This is unfamiliar territory for Giants fans, as they haven’t been eliminated from playoff contention this early since Eli Manning’s rookie season in 2004. Tom Coughlin’s job is secure, so these final three games will be all about veterans auditioning for their next contract and Manning trying to salvage something from a lost season.
Even after last week’s loss to the 49ers, the Seahawks still have a comfortable hold over the NFC West. It would take a surprising meltdown for them to end up with anything less than home-field advantage in the playoffs, something they haven’t had since the heyday of Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander. As Seattle fans hope this is the first of two trips their team takes to East Rutherford this season, let’s see the key matchups that will determine if the Giants can trip up the Seahawks championship quest.
Lynch & Wilson vs. Giants Run Defense
Despite having a legitimate MVP candidate at quarterback, everything in the Seahawks offense flows through their running game. They have the third-most rushing yards in the NFL and the most rushing attempts, and Russell Wilson uses play action on 34.7% of his drop backs, the highest rate of any starting quarterback in the league. If you assume that this means the Seahawks offensive line has been a strong pack of road graders, you’d be mistaken. Michael Bowie is the only Seattle lineman with a positive run block grade this season, and James Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy’s combined -19.7 run block grade is as bad as you’ll see from any pair of guards. Instead, Seattle’s success on the ground comes from Wilson and Marshawn Lynch’s ability to make something out of nothing. Wilson has the fourth-most rushing yards in the league by a quarterback, partly thanks to having more runs on scrambles than any other passer. No running back has forced more missed tackles on his carries than Lynch, and he’s behind only Adrian Peterson in our Elusive Rating metric (minimum 100 attempts).
The Giants haven’t been able to hang their hats on much this season, but they do have a quietly solid run defense. They’ve surrendered the 11th-fewest rushing yards of any team in the league, and their 3.8 yards per carry allowed average is tied for fourth-lowest. Ryan Mathews ran for 103 yards last week, but he was just the second rusher to break the 100-yard barrier versus New York this season. Lynch is one of six backs to already pass the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. The Giants have faced the other five (including LeSean McCoy twice), and held them to 46.7 yards per game and 2.9 yards per attempt. The stoutness starts up front for New York, as Justin Tuck has the fifth-best run defense grade of any 4-3 defensive end, and defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Mike Patterson also rank in the top 15 at their position. Behind them, the Giants linebackers have missed just six total tackles in the running game this season, the fewest of any group in the NFL. New York gave up a season-high 194 rushing yards versus the Panthers’ zone-read attack, but fared much better against the Raiders and Redskins. How they handle Wilson and Lynch will dictate how easily the Seahawks move the ball on Sunday.
Bennett & Avril vs. Beatty & Pugh
Despite the praise heaped upon the Seahawks defense last season, it was a weak link on that side of the ball that may have ultimately been their undoing. Chris Clemons was their only defender who consistently brought pressure off the edge, and Seattle’s pass rush was left toothless after he tore his ACL. The Seahawks managed just one quarterback hit on Matt Ryan in their playoff loss to the Falcons, prompting an aggressive strategy in the offseason that has General Manager John Schneider looking like a genius. Taking advantage of a depressed market for veteran pass rushers, he signed both of our top two free agent defensive ends in Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, for a value no less. Well shame on every other team for letting Seattle get such a steal, because an already formidable defense has gotten downright scary thanks to their new edge-rushing duo. Bennett and Avril have posted the third and fourth best pass rush grades at their position. After 112 quarterback pressures from their defensive ends last season, Seattle already has 155 this season. You can’t say enough about how the Seahawks have shrewdly turned a once glaring weakness into a huge strength.
The Giants only wish they could have gotten equivalent results from their biggest offseason move, the contract extension of left tackle Will Beatty. The deal looked like a wise one at the time, as Beatty was our eighth-highest graded offensive tackle last season. With just three sacks and no quarterback hits allowed, he was one of the most consistent pass protectors in the league. Nevertheless this season has been an absolute about-face, as Beatty now sports one of the worst Pass Blocking Efficiency rates of any tackle. His 11 sacks allowed are two more than his total surrendered in his previous four seasons combined. On the right side, rookie Justin Pugh had a rough initiation into the NFL with 28 QB pressures allowed in his first five games. But he’s allowed only 14 since then and has even earned mention in our Rookie of the Year Race. Of all the high-profile tackles taken in the first round of this year’s draft, did anyone predict that Pugh would have the highest grade this late in the season? With an interior line that’s been ravaged by injuries and disappointing backups, the Giants won’t stand a chance against the Seahawks rush unless Pugh keeps his momentum going and Beatty regains his old form against Avril and Bennett.
Cruz vs. Lane & Chancellor
The last time these two teams played, in Week 5 of 2011, Victor Cruz had one of the more eventful fourth quarters you’ll ever see from a receiver. His 68-yard touchdown was the highlight of the game, as he reeled in a tipped ball between Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor before racing into the end zone to give the Giants the lead. But two minutes later his costly fumble deep in Giants territory allowed the Seahawks to tie it. Late in the quarter, he set the Giants up for the game-winning score with 60 yards on two straight catches. But on the very next play, he slipped on a slant route and tipped a pass for Brandon Browner to snatch and take all the way for the game-clinching touchdown.
Browner isn’t expected to play this week, but Seattle’s secondary is still formidable without him. Each week I see analysts claim that Sherman will “shadow” an opponent’s top receiver (I’m looking at you, fantasy gurus), but the fact is that Sherman has played only 15 snaps as a right cornerback this season and rarely covers the slot. Considering that Cruz lines up inside on 69% of his routes and has the third-most slot yards of any wide receiver in the league, he’ll be matched up more with other cornerbacks than he will be with Sherman.
The Seahawks’ slot duties were Walter Thurmond’s responsibility before his suspension, and now they’ve fallen to Jeremy Lane and Chancellor. Lane is coming off a stellar performance against the 49ers, earning three passes defensed and allowing just one catch for 13 yards in the four times his man was targeted. Chancellor makes a lot of noise with his big hits, but he’s also allowed just seven catches in 77 slot coverage snaps this season. As Manning struggles to find the same page with his other receivers, Cruz has been his most reliable target this season. If the Giants are going to have any success against the Seahawks secondary, it needs to start with this matchup.
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