I. Not Invincible

The first lesson from yesterday doesn’t have to do with “distractions” or even the absence of Plax.  Rather, we learned again that even excellent teams are capable of sometimes playing very poorly.  In brutal conditions – trust me, I was there – we turned in an awful performance against very good Eagle team that is probably one of the top five in the league right now.  And we got our asses handed to us.  It happens, even to 11-1 teams.

I’m assuming the Giants will bounce back against Dallas, although yesterday’s loss certainly raises the stakes for that one.  Once that happens, everything will be well and good in G-Men nation again.  In that sense, yesterday’s wasn’t a disturbing loss in that it shouldn’t shake our conception of who the 2008 Giants are: With all due respect to the Titans, we still have to be considered the best team in the league.

But the game reminded us that our path to another title isn’t inexorable.  In any playoff game, we can come out sloppy and get knocked off.  It has been a great season, but just being the best team in the league doesn’t guarantee a championship.  Just ask the 2007 New England Patriots.

II. Eli and the Meadowlands Winds

On the other hand, here’s what emerged from Sunday’s game that has me worried going forward:

We know that teams will stack 8 or 9 in the box for the rest of the year, especially after yesterday.  Therefore, the fate of our offense hinges on Eli, which means that we’re one bad Eli performance away from a heartbreaking playoff loss (and, even though the prospect off a post-season loss is not unlikely, anything short of a Super Bowl title will be severely disappointing.)

So it’s all up to Eli, which is fine except for this: Because we have home-field advantage, there is a chance that we’ll catch a windy-as-hell day like we did today.  And if we do, I think we’re in trouble.  Because as good as Eli has become, he is especially vulnerable to the Giants Stadium winds because he doesn’t throw a tight spiral.

Right now, this is just a theory: I hope Eli proves me wrong.  But, offhand, I can think of three super-windy days on which Eli has played poorly:  The Carolina playoff game in 2005, the Redskins home game late last year, and yesterday.

I know his final numbers weren’t all that terrible yesterday, and I know they were hurt by the Hixon and Smith drops.  But… they were also artificially aided by the garbage-time touchdown drive and the near-interception dropped by Asante Samuel.  (As I said to NYGMen commentator Dan, with whom I attended the game, Asante Samuel has a habit of dropping game-clinching interceptions against the Giants.)

So I can picture a scenario where our home-field advantage turns into a disadvantage.  Back in the ‘80s, people used to talk about how Phil Simms was uniquely qualified to be the Giants quarterback because of his tight spiral.  Isn’t it possible the converse is true with Eli?

III. Lack of Plax

Yesterday’s game answered all those who thought we’d be perfectly fine without Plax based on the Seattle and ‘Zona games.  Surely, he will be missed, especially in windy conditions when Eli’s ball takes unpredictable paths.

I have a feeling that most NYGMen readers weren’t on board with the whole “We won’t miss Plax, just like we don’t miss Shockey” thing.  But here’s why that premise is wrong anyway:

Shockey would brattily demand the ball, forcing Gilbride to draw up plays to keep him involved just so he would shut the fuck up (this according to Ralph Vacchiano of the Daily News.)  But Plax, for all his off-field antics – which, in my mind, have crossed the line and demand his removal from the team – was a total team player between the lines.

It’s qualities like these that make parting with Plax – if that is indeed what we do – so fraught with mixed emotions.  It would be easy to say, “The guy was just a complete tool,” and leave it at that.  But that’s just not the case.

IV.  Free Ahmad

Can’t we get this guy on the field already?  Did we forget how good he was in the playoffs?  At this point, we can’t afford not to use him.  Without Plax, we need playmakers.

The Giants have been really great this year on a play-by-play basis, even moreso on offense than defense.  But often – possibly due to the fact that our offensive dominance is based on the running game, which will usually yield fewer points than an explosive passing game – the scoreboard has failed to fully reflect our dominance.  It’s great to pound the rock down teams’ throats, but no team is without the need of big plays.  A guy like Bradshaw can provide some; at this point, it’s criminal to keep him buried on the bench.

I can totally picture a post-season scenario in which we completely outplay the other team, but only have a 10-point lead in the third quarter.  And then they break off a big play, then Eli throws a pick on a high pass that goes off Hixon’s fingers, and then we’re in danger of an awful loss.

We need firepower.  Put in #44.

(Also on this note, can Hixon please get back to returning kicks?  I’m hoping that Colonel Tom is just protecting him from injury and that he’ll be back deep when the playoffs come.  But please, we’re really sitting on too many resources here.  It really might bite us in the ass.)

V.  The Lack of a Pass-Rush

You can live with a big game by Westbrook – he’s an awesome player who capitalized on some missed assignments to break a couple of long gains.  But to me, what’s more worrisome going forward was our total lack of pressure on McNabb.

Despite our good sack totals – we are tied for fourth in the league with 37, and are seventh in FootballOutsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate – our pass rush has been inconsistent this year.  Without it, our defense is penetrable.

I suppose the overall theme of this post is that while we are good, we’re not so good that there aren’t scenarios under which we can lose.  At 11-1, it might have been easy to forget that.  Yesterday was a reminder.