NFL week 3 kicks off on Thursday night with the Giants hosting Washington in a clash between two longtime NFC East rivals. The game starts at 8:25 eastern time and will be broadcast on CBS and simulcast on the NFL Network. New York is favored by 3½ with a point total of 44½; the money line has the Skins at +165 and New York at -185.
The Giants enter the game with a record-setting performance for futility: they are the first team in NFL history to begin the season 0-2 while blowing double-digit leads in both of those games in the fourth quarter. Should they drop to 0-3 the New York sports media and fans will surely start loudly grumbling for head coach Tom Coughlin to be canned; that noise will become a deafening roar in the five boroughs should their co-tenants in East Rutherford (the Jets) win again Sunday to advance to 3-0.
While it is foolish to draw conclusions about a team after just two games, Washington – a team I had figured would be among the bottom five, if not the worst in the NFL in 2015 – has seemingly turned things around this season. The Skins were 4-12 last year and prior to last week’s victory had lost 27 of their previous 34 games. Last year their defense ranked 20th in total yards (357 yards per game) and was tied with Tennessee for the third-worst points allowed (27.4 points per game); their 19 takeaways were the seventh fewest and their turnover ratio of minus-12 was the third worst in the league. So far this year the defense ranks first in yardage (234 yards per game) and is fourth against the run (70.5 yards per game, with zero rushing touchdowns allowed).
The Washington offense has been productive as well. Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones both have 100-yard rushing games already. In week one Morris ran for 121 yards on 25 carries against Miami, then last week Jones rumbled for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 19 rushes in a shocking upset over St. Louis and their heralded defense. The Skins lead the league with a whopping 172 rushing yards per game, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Morris and Jones are both very difficult to bring down – they both weigh over 215 pounds – and can really wear down a defense, while at the same team demoralize an opponent by keeping their offense off the field.
This won’t be a gimme for the Washington running attack though. The Giants are allowing just 3.0 yards per carry, third best in the NFL. With WR DeSean Jackson out with a hamstring injury and game manager Kirk Cousins at quarterback, coach Jay Gruden is calling for quick short routes. The results have been favorable thus far: though Cousins is averaging only 6.9 yards per pass attempt, he has completed 76% of his passes and has only been sacked three times. Keep an eye on tight end Jordan Reed. Injuries limited Reed in his first two seasons, but he is healthy now and appears to have a good rapport with Cousins. Of the 17 passes thrown his way in the first two games, Reed made 13 receptions for 145 yards and one touchdown; the four misses were not realistically catchable.
Last year Eli Manning torched Washington to the tune of seven touchdowns (with only one pick) and 750 yards passing, completing 51 of 73 passes as the Giants won the two games by a combined score of 69-27. This year the Skins pass defense has improved, allowing opponents just 5.7 yards per pass attempt (3rd best in the NFL), in comparison to last year’s 8.2 yards per pass. The Giants have only allowed three sacks but opponents have been able to generate pressure, particularly against rookie left tackle Ereck Flowers. Flowers is listed as doubtful with an ankle injury, so left guard Justin Pugh will slide over to man left tackle while Dallas Reynolds comes off the bench to play left guard. Offensive lines need to play together as one cohesive unit, so that side of the line is one to watch in this game. Other injuries the G-Men are dealing with include CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who is unlikely to play due to a concussion, and WR Victor Cruz, who is still rehabbing from a calf injury and has yet to play this year. With Cruz unavailable as a pass option and Beckham drawing double coverage, former Patriot RB Shane Vereen could have a busy day catching passes out of the backfield.
If Manning can get time to throw the ball deep, Odell Beckham could have a big day. Washington released CB David Amerson, a third-round bust from the 2013 draft. Chris Culliver does return from a one-game suspension to rejoin DeAngelo Hall and Breshaud Breeland in the secondary, but that unit will have their hands full. Beckham caught seven passes for 146 yards and a touchdown last week, and Manning has thrown for 485 yards and two touchdowns with no picks thus far.
While Washington has looked pretty good so far, both of those games were at home. They were 1-7 on the road in each of the last two seasons and have won only two of their last 14 division games. While the Giants are 0-2, they could easily be 2-0 instead if not for a couple of blunders near the goal line in the fourth quarter. Despite the resurgence of the Washington defense they are one of six teams ranked at the bottom of the NFL with only one takeaway, while New York is one of four teams to have turned the ball over a league-low one time.
Despite their recent history on the road, at this point in time Washington appears to be more stout in the trenches, where games are still won or lost. Their running game has dominated defenses that are better than New York’s, which will wear down the G-Men and also limit their opportunities to score. Strange as it may sound, a victory here would make the Skins a legitimate candidate to win the NFC East. They have the easiest strength of schedule for those four teams for the remainder of the year, and each of their rivals has problems: Dallas is beset with multiple injuries to key players, Philadelphia can’t get its offense in gear, and at 0-3 the Giants could be on the verge of a mutiny. I’ll give a slight lean to Washington in a game that could easily go either way.
Prediction: Washington 20, New York 17
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