Pressure remains high on vindicated Coughlin
After weathering an early season firestorm, Tom Coughlin has the Giants riding high. But a loss to Dallas would severely hinder their chances of winning the NFC East, writes John Clayton.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin appeared to be a goner when the season started.
An 0-2 start, including a 45-35 loss in the opener to the Cowboys, brought gloom and doom upon the franchise. The defense was defenseless. Quarterback Eli Manning had what was reported as a shoulder separation. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora was hurt. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress was playing hurt.
The Giants appeared to be set for a losing season and Coughlin, who had changed his style of coaching to be friendlier to the players, had little chance of making it to next year.
Now, the members of the Giants' front office who fought to give Coughlin another chance can say, "I told you so." The Giants have won six in a row and are challenging the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East lead. A victory over the Cowboys on Sunday would tie New York for the division lead.
Everyone knows Coughlin can turn nothings into something. In Jacksonville, he developed an expansion team into a Super Bowl contender. His specialty is his attention to the little things, but his constant harping mentally wore on the players.
What's amazing about Coughlin's Giants tenure is he never gets credit for the good work he's done. The Giants are a tricky team to coach. Living in the glamour of New York can be distracting. The extra media attention can create big egos within the locker room, which can make it hard for a coach to enforce discipline.
Coughlin's stamp in New York has been 5-2 starts followed by second-half fades. Once the Giants lose in the first round of the playoffs, Coughlin takes the heat.
Manning also doesn't get much credit. Eli might not put up the numbers and victories of his brother, Peyton, but he puts up enough points for the Giants to be an annual contender. The Giants average 25 points a game. Manning has helped manage a tough transition from Tiki Barber in the running game.
Most thought the Giants' running game would grind to a halt after Barber retired. But Coughlin has used a three-headed monster of Brandon Jacobs, Reuben Droughns and Derrick Ward to produce the league's sixth-best running attack.
Still, the pressure falls on the Giants in this game. The Cowboys are playing loose and well under Wade Phillips. A victory would give Dallas a two-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Giants in the division. With the league's fourth-toughest closing schedule, the Giants would be hard-pressed to catch the Cowboys later if they can't catch them Sunday.
Even though a loss would likely bring back some of the critics, the Giants can feel good about what they've accomplished so far. Sunday's game is simply Round 2 in the Giants-Cowboys season saga. It's not the final round thanks to Coughlin's ability to create a winning atmosphere within a franchise.
1. Indianapolis at San Diego: The Colts have to worry about a letdown after an emotionally draining loss to the Patriots. The Chargers just need a pick-me-up, but not the kind of pick-me-up they had against the Vikings in Week 9. Chargers defenders were picking themselves off the ground after Adrian Peterson (296 yards) ran through them.
Expect the Colts to use a similar strategy with Joseph Addai. The Chargers are giving up 125 yards a game on the ground, which is unusual for a 3-4 defense with so many talented players. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell must replace defensive tackle Luis Castillo for the next six weeks, and that's going to be difficult. Once Castillo left last Sunday's game against the Vikings with an ankle injury, Peterson went wild.
Naturally, Peyton Manning will try to test the Chargers' defense with a balanced attack, which would mean a heavy dose of Addai. The Patriots tried to contain Manning in Week 9 with a nickel defense, leaving running opportunities for Addai. The Colts' receiving corps came out of that game banged up and a little thin. How the Chargers defend the run could determine how well they will play in this game.
2. Cleveland at Pittsburgh: The Browns and their offense have created a warm and fuzzy feeling around the league. Derek Anderson has become a surprise star with what he's been able to do at quarterback. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow have been unstoppable.But the real test for Cleveland comes in the second half of the season. Head coach Romeo Crennel might have saved his job by going 2-1 in the three September home games against AFC North foes. Now the fate of this season will depend on whether the Browns can take this aerial act on the road. The Steelers showed the Ravens on Monday night who is boss in the AFC North this year. Winning in Pittsburgh is tough, and no one knows that more than the Browns. Sunday is their ultimate test.
3. Jacksonville at Tennessee: In Week 1, the Titans defeated the Jaguars 13-10 and established themselves as a playoff contender. Knocking off the Jaguars again would be a big step for Tennessee as it works to secure the second spot in the AFC South.
The Jags are reeling. Quarterback David Garrard is trying to rush back after missing two starts with a high ankle sprain. Rookie linebacker Justin Durant and second-year offensive lineman Richard Collier were suspended by the team after they were arrested recently. Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud is serving a four-game NFL suspension. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher knows he can deliver a knockout punch to the Jaguars if he wins.
4. Minnesota at Green Bay: All season, Adrian Peterson kept tempting Vikings coaches to let him do what he did at Oklahoma -- carry a team on his shoulders. Last week's 296-yard day against the Chargers was his coming-out party. Peterson is not only a lock for rookie of the year honors, but he could challenge the 2,000-yard club. But a hot back should be a winning back, so head coach Brad Childress must make sure Peterson isn't running in place.
Sunday's game against the Packers is the Vikings' season. A great running attack usually gets a team to eight or nine wins. A loss by the Vikings would be their sixth, pointing to a potential losing season and dropping them five games behind the Packers in the division. The Packers have one of the conference's best defenses and should be ready for the Peterson challenge. Plus, the crowd at Lambeau Field will be fired up because this is a rivalry game.
5. San Francisco at Seattle: A little less than a year ago, the 49ers came into Seattle for a Thursday night game and stunned Mike Holmgren with a fourth-quarter rally behind QB Alex Smith. That win completed a season sweep of the Seahawks, who went on to win the NFC West.Holmgren wants to sweep back the series. The Seahawks won in San Francisco, 23-3 on Sept. 30, and the 49ers' offense hasn't gotten much better. Running back Frank Gore is struggling with an ankle injury. Smith isn't the same since separating his right shoulder. Holmgren has his own problems. Running back Shaun Alexander can't shake injuries or tacklers, so Holmgren might switch to a more pass-oriented offense.
6. Cincinnati at Baltimore: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis isn't ready to give up on the Ravens' season. Even though the Ravens are 4-4 and look old and haggard, Lewis knows five teams still have to come into Baltimore to play. The Bengals draw the first assignment. With QB Steve McNair struggling, the Ravens will likely go back to the more physical brand of football that is the staple of this franchise.Willis McGahee has been the powerful back the Ravens thought they picked up in the trade from Buffalo, and they might have to ride him to make the playoffs. A concussion he suffered toward the end of the Steelers game is cause for concern, but McGahee will play. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis knows top receiver Chad Johnson is banged up with a sore neck and can't count on him as much. It's time for the Ravens to rally.
7. Detroit at Arizona: The Lions head into the tough part of their schedule with a lot of confidence. After predicting that the Lions would win 10 or more games, QB Jon Kitna is looking like a prophet. However, given their recent history of losing, the Lions can't afford to get cocky and take things for granted. The Lions have an impossible closing schedule, facing teams with a combined winning percentage of a staggering .641.The Cardinals, technically one of only two losing teams Detroit faces down the stretch, are dangerous. They have a tough defense. They have a bright coach in Ken Whisenhunt. They have a smart quarterback in Kurt Warner. This won't be easy for the Lions.
8. Philadelphia at Washington: Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb are trying to hold the Eagles together, but it's tough. McNabb is taking a lot of heat for the Eagles' inconsistent offense. Reid is taking the heat for a 3-5 record. Don't expect a quick quarterback change. The Eagles would lose potential trade value if they bench McNabb, but they first have to determine if they are going to trade him after the season. McNabb will likely start the rest of the season unless he gets hurt.The Redskins have a tough three-game stretch that will determine if they are going to stay in the playoff race. NFC East games against the Eagles and Cowboys are vital. After that, the Redskins travel to Tampa Bay. If the Redskins do well in the NFC East games, they will compete for the division title. If they don't, they will be fighting for a wild-card spot at best. Beating the Eagles at home is important.
9. Chicago at Oakland: Talk about disappointments. The Bears don't seem to have the chemistry or energy to mount a late surge for a wild-card spot. Quarterback Brian Griese has been up and down, but he hasn't been supported at all by a running game. The Bears' defense has not played well.
In some ways, the Raiders are a very interesting team. Head coach Lane Kiffin changed starting running backs, going from LaMont Jordan to Justin Fargas. The Raiders are hinting about the possibility of moving JaMarcus Russell to backup quarterback as early as this weekend. At least they are making moves. Still, this won't be much of a game to watch.
10. Buffalo at Miami: Of the 10 divisional matchups in Week 10, this might be the least interesting, but the Bills are drawing a lot of talk around the league. The Bills might not have big names on defense, but they hustle like the Indianapolis Colts. The wrist injury to Trent Edwards righted the oversight of not going back to J.P. Losman as the starting quarterback. Losman is starting to get hot.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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