• The Giants can keep the pressure on Dallas with a win in Philadelphia, but the Eagles are due for some good luck. Here's why Thursday night's NFC East clash could be closer than the experts think.
By Chris Burke
December 21, 2016

The Giants are 10–4, still alive in the NFC East race, and can clinch a playoff spot with a win Thursday. The Eagles are 5–9, buried in last place in the division and have lost nine of 11 games.

Turns out, though, that the divide between success and failure in the NFL is thin. To wit: The Giants are 8–2 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season; the Eagles are 0–6. Flip even a few of those results the other direction and the stakes could be much different Thursday night in Philadelphia, possibly with both teams fighting for a playoff spot rather than just the visitors.

“Everybody is disappointed. Everybody is dejected,” coach Doug Pederson said after the Eagles’ latest heartbreaker: a 27–26 loss at Baltimore last Sunday. “Obviously, we need to finish these games. That has been the feeling the last couple of weeks, and it’s a tough locker room. They are hanging in there. They are battling.”

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On Philadelphia’s list of near-misses—and an example of New York’s late-game kismet—is Week 9, when the Eagles fell 17 yards short of completing a rally to knock off the Giants. Aided in a big way by two Carson Wentz interceptions, New York grabbed an early 14-point lead in that game, then held on for dear life in the closing moments.

An Eli Manning pick with 1:48 left handed the Eagles a golden chance to steal a win. As has been the norm in nail-biters, they fell short. (Washington DT Chris Baker took to Twitter after that first New York–Philadelphia game to complain that the refs missed a roughing-the-passer call on the Eagles’ final drive.)

Of course, it’s not all luck that has the Giants so proficient at closing games. In all eight of their one-score wins, the Giants’ opponents had at least one possession—and in many cases, multiple possessions—with a chance to take a lead in the final five minutes.

Their defense has carried them in those moments, much as it has all season. The Giants are allowing just 17.9 points per game, third-best in the NFL, and are coming off back-to-back weeks in which they stymied Dallas (a 10–7 win) and Detroit (17–6). Two members of that defense, CB Janoris Jenkins and S Landon Collins, just earned Pro Bowl nods on Tuesday night. Run-stuffing DT Damon Harrison and DE Olivier Vernon (8.5 sacks) easily could have been on the list, too.

All of these playmakers could be issues for the Eagles. Collins had a sack and an interception in the first meeting, while Vernon notched a sack of his own. Wentz has been turnover-prone at times (13 INTs, three fumbles lost), and the Eagles have struggled to find a consistent run game or to get any receiver aside from Jordan Matthews involved in the offense.

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What should help in all phases is the return of starting right tackle Lane Johnson. He and Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters will be responsible for slowing Vernon and Romeo Okwara, New York’s replacement for the injured Jason Pierre-Paul (sports hernia). If a reunited Johnson and Peters can keep the Giants’ pass rush at bay, Wentz obviously will have a better chance. He threw for just 170 yards last week in Baltimore but did lead two late scoring drives.

Another to-be-determined key factor is which Eagles defense shows up. Coordinator Jim Schwartz was a hot name in potential head coaching circles earlier in the season, but Philadelphia now has allowed at least 26 points in five straight games. When his pass rush is going, this is a tough group to play against. When it’s not ...

Manning’s only four-TD game of the season came against the Eagles. It has been a tough go of it most other weeks for the Giants’ offense, save for when Odell Beckham Jr. takes over. New York has averaged just 272.5 yards over the past month, despite posting a 3–1 record.

The Eagles’ hard-fought loss in Baltimore indicated that Pederson’s team has not folded up shop for the season, despite its record. So, this one really could go either way. For as well as the Giants’ defense has been playing, Wentz’s confidence ought to be up and Johnson’s return is a huge boost.

Also worth keeping in mind: The Giants are coming off arguably their two biggest games of the season, making the turnaround for a Thursday nighter on the road a little daunting mentally.

But: New York can clinch a playoff berth with a win, as well as keep the heat on Dallas in the NFC East. That ought to be enough motivation, rivalry aside. Until the Eagles finish off a close game with a win, I have a hard time picking them to do so.

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Key player: Paul Perkins, RB, Giants. New York’s run game has flashed signs of life over the past six weeks, and it is no coincidence that improvement more or less coincided with an uptick in Perkins’s role. Rashad Jennings remains the No. 1 back, but Perkins offers a little more giddy-up. He could be big in the passing game, too, with Shane Vereen (tricep) back on the shelf—Perkins is averaging 10.9 yards per reception this season.

Bold prediction: Nelson Agholor catches a touchdown pass. This is as far out onto a limb as I can step. Agholor has scored once this season, way back in Week 1, and he’s been awful most other games. But if the Giants focus their attention on Matthews in the slot and Ertz at tight end, there in theory should be opportunities for Agholor. Granted, that’s been the case most weeks. Time for a Christmas miracle?

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