Can underdog Giants topple Eagles? Keys to their divisional clash

The Giants have shocked the NFL already this season. They were never expected to even compete for the playoffs, much less win a first-round game.

This, though, is where their unlikely dream is supposed to come to an end — in Philadelphia where they haven’t won in nine years, against the best team in the NFC. And it’s not just that the Giants have lost nine straight in Philly, or that the Eagles — with quarterback Jalen Hurts — pounded them 48-22 in New Jersey back in mid-December.

It’s that the Eagles are an all-star team, with eight Pro Bowlers, six All-Pros, an MVP candidate and a potential Coach of the Year. The Giants are a spunky band of overachievers who have played above their collective talent level.

So of course, heading into their divisional playoff game on Saturday night (8:15 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), few expect them to win.

“Just keep doing that,” said Giants safety Julian Love. “It’s been all season long. This is nothing new. Maybe a few more eyes are watching us and a few more eyes are doubting us. That’s OK. You guys have seen it all year long; we have a confident group in the building.

“We go out there and just play our brand of football and let the results speak for themselves.”

How Brian Daboll created an identity in New York

Colin Cowherd reacts to the Giants’ wild-card win over Minnesota, crediting first-year coach Brian Daboll for creating an identity early on.

It might take their greatest effort of the season for the Giants (10-7-1) to get the result they want against the Eagles (13-4) and to move on to the NFC Championship Game. It’s a lot to ask, but maybe it’s not impossible.

It could all depend on the answers to these key questions about this game:

Is Jalen Hurts really OK?

This might be the most important question. He missed two of the last three games with a sprained shoulder, and when he returned for the finale — a 22-16 win over the Giants’ backups — the Eagles protected that shoulder by refusing to let him run.

But this Eagles offense doesn’t work well if Hurts isn’t the two-way threat he usually is. The Giants are very wary of what he can do both with his arm and his legs, and how he keeps defenses off-balance and guessing. 

“He has a lot of tools in his bag,” Love said. “He’s posed a threat or a problem to everybody he’s played this year.”

Jalen Hurts’ shoulder a question mark?

Mark Schlereth tells Craig Carton whether he believes Jalen Hurts is healthy enough to be productive against the Giants on Saturday.

Hurts ripped the Giants through the air in the first half of their first meeting, then tortured them on the ground in the second half. They know what kind of “problem” he can be and they are bracing for him to be a full-strength one on Saturday night.

“I’m expecting Jalen Hurts, the MVP candidate,” Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said.

Which defense can stop the run?

The Eagles defense did it much better during the regular season, giving up 121.6 rushing yards per game, compared to the 144.2 given up by the Giants, who had one of the worst rushing defenses in the league. And neither team was particularly good down the stretch, which was really surprising for the Eagles considering they got rookie defensive tackle Jordan Davis back and signed a pair of veteran DTs in Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh.

The problem for both teams, though, has been the second-level tackling. The Giants have had linebacker issues all year, while for the Eagles it has come in spurts. But it will be a particular problem for someone in this game because both teams want to run more than anything — both with running backs and their mobile quarterbacks. The Giants, especially, can’t win without production on the ground from Jones and Saquon Barkley.

Whichever team limits the running game best will probably win.

Can the Giants’ offensive line hold up against the Eagles’ relentless pressure?

New York’s patchwork, injury-plagued line pulled together down the stretch and was even a strength in the wild-card win in Minnesota. Left tackle Andrew Thomas might even be the best left tackle in the league right now.

But the Giants do have concerning holes — like struggling rookie right tackle Evan Neal and left guard Nick Gates — which could be a real problem against an Eagles team that had an absurd 70 sacks this season. That includes four players with double-digit sacks. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones surely won’t have the kind of time in the pocket he did last week.

“We’ll have a plan for those guys,” Jones said. “And we’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys up front.”

Can the Giants do to A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith what they did to Justin Jefferson?

Martindale went into the wild-card round determined not to let Vikings star receiver Jefferson beat the Giants, and his mission was accomplished. It helped that top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson returned. It also helped that Martindale dialed back the blitzing and went into a zone that made sure Jefferson was bracketed at all times. The result was he had seven catches for just 47 yards and was barely a factor in the game.

Now Martindale has to figure out how to stop two receivers like that, while not losing track of dangerous Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert (who has surely noticed the 10 catches for 129 yards Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson had against the Giants last Sunday). In the first meeting — when Goedert didn’t play — Brown and Smith finished with a combined nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns, most of which came in the first half as the Eagles built a big lead. Of course, Jackson didn’t play in that game for the Giants, and neither did New York safety Xavier McKinney nor linebacker Landon Collins.

Even with those three, though, it’s a tough task to find a way to keep all of Philly’s pass-catching weapons in check, while making sure Hurts doesn’t kill the Giants out of the backfield, too.

Will the Giants avoid the big mistake?

One of the inconvenient truths about this Giants team is that they are generally just not good enough to overcome a big mistake. They were killed by bad penalties and drops in big spots in most of their losses this year, and they won because they rarely turned the ball over. To illustrate, they almost lost to the Vikings last week when Darius Slayton had a huge fourth-quarter drop on what could’ve been a game-sealing first down.

Now they face an Eagles team built to create mistakes. They have a fierce front with those 70 sacks, and their secondary has 17 interceptions. That includes a league-leading six from safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who missed five games with a lacerated kidney. Overall, the Eagles are among the league leaders with 27 total takeaways.

Perhaps the No. 1 key to this game for the Giants will be playing mistake-free football and not turning the ball over. Doing that would be quite a trick against this dangerous Eagles team.

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Philadelphia Eagles

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Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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