EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — The New York Giants had just been swept from their own field six weeks ago when Jihad Ward delivered his impassioned speech. Their playoff hopes hung by a thread after an embarrassing 48-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium in Week 14.
The Eagles had accumulated over 400 total yards, with more than 200 of them coming on the ground. They just seemed to run and run for big wins and touchdowns. It almost didn’t matter if it was Jalen Hurts, Miles Sanders or Boston Scott.
There was nothing the Giants could do to stop them.
“It’s about who the hell wants it more,” Ward said afterwards. “It’s about more than just doing your job. It’s about more than just “Do I know my playbook?” You need to do more. Well how bad do you want it? And nobody’s gonna sit here and give it to us. It’s really how bad you really, really want it.”
The Giants apparently got the message. They’ll get a third crack at the Eagles (8:15 p.m. ET, FOX) in the divisional round of the playoffs.
They met again in Week 18, but the Giants barely played starters and Philadelphia worked without its star right tackle and a quarterback.
Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson starts. Hurts has not been on injury reports for most of this week and is expected to be in full health.
“I’m expecting Jalen Hurts, the MVP nominee,” said Giants defense coordinator Wink Martindale.
But the Eagles aren’t the only ones who will look different than when these teams last met.
Martindale will have the advantage of fielding a defense that hardly resembles the unit that dropped nearly 50 points six weeks ago. New York is now in much better shape.
Top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, safety Xavier McKinney and defensive lineman Leonard Williams will all be on the field this time. Jackson returned from a knee injury last week to cap Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the 31-24 wildcard win. McKinney returned in Week 17 after missing nearly two months following an ATV accident during bye week. And Williams, the team’s top run stuffer with a 39.5% run-stop-win rate (17th in the NFL), was healthy on the track.
“It just gives us more room to do different things,” McKinney said. “I think we offer a lot of flexibility. … We can do many different things.”
Part of that flexibility was allowing Martindale to pit McKinney for most of the second half against the Vikings to help TJ Hockenson slow down the tight end.
McKinney helped tackle Hockenson just before a first down early in the fourth quarter and made a crucial tackle on Hockenson near the line of scrimmage in the dying seconds. Those kinds of moves weren’t available to Martindale in the first matchup with the Eagles.
“The more players you have, the better it is. And that way you can be flexible,” Martindale said. “That was an adjustment we made. It was part of our counterattack there at the end with the putting [McKinney in the box].”
That could come in handy on Saturday night in South Philadelphia. The Eagles also have a dangerous end with Dallas Goedert, who was sidelined in the first meeting with a shoulder injury that cost him five games.
Martindale said it was on the flight home from their first meeting with the Vikings — a 27-24 loss in Week 16 that amounted to a 61-yard field goal — that he told his group he knew finally that they had a playoff defense. The Giants have since conceded 19.0 points per game in their three contests, but it’s the way their defense looks that means they’re becoming a much better group.
Even the Giants’ backups gave Philadelphia problems in the season finale.
“I would say you try to improve after every game,” said coach Brian Daboll. “I think we’ve gotten a little bit better every week, so it depends on how we play on Saturday.”
There’s a chance the Giants frontline will have Williams, nose tackle Dexter Lawrence and fullbacks Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari on the field. They have only played 56 times together this season (4.9%), including the playoffs.
Ojulari is listed as questionable with a quadriceps injury but said this week he was feeling fine. But injuries aren’t something Martindale can’t handle.
Thibodeaux missed the first two games with a knee injury and Ojulari and Williams have been in and out of the line-up all season due to various injuries.
“I wasn’t complaining to you,” Martindale said with a chuckle. “My wife, on the other hand, Laura, has heard some complaints.”
Finally healthy, the front should be a strength for a defense that still managed to finish with a respectable 41 sacks. It should help the Giants not let the Eagles run wild.
“Playing a running quarterback, or a quarterback in general, as a defense, that’s the type of guy you want to meet. Regardless of whether you’re injured or not,” said linebacker Jarrad Davis.
He later added the plan was to “be as physical as possible.”
This time it won’t be that easy for the eagles, especially on the ground.
“That’s our goal this week, to try to make them one-dimensional and stop the run as early as possible,” Williams said.