ARIZONA CARDINALS (3-2) vs. GIANTS (5-1)
THE TEAMS: The Giants remained atop the NFC East despite an horrendous 48-27 loss to the Saints last week. The defense allowed 497 yards of total offense and allowed Drew Brees to throw for 369 yards and four touchdowns. He completed 15 straight passes at one point, many of them at faltering safety C.C. Brown. The Cardinals have had an up-and-down year so far, losing to the weak 49ers the first week of the season but rebounding four games later to pound the Seahawks 27-3 to remain tied with San Francisco for the NFC West lead. Former Giants quarterback Kurt Warner went 32-of-41 in that game for 276 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He completed his first 12 passes. One of his two main targets, Anquan Boldin, did sprain his ankle during that game and may be less than full speed this week. The team is basically the same that went all the way to the Super Bowl last season, except that the defense is better.
THE HISTORY: Since the Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988, the Giants have gone 13-2 in games at Giants Stadium. Don't let that fool you, however. Most of those Cardinals squads were horrible. This Arizona team is basically the same one that went to the Super Bowl last season, so the oft-used term of patsy no longer applies. "They've pretty much got the same character of guys," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "I know in past years people would say you could kind of take Arizona lightly. That's no longer the case. That's a good football team. You can throw that whole 'softness' out the window." Keep in mind the Giants' primetime history. They're 13-16-1 on Sunday nights.
THE INJURIES: Giants -- DT Chris Canty (calf), CB Aaron Ross (hamstring), and LB Michael Boley (knee) are out. T Kareem McKenzie (groin) is probable. QB Eli Manning (foot), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot and ankle), G Rich Seubert (shoulder), WR Mario Manningham (back), RB Danny Ware (elbow) and LB Antonio Pierce (back) are probable.
Cardinals -- TE Stephen Spach (ankle) is out. WR Anquan Boldin (ankle) and RB Beanie Wells (hip) are questionable. WR Steve Breaston (knee), T Levi Brown (knee), G Reggie Wells (thumb) and CB Domenique Rogers-Cromartie (finger) are probable.
WATCH THIS: You'd be hard-pressed to get me to believe anyone's air attack is more dangerous than the Saints' at this point. But the Cardinals come pretty close. For one thing, they use a lot of three and four-wide sets, which means fewer people to pass protect but more targets for Kurt Warner. If Boldin does play, Warner will have four legitimate targets at any one time, whether it be in receivers Larry Fitzgerald (35 catches, 360 yards, five TDs), Boldin (29-306-1), Steve Breaston (23-320-1) and TE Jerheme Urban (15-172-0), or any three of those and Tim Hightower out of the backfield. Hightower had 12 catches for 121 yards in the opener against San Francisco, the franchise's second-most receptions total for a running back.
Because of that, expect to see a lot of nickel, with Kevin Dockery in there, and a lot of blitzing. Certainly more than last week, when the Giants brought the extra pass rusher just 11 times on 33 called pass plays. They never got near Drew Brees, partly because of his quick delivery. But Warner holds the ball more and is a lot more of a stationary target than Brees. Teams have sacked Warner 10 times so far, and the 2-1 pass/run ratio the Cardinals have employed this year should make any guessing games on run-pass options easier. You can also knock the ball out on Warner, as shown by his 45 fumbles in 53 career games with the Cardinals. The front four of Osi Umenyiora, Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield, and Justin Tuck will need to pressure hard. But to get that, Tuck could be played inside more, in place of Cofield, the better to get fellow pass rusher Mathias Kiwanuka on the field with Umenyiora and Tuck at the same time. " This game in particular because there is going to be so much three- and four-wide receiver sets, they will be out there together," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "And I know it probably seems a little weird at times seeing any one of those three guys on the sidelines because Mike Waufle rotates them through. But in the big picture of things the plan is that they will be fresher for the long haul and they will be able to go harder when they are in there for the 35 or so snaps that each of them basically gets every game. But in this – because we are going to be playing a lot of dime and nickel, three and four wide, then the three of them will be in there collectively, sure."
Those numbers should help. But the Cardinals' offensive line is a bulky group to handle. It ranges from 305 at center Lyle Sendlein to 338 at right guard Deuce Lutui. So the going might be tough, especially in the middle. That's why Sheridan will probably dial up as many blitzes as he can while playing the nickel and dime extensively. The corner blitz with Terrell Thomas, so effective a couple of weeks ago, can be expected, as well as the safety blitz with C.C. Brown.
Speaking of Brown, he'll have to raise his game about 10 notches from last week's dismal performance, as much to find personal redemption as to help defend the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Fitzgerald. The coaches spent the week schooling Brown and the other DBs on going up to challenge passes. Fitzgerald, in addition to speed, can leap with the best of them. He had 13 catches for 100 yards last week against Seattle. So every pass Warner throws will have to be contested if the Giants, still statistically the No. 1 pass defense in the league, expect to come out of this one alive. Covering the intermediate zones will be paramount this week, since Warner doesn't often look deep. The Cardinals' longest completion so far went for 40 yards.
The Cardinals have the 31st-worst rushing offense, but that's mainly because they throw the ball so much. Hightower has three rushing touchdowns and is fast enough to get to the corner. But passing is the Cardinals' real game, and linebackers like Danny Clark and Antonio Pierce will have their hands full keeping up with him.
Eli Manning needs to have a better game than last week. But a lot of that will depend on whether a still-hurting offensive line can keep folks like 3-4 linebacker Bertrand Berry out of the backfield. Berry generally will line up over David Diehl at left tackle. Berry leads the Cardinals with three sacks, but their defense has 13 from nine players, thanks to a mixture of up-front pressure and liberal blitzing. That should open up some big-play possibilities for Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Domenik Hixon. Also expect to see an expanded role for Hakeem Nicks, who now has three touchdowns in three games and continues to earn field time as a third receiving option.
Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw also need good games, but that will be tough against a top-rated rushing defense that has allowed 58.6 yards per game. Part of that is because opponents are throwing a lot against them, averaging 265.2 passing yards per game on about 38 passes per game as opposed to 21 rushes. Then again, teams have fallen behind and have become one-dimensional. "Sometimes teams can get away from it because coaches get discouraged or whatever it is, they think they are wasting downs," said Jacobs, whose 3.6-yard average indicates the continuance of a tough start. "That won’t be the case here, we will stick to it. As long as we don’t have to abandon the run we will be fine. We just have to go out and prove it."
Hixon will return at kickoff and punt return after a banner day against New Orleans. Field position is a must, especially if the offense is to get back on track. And it appears Lawrence Tynes has turned a corner on his field goals, having hit his last five straight. The Cardinals counter with Neil Rackers, who is 7-for-8 in field goals.
PREDICTION: The Giants are nothing if not resilient. They've maintained an even-keeled approach to this game, recognizing the blowout in New Orleans represents just one loss. They'll come back, but this won't be easy. It could easily turn into a shootout, but the Giants win 35-27.
GUEST PREDICTION: Vinny DiTrani of the Bergen Record has been covering the Giants since, oh, forever, so he's seen his share of rebounding after horrible losses. He thinks the Giants are on their way back. When asked about returning from the Saints setback, he said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Well, actually Clark Gable said that. What Gable's grade-school classmate Vinny said was, "Giants 24-21. They'll bounce back from a dismal Big Easy loss." But he didn't pick them to cover. That's Vincenz!