I. A Model Organization

It doesn’t always come easy in this league, and it didn’t today for the G-Men.  But once again, they showed us something: Against a good team in their place with a rowdy crowd behind them, the G-Men won in convincing, if not overwhelming fashion.  Without their most productive running back and wide receiver.

This is an obvious point which is being made everywhere, but this win underscores the amount of talent oozing out of every corner of the Giants locker room these days: Plaxico went down, but Domenik Hixon, Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, Amani, and even Sinorice Moss made big contributions in his stead.

On defense, Kenny Phillips and Terrell Thomas had their official coming-out parties.  Since we know Brian Kehl is at least a serviceable starter already, it seems like the 2008 draft class represents another smashing success for Jerry Reese, the GM with the 1.000 batting average.

At 10-1 and officially the consensus best team in the land now that the Titans have been exposed, the state of our organization has never been stronger.  The success of the rookies for two straight years isn’t just a reflection on Reese’s ability to draft players, but also our coaching staff’s ability to develop them.  All this does not represent a guarantee of another Super Bowl title, but the Giants have become a model organization.

II. Eli

Early in the game, you saw the Cardinals stacking eight guys in the box and successfully stopping the run.  And then you saw Warner catch a rhythm with those receivers and knew they would score some points.  It was then that you knew this game would hinge on Eli.

And boy, did he come through!  Last week, I pointed out that it had been awhile since Eli’s last big performance (against Seattle in Week 5).  I said that it would be unfair to say that Eli had been bad in recent weeks, only that he hadn’t shown us his best in a while, and it was something to monitor.  Today, he showed that the Giants offense is multifaceted – our passing game can hurt teams even without Plaxico.  Eli’s line was awesome: he was 26 for 33 (an amazing 78%!!!) for 240 yards, 7.3 yards per attempt, and three touchdowns without a pick.

I made this point last week, but what continues to impress me most about Eli is his poise in the pocket.  I can think of three plays off hand when this was on display: On a third- and-one in the second quarter, when Eli rolled away from pressure to hit Boss for a first down; later on that same drive in a goal-to-go situation, when he stepped up in the pocket to avoid the rush and hit Toomer on a litter crossing pattern that Amani turned up into the endzone; and on that third quarter 30-yard pass to Smith that set up Hedgecock’s touchdown, when he held onto the ball for long enough for Smith to get downfield, absorbing a big hit in the process.

In the past, Eli would respond to pressure by backing up in the pocket and making throws from his heels, often resulting in him sailing balls high.  Now, he deftly moves in the pocket and buys himself time to deliver crisp passes.  The guy really knows what he’s doing these days.

But most impressive about Eli today was the way performed when we needed it most.  After Tim Hightower’s third quarter touchdown cut the Giants’ lead to 24-19, Eli engineered a touchdown drive that saw him go 6 for 7 for 66 yards, hitting five different receivers.  The drive ended with a touchdown to Boss – and a perfectly placed throw that used Boss’ height advantage – that gave the ‘Men a commanding lead.  To their credit, ‘Zona didn’t go away, but that touchdown sort of sealed the game right there.

That drive illustrated what is so impressive about these 2008 New York Football G-Men: We are often dominant, but when we are not, we are clutch.

III. Hixon

In addition to his 248 all-purpose yards, dude even made a tackle on special teams!  What a ballplayer this kid is, and what better example of the talent up and down our roster?  NYGMen has long called for Hixon to return kicks – he finally gets a chance today and channeled Desmond Howard circa 1996.

As a return-man, Hixon’s best attribute is his ability to time his explosion through the seam.  To paraphrase Walt Frazier, Hixon displays the “uncanny knack” of knowing when to accelerate.  Watching him read and react to his blocks is night-and-day from watching Bradshaw, who never seems to work in concert with his blockers.  Why Ahmad was in there in the second quarter – before that Cardinals penalty nullified his 22-yard return, setting the stage for Hixon’s 78-yarder – is a total mystery.  At this point, it should be obvious to everyone what a weapon Hixon is, and what a squandered opportunity it represents to not have him do what he does best.

But Hixon’s talent goes beyond returns.  He ran his second end-around today, with another good result.  And his abilities as a receiver are no longer be in question.  This guy is a playmaker, and we need to get him more touches.

 IV. Boss, Smith, Toomer, and Sinorice.

How much more do you trust Boss when the ball is in the air than Shockey?  Those hands at one-tenth of the price and on one-thousandth of the bitching?  And a second-round draft pick?  Good job, Jerry.

Smith had been quiet in recent weeks going into this game, but he resumed his status as a first down machine today.  There was no bigger first-down than that 30-yard pass near the sideline that set up Hedgecock’s touchdown, the latest example of Smith’s outstanding body control.

Toomer dropped a pass on the first series of the game, but was his clutch, reliable self after that.  And do you know what was a really important play in this game?  On third-and-three on the Giants third series, early in the second quarter, when Eli hit Sinorice for a 12-yard first down that set up Ward’s touchdown two plays later.  The 2008 New York Giants: Everyone can play some ball, and everyone contributes.

V. Plax

I’m pissed about this one.  If there was a chance he was going to re-aggravate the injury, he shouldn’t have played today.  It’s that simple.  Bad job by Tom and everyone else: his long-term health is not worth jeopardizing. 

VI. Ward, Ahmad, and Hedgecock

Because the Cardinals stacked the box and made Eli beat them – which he did – Ward didn’t have much room to run today.  But despite his mediocre line – 20 for 69, at 3.5 a pop – he was actually pretty clutch in terms of picking up first downs.  Who knows what Jacobs would have fared any better against a defense designed to stop the run as much as the Cards’ was?

But with Ward struggling a bit, why no Ahmad today?  Come on, Tom, when are we finally gonna break this out this weapon, who seems to be a secret only to you?  Did we think his success in last year’s playoffs was a fluke?  I thought I wouldn’t have to say this when I found out Jacobs was scratched today, but…  FREE AHMAD!!!  For Heaven’s sake.

Moving on, give credit to Hedgecock, who rediscovered his hands after a bad case of the drops in recent weeks.  I knew the guy could catch, and combined with his awesome blocking, we can say that Hedge is officially a huge asset at fullback again.  But as much as I love the rowing dance, “rowing to the Pro-Bowl?”  How ‘bout you go a few more games without dropping passes…

VII. Spags’ Game Plan and Blitz Packages

Our strategy for this game was to take away the run, blitz the hell out of Warner, and see who he would hurt more with his passes: us or the Cardinals.  It turned out to be a good strategy.   We didn’t fully stop the Cards’ upper-upper-echelon offense, but we did contain them.  (‘Zona came into the game ranked 2nd in offensive DVOA?  Ranking first?  The NY Football G.)

Sure, their 371 yards and 29 points weren’t too shabby.  But those were helped along by kick returns, and more importantly, came at the price of two critical turnovers in their territory that positioned us for points of our own.  And given the number of tipped passes we had, those two turnovers easily could have been more.

So again, our strategy revolved around a three-pronged approach: 1) Stop the run; 2) Make sure the blitzes get to Warner with enough frequency; and 3) Hope our corners do their best to stay with their receivers.

In the first two areas, we executed about as well as we could have imagined.  The Cards had 14 carries for 23 yards, and even though we sacked him only once, we knocked Warner on his ass all game long.  So great job by both the run defense and the pass rush.

In terms of covering their stud receivers, we did well enough, particularly in terms of making tackles after catches to prevent huge plays.  Our performance in this area would have looked much better if not for some horseshit penalties – and one non-penalty on an obvious pick-play – on the Cards’ third quarter touchdown drive.

On the other hand, it would have looked much worse if…

VIII. Kenny Phillips…

hadn’t made one of the sweetest plays of the season by punching the ball out of Larry Fitzgerald’s strong hands in the second quarter, limiting the Cards to a field goal instead of a touchdown that would have given them a little more control of the game.  Phillips was all over the place – he made another great play on the sideline in pass coverage and had seven tackles, the second-most on the team. 

Who was the team’s leading tackler?  Terrell Thomas, who had eight tackles – including some big ones on special teams – to go along with an interception.  He even drew a 15-yard facemask penalty on specials as the team’s “gunner” on punts.  Jerry Reese was criticized for “reaching” for Thomas with a second round pick, but it seems Jerry knew what he was doing: the guy might not have the best 40-time, but he is a pure football player who, as Jerry said, is contributing already.

There’s a lot more to dissect about the defense, and I’ll get to the tape later in the week.

In the meantime, a couple of other points:

1)    Glad to see Carney in for Tynes, even though his kickoffs are probably a little bit worse.  In no way is Tynes a “hero” in the minds of Giants fans.  Heros are cops, firefighters, teachers, parents, and Matt Bahr.  Lawrence Tynes, you are no Matt Bahr. 

2)    But seriously, the kickoff coverage has been too big a liability for too long.  Is it because of the lengths of the kickoffs?  I don’t know.  But it’s confounding, because you would expect this deep, athletic Giants team to be good at kickoff coverage.

3)    You’ve probably already read this, but with Carolina’s loss to the Falcons, the Giants are now two games ahead of the rest of the conference with five to play.  Time to start saving up for playoff tickets in earnest.