When the first whistle blows, there will be two undefeated NFC juggernauts going toe to toe. When the last whistle blows, there should be no questions asked about the legitimacy of either team.
In case you haven't heard, there's a big game taking place at the Superdome this weekend. The Saints - with their revitalized defense and strong-as-ever offensive attack - lie in wait with their ears to the ground, waiting to pounce the moment a thundering herd of blue from New York reaches the watering hole...
There are number of interesting storylines attached to this game. There's Eli's Plantar fasciitis, which is a simple case of painful tissue swelling on the underside of the foot. There's deportee Jeremey Shockey - which is a simple case of painful tissue swelling between the ears. There's 5-0. There's 4-0. There's NFC bragging rights on the line, at least until the Giants travel to Minnesota for the last game of the regular season (depending on how the rest of the year shakes out, of course - the Saints do not face the Vikings this season).
A somewhat overlooked element in this contest is the improvement both teams have made in what were believed to be their weakest areas. The Giants limped towards the finish line last year with no "legitimate" number one receiver, and concerns about their ability to score points and duel with high-flying teams like the Cowboys, Eagles, Cardinals and Saints were more than warranted. For New Orleans, it was their defense; there's no denying the fact that watching the scoreboard at a Saints game last year was like watching the backbox of a pinball machine played by 'Tommy' himself. Had they been able to clamp down on their opponents to compliment the offensive production, they may have been the odds-on favorite to make it to the Super Bowl.
Fast forward to 2009.
There's lots to like about the 2009 New Orleans Saints, but first and foremost is their improved defense. Veteran Darren Sharper has single handedly turned one of the worst secondary units of 2008 into one of the most feared in 2009. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has obviously worked well with new CB's Malcom Jenkins and Jabari Greer, but Sharper has been the primary influence, and his presence on the field is unmistakeable - it could turn out to be the best off-season signing of the year by any team.
The Saints currently boast the 6th rated defense in the league, so it isn't the secondary alone that's to credit for the turnaround. Allowing only 83 yards per game on the ground, with 10 sacks through four games against teams with pretty good offensive lines speaks volumes about their play at the line of scrimmage.
The offense continues to shine; despite less-than expected production over the last two games vs. the Bills and Jets, I'm not convinced (as many fans and analysts seem to be) that the Saints are somehow suddenly being "figured out". Rest assured that Drew Brees, Marques Colston and co. are still a force to be reckoned with. When WR Lance Moore is fully healthy again - and Sean Payton figures out why he's not getting Reggie Bush more involved in the game planning - they'll be back to putting a 40-spot on the board.
In regards to the running game, the Saints have one. Mike Bell was impressive the first two games of the season, and Pierre Thomas was equally impressive in the last two - this could be the makings of quite a 1-2 punch out of the backfield for New Orleans.
Imagine what Drew Brees could do with an effective running game?
Just imagine what the Yankees could do if they added Matt Holliday & Jason Bay to their already potent lineup... or just go with the odds that the Yankees will actually sign those two, wait until next year and see it for yourself.
On the flip side, there's lots to like about the 2009 New York Giants, but first and foremost is their newfound corps of wide receivers. What initially appeared to be a severe void in their offense is now their most valuable resource. Second-year man Mario Manningham is proving that he may, indeed, have been the steal of the 2008 draft. His penchant for bobbling the ball is more than just dramatic flair; his circus catch against Cowboys corner Terence Newman in week 2 was exciting highlight material, but his inability to NOT bobble every pass thrown to him against the Bucs a week later was cause for concern. It goes without saying he's commited to improvement, which is why I'll say it. Rookie Hakeem Nicks has bounced back rather nicely from his week 1 injury to show he's capable of being the big-play threat Eli Manning needs, and Steve Smith has been nothing short of spectacular - playing more like the Steve Smith (yes, the other Steve Smith), and producing even better stats than that Steve Smith is. I think...
In a preseason blog, I called out Smith for letting a 60-yard dart slip right through his hands on a sure touchdown - I think my exact words were, "If Smith (and Hixon) - the team's starter(s) - can't make those catches in a preseason game, what will they do when it really counts? I guess he showed me.
Eli Manning finally seems 100% at ease with his offense, and perhaps those distractions of Shockey and Plaxico Burress were a little too much too deal with week in & week out. He's already built a strong report with these three receivers, and they seem to be just as synced up with him as Burress and Amani Toomer ever were.
The one concern I have is Brandon Jacobs. After their opening game against Washington, I wrote about the hit LB London Fletcher threw on him that would have knocked most human beings into a month-long coma. The funny thing was that Jacobs really didn't seem at all stunned by the hit, though he left the game for a bit and was looked at by the trainers. In the postgame blog, I wrote that "He didn't miss any time, but he never quite seemed the same after that."
Unfortunately, Jacobs still hasn't looked the same. He's suddenly and unexplainably become a very "tackleable" running back. This is not the Brandon Jacobs we've grown accustomed to, and had it not been for the exceptional play of Ahmad Bradshaw this season we'd be finding photos of the Giants running game on the back of milk cartons - "Have you seen this ability?". At some point, Brandon needs to shake off whatever is holding him back - if he's going to go down at the initial point of contact, then he's not very useful.
And in the end - after extolling the virtues of the successful revamping of both the Giants wide receivers and the Saints secondary, what will this game come down to?
Can Steve Smith get open on Darren Sharper?
Will Manning continue his heads-up, mistake free play?
Can the Giants score from inside the 20's?
Will Pierre Thomas & Reggie Bush run all over the Giants defense the way Marion Barber & Felix Jones did?
Do the Saints have a plan to contain Ahamad Bradshaw?
Can Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora get to Brees quickly enough to force turnovers?
Will Manning's foot hold up for an entire game?
Will Jeremy Shockey be able to control his rage once he realizes that his former team is completely ignoring him and his pissing-match tactics?
Is there enough going on here to get your mouth watering?
Could I write a little more like Pete Prisco?
I make no predictions. I expect this game to be all it's hyped up to be - one for the ages. Or at least "one for" this season. For now, it's the best the NFL can possiby offer - and no matter which team wins, you can be sure the one that loses will be heard from come the playoffs. And that's really what everyone should be looking for in this game - legitimacy. There's enough mediocrity and lackluster play to go around - it's high time that we have more than one or two teams with a stranglehold on the NFL. There's nothing wrong with having seven or eight teams fighting for 'elite' status.
A loss is a loss, and win is a win. But if I may take liberties with literary greatness, I'll credit George Orwell and say that - as you and I both know... " "All losses are equal, but some losses are more equal than others".
References: TheTimes-Picayune.com, pro-football-reference.com