better than the Bucs, the Raiders, the Chiefs? Is it possible that evidence of those chinks might show up in the stats? Those are the only questions that I tried to ask and answer, and they're not inherently irrational. Maybe I did a poor job of answering them...but that doesn't make the questions themselves bad, or irrelevant, or insulting.
For the record, and to repeat: I have enormous respect for the Giants. I think this is the toughest game the Saints face this year. Before the season, I had it penciled in as a loss. Given how the Saints have played this season, though, I'm more optimistic. Because, despite what happened last year, this season we're for real.