Breaking down Sunday's New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals game (4:15 p.m., Eastern, Fox) ...
1. University of Phoenix Stadium may have treated the Giants kindly in Super Bowl XLII, but it's been better to the Cardinals. Since Ken Whisenhunt took over the reins in 2007, Arizona has been as dominant as any other team when playing at home, where it's 10-2. (Only New England, at 12-2, has a higher win percentage.) And those wins haven't come against a slate of patsies. In that time, the Cardinals knocked off two '07 playoff teams, the Seahawks and Steelers; they delivered the deathblow that put Cleveland out of the same race in '07; and they've beaten two teams, the Cowboys and Dolphins, in the thick of the '08 chase. Those last two wins came by a combined 26 points.
Meanwhile, Arizona has put up 29.3 points per home game (again, only trailing New England). It ranks third in passing yards and touchdowns, and its overall defense is 11th. Kurt Warner has played out of his mind at home, completing a remarkable 70.5 percent of his passes, connecting on over two touchdowns per game (against just seven total interceptions) and posting a passer rating of 107.8. All of that in front of capacity crowds. The Cardinals have been in the Top 10 in home game capacity percentage both years.
All of that said, the Giants -- who are to road games what the Cardinals are to home games -- present a stiff test, probably the toughest since 5-0 Chicago visited in '06. (Remember, Arizona led for 57 minutes of that "They are who we thought they were" game.) The Super Bowl Giants made their mark away from home, where they were 7-1 in the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs. Arizona players and fans alike will be jacked for this one, but the Giants certainly won't be intimidated.
2. One man, Kurt Warner, holds the keys to a Cardinals victory. Let's face it: Arizona's not going to mix anything up here. The Cardinals average just 25 rushing attempts per game, 11 below the league-leading Ravens, so they're not going to hammer Tim Hightower into the Giants' front four. Instead, they'll lean heavily on their second-ranked passing offense -- with weapons like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, who are on track to become the NFL's most productive receiving tandem ever -- and the efficient arm of Warner, who's miraculously returned to MVP form. Through 10 games, Warner is poised to come within 40 yards of Dan Marino's all-time single season passing mark of 5,084 yards; he's connecting on a mind-blowing 70.9 percent of his passes; and he's on pace for a dandy 32 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. All of those numbers would top those he posted in both his '99 and '01 MVP years.
To stay on pace, Warner and his receivers not only have to overcome a Giants secondary that ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed (174.8), but also the Cardinals' line will have to buy Warner time against a ferocious Giants pass rush. Remarkably, those two New York units have existed almost completely independently of each other. The Giants manage most of their pressure with down linemen and without blitzing. Of their 31 sacks, 28 have come from ends (Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, Dave Tollefson) and down tackles (Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield, Jay Alford). Without the added responsibility of blitzing, New York's linebackers and secondary have focused on defending the pass, which they've done superbly. That autonomy will be key against the Cardinals, who will be quick to exploit anything less than a double-team on either of their stud receivers.
In this game, it seems likely that the Giants' pass rush will dictate the success of Warner, who has a tendency to unravel under serious duress. Since arriving in Arizona in 2005, Warner is 3-9 in games where he's sacked at least three times, including an 0-6 record in four-plus sack games.
That total includes one of the Cardinals three '08 losses, a 56-35 dismantling at the hands of the New York Jets. Warner was as much to blame as anyone for that loss. Admittedly, the Jets front three were all over Warner, racking up five sacks. But Warner should be held accountable for most of the damage. During one five-series stretch to round out the first half, Warner did the following in succession:
• On third-and-eight from his own 26 he tossed a lame duck that Darrelle Revis jumped and returned for a touchdown.
• Arizona gained one first down on the next series, then punted.
• On the first play of the following series Warner threw another pick at his own 25.
• On the third play of the next drive he coughed up the ball on his own 40.
• On the Cardinals' first play of their final possession before half, with 10 seconds on the clock, Warner fumbled again, this time on his own 12, thus allowing the Jets to tack on a field goal before the half.
Before the first interception, Arizona had trailed 7-0. When Steve Breaston fielded the second half kickoff, the Cardinals were already down 34-0. Game over. That kind of recklessness on Warner's part was devastating against the Jets. It could be even worse against the Giants, who rank fifth in the NFL with a +7 turnover differential.
3. For New York, the best defense might be a slow, plodding offense. Save for knocking the snot out of Warner with fierce inside pressure and maybe even some linebacker blitzes aimed at inexperienced starting running back Tim Hightower, the Giants' best bet at defending against the Cardinals' high-power passing attack is to keep them off the field with time-consuming, run-heavy drives. And could you imagine a better team to pull that off than New York?
For starters, that means getting Brandon Jacobs on the field. The 264-pound battering ram suffered his second sprained knee in as many years last Sunday against the Ravens. (He was shelved for three games last season.)
In his self-assessment this week Jacobs said, "It's just a nagging thing that's been there, but I don't think it will hold me out... There is no pain and I don't feel restricted." If the call goes to Jacobs, who was limited Thursday, it sounds like he'll play. But don't be surprised if Tom Coughlin sits his workhorse and lets the knee heal a little. As nice as it would be to put Arizona in its place, the Giants have a brutal home stretch and they'll need Jacobs healthy to finish strong. After Arizona they face all three division foes in a row (only Philly has to travel to Giants Stadium) and then two NFC contenders in Carolina and Minnesota. That's five straight playoff hopefuls with a combined record of 30-19-1.
Losing Jacobs wouldn't be the end of the world. Yes, the Cardinals run defense, which ranks seventh in the NFL, has improved leaps and bounds under Whisenhunt. But the Giants backups are up to the task. In five games without Jacobs in '07 the Giants went 3-2. And in the four games that Derrick Ward filled in, he rushed for at least 80 yards each time.
In '08, Coughlin has gone to extremes to make sure Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw get at least a small share of the carries in every game so far. (Ward averages 5.3 yards per carry on his 10 rushes per game; Bradshaw's going 6.7 ypc on 6.4 carries per game.) Seemingly, the aim has been to keep Jacobs fresh. But it's also prepared the reserves for a situation like this. So don't expect the Giants, with their amazingly cohesive offensive line, to miss a step if Jacobs sits.
Every week, we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what two assistants from 2008 Arizona opponents had to say about game-planning Warner; his two stellar receiving weapons, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin; and the Cardinals' offense:
• On Kurt Warner: "The biggest change in him is we hit him all the time. He waits, he knows he's going to get hit and he unloads it at the last second. He's really smart and he knows where the coverage is going to be and he unloads it to a spot and the receivers catch it. Drew Brees, in New Orleans, is like that.
"Weaknesses? We were able to bat a few of his balls down because his release point is a little low. You can knock his mobility, but he has the guts and the courage to stand in there."
• On Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin: "They have other physical qualities other than their size: athletic ability and speed. That makes it very, very tough. And they're both competitive. I bet they compete with each other, one of those things where if one guy makes a catch, the other guy wants to make one. Each one wants to have the most. They also have great awareness of coverage, and they're very in-tune with [Warner]."
• On the Cardinals' offense: "Against teams that have been able to get to Warner, they have been going much more with a quick game instead of the deeper, longer stuff. That's smart because he's so hot and they don't want him to get hurt. If they don't have him, they're in trouble."
• On the offensive line: "They've gotten better. A year ago, we thought it was suspect. That was something you could exploit. But not anymore."
All due respect to the Cardinals' defense, which has performed admirably in '08 and which will continue to grow under Whisenhunt, but I think this game comes down to offensive lines. The Giants' unit should keep Eli Manning on his feet long enough to put up some early first half points. But the Cardinals' five are bound to get overwhelmed by Tuck and Company. Expect some early turnovers-turned-into points in the Giants' favor. By halftime, Eli will be able to hand off to whichever backs are still standing and preserve what I imagine as a 31-20 New York win.