1:00 PM ET, December 7, 2008
Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ
The best team in the NFL always garners plenty of headlines, just not usually outside the realm of sports media.
National attention from even the most casual of sports fans has been heaped upon the New York Giants due to the Plaxico Burress situation, and overcoming that enormous distraction -- particularly for Antonio Pierce -- is what they face Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Clinching the NFC East title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, which New York (11-1) will do with a victory, would usually be a celebratory occasion, but might just be more of a relief than anything else to a Giants team in turmoil.
So much of the focus Sunday will be on a star receiver who won't even take the field, and may never again with New York. The Giants suspended Burress for four games -- the rest of the regular season -- and placed him on the reserve non-football injury list Tuesday for conduct detrimental to the team, meaning he won't return for the playoffs, either.
"The only thing I hope that we gain from that is that people will stop asking us about Plaxico, that's probably the best thing about it, that it bring some closure at least as far as this season as far as football," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said.
The news that Burress would not be back with the Giants this season came after he accidentally shot himself in the right thigh with a handgun he brought to a Manhattan nightclub last weekend. He was charged with two counts of illegal weapons possession and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
"There is nothing good that will come out of it and there isn't much to say," receiver Amani Toomer said. "It's just tough, it's just tough for everyone to deal with. I'm just glad he is OK. It could have been worse."
Further negative attention was provided not only by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's outspoken criticism of Burress, but through a possible cover-up involving Pierce. A former Pro Bowler considered the leader of the defense, Pierce was at the club with Burress and is being investigated amid reports he may have tried to hide the gun.
The Giants, though, expect Pierce to play Sunday, as should running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who also was at the club but apparently was not involved in the incident.
"I don't know if it's just being in New York or what causes it, but it always seems like there's something going on, there's a distraction and we've had our share of them," quarterback Eli Manning said. "I think myself, the players, the coaches have just learned how to cope with them."
Though Burress was New York's top receiver over the past three seasons, his absence might not hurt the offense too much. He hasn't contributed much lately and the Giants have not cooled off, winning seven in a row.
Burress appeared in six games during that span and didn't catch more than three passes in any of them, totaling just 137 yards. The three games this season in which Burress did not factor -- one for suspension and all but one series of the last two games due to a hamstring injury -- were some of Manning's best performances. He completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 812 yards with six touchdowns and one interception as the Giants scored a combined 104 points, beating Seattle, Arizona and Washington.
However, a 6-foot-5, 232-pound frame made Burress one of Manning's favorite targets in the end zone and he did have four TD receptions after totaling 22 the last two years, not including his game-winning catch in the Super Bowl.
"When you lose a player of Plaxico's ability, it is incumbent that everybody step up and fill the void," coach Tom Coughlin said. "In the last two seasons, this team has done an outstanding job of that."
Plenty of receivers, particularly second-year players Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith, have become key figures in the offense while Burress has been ineffective or out of action. While Smith has a team-leading 43 receptions for 424 yards, Hixon has been targeted much more in the last two games with 128 yards on 11 catches.
Toomer has 39 catches for a team-high 480 yards in his 13th NFL season and has touchdowns in two straight games. Even tight end Kevin Boss, mostly used as a blocker earlier this season, has contributed in the passing game with 20 catches for 226 yards and four TDs in the last six games.
Having the league's best rushing attack also has opened up the passing game. The Giants are averaging 160.2 yards on the ground, including 219 in a 36-31 win at Philadelphia on Nov. 9.
Brandon Jacobs ran for 126 of those yards and two touchdowns, and he returned last week after a one-game absence due to a knee injury to rush for 71 yards and a score in a 23-7 win in Washington. Even without Burress, Manning had his first 300-yard passing day since Week 6 of 2007.
The Giants now have an opportunity to match the 1970 Minnesota Vikings' NFL record of seven consecutive victories against teams with winning records. They've outscored the opposition 180-77 in winning six straight at Giants Stadium, their longest home winning streak since a seven-game run in 1990.
Last week, the Eagles (6-5-1) were the team embroiled in controversy following Donovan McNabb's benching and an 0-2-1 skid. The team, and particularly the quarterback, are much happier leading into this matchup.
Besides throwing four touchdown passes in a 48-20 Thanksgiving win over Arizona, McNabb became a father for the second time when his wife gave birth to twins early Tuesday.
Still, the Eagles likely need to win their final four games to have any shot of making the playoffs. They can't catch first-place New York, which has won the last three meetings, and five teams are ahead of them in the wild-card hunt.
Considering how well the Giants have played -- they've led by double digits in the fourth quarter of five straight games -- maybe the magnitude of Burress' predicament gives Eagles' fans a bit more hope for a desperately needed win against what could be a distracted Super Bowl champion.
"It's a tough situation to be a part of because I'm sure they don't wanna keep answering questions about it," McNabb said. "Everyone has been through some trying times during the season, but it's all on how you handle it."
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Hixon, Ward must step up in Burress' absence
After their dominating win against Arizona, the Eagles have had a very long week to prepare for the defending Super Bowl champion. Meanwhile, in their usual impressive fashion, the Giants defeated Washington decisively. The champs are simply playing great football right now. The Giants edged out Philadelphia 36-31 in Week 10 by utterly dominating the time of possession, and this will be the approach they take in this game.
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|Avg Points Allowed||20.2||17.4|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
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|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||PHI|
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Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Philadelphia leads 11-7|
|Nov 9, 2008||PHI 31, NYG 36|
|Dec 9, 2007||PHI 13, NYG 16|
|Sep 30, 2007||PHI 3, @NYG 16|
|Jan 7, 2007||PHI 23, NYG 20|
|Dec 17, 2006||PHI 36, @NYG 22|
|Sep 17, 2006||PHI 24, NYG 30|
|Dec 11, 2005||PHI 23, NYG 26|
|Nov 20, 2005||PHI 17, @NYG 27|
|Nov 28, 2004||PHI 27, @NYG 6|
|Sep 12, 2004||PHI 31, NYG 17|
|Nov 16, 2003||PHI 28, NYG 10|
|Oct 19, 2003||PHI 14, @NYG 10|
|Dec 28, 2002||PHI 7, @NYG 10|
|Oct 28, 2002||PHI 17, NYG 3|
|Dec 30, 2001||PHI 24, NYG 21|
|Oct 22, 2001||PHI 10, @NYG 9|