DATE CREATED: 1/4/09
No. 1 seed drew short stick by playing dangerous NFC East rival
Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com
The Giants fought hard this year to compile the NFC's best record. There was more than bragging rights at stake. Along with it came a first-round bye, home-field advantage through the playoffs and the chance to play the lowest-seeded opponent in the second round.
The second-round opponent turns out to be the Eagles. The Giants must wonder if it was worth all the effort. If they'd only had the sense to lose to the Panthers when those two teams played for the top seed, the Giants would be looking at the Cardinals next weekend instead of their divisional rivals.
This is no knock on the Cardinals, who did themselves proud against the Falcons. But if you could pick the bird you want to play and the choices are Eagles or Cardinals, you're taking the cute little red fellas and not the big bad raptors.
This is one of the bad jokes of playoff rules. The Eagles are a better team than Arizona, which made the playoffs with an 8-8 record. But the Eagles are a wild card, and thus they're considered to be a lesser opponent than a division champion, so the Giants get them while Carolina gets to host the Cards.
So much for the rewards for winning.
But what's tough luck for a team is good news for fans. Had the Vikings won, the second round of the NFC playoffs would have lacked drama. Panthers-Vikes and Giants-Cardinals aren't games that get the adrenaline pumping.
But Giants-Eagles is a matchup made for the playoffs. It's the game that saves the second round from terminal predictability, a game to plan a weekend around, the NFC's answer to the Titans-Ravens epic collision being provided by the AFC.
Cards-Panthers remains a snooze. Arizona played maybe its most complete game of the season on Saturday, but don't bet on it happening again against the Panthers. Carolina won't show Kurt Warner as much respect as Atlanta's non-existent pass rushers did.
Even playing at their best, the Cards don't have the arsenal to beat the league's best teams. They put the heat on rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and finally made him show his age. And their offensive line protected Warner like the Hope Diamond.
Now they face a veteran quarterback, Jake Delhomme, and a defensive front that will make Warner scramble and probably put the ball on the ground. The Panthers will also run against Arizona - they run against everybody. The game should be over by halftime, if not sooner.
That won't be the case with Giants-Eagles, a game we've seen before. The Giants won three more games than did the Eagles this year, but any NFC East fan will tell you that's meaningless. These two ancient rivals, separated by less than 100 miles of the N.J. Turnpike, split their two games this year. Their records say the Giants are better. The reality is either team can win.
It's being played in Giants Stadium, but home field isn't a huge benefit when these two teams play. The Eagles beat New York, 20-14, in the Meadowlands on Dec. 7, and the Giants beat the Eagles, 36-31, on Nov. 9 in Philly. Both stadiums are open to wind and cold. Both have the same turf. Both are nasty in January.
In the Eagles' win, Brian Westbrook had a huge day, gaining 131 yards on 33 carries and adding 72 more yards on six pass receptions. He scored twice - once by ground and once by air.
The Giants, meanwhile, gained just 88 yards rushing and only 123 more passing. Eli Manning wasn't sacked or intercepted, but he was thoroughly harassed.
The Giants have had time to get over the loss of receiver Plaxico Burress since that Philly game. They rested their starters for much of their season finale against Minnesota and have had a week to get everybody healthy - especially running back Brandon Jacobs.
New York should win the game - it's a better team. But it's not a slam-dunk, not like it would be against the Cardinals.
Philly can shut a team down defensively, and if Donovan McNabb has one of his better days and Westbrook is running wild, they can beat anyone. It's a game that could go down to the final possession, the final play.
You figure the Giants will win and advance to an NFC Championship against the Panthers. But you can't be sure of it. These are the Eagles, and they know how to beat New York. They're the wild-card team nobody, including the Giants, wants to face.
© 2009 NBC Sports.com
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