Philadelphia's trip to the Meadowlands will be the early game most of the country sees on Fox (1 EST, broadcast by Joe Buck and Troy Aikman) and first place in the NFC East is on the line. If the Eagles win, this division race is all but over, as they would move one game with two to play, and have swept the head-to-head. If the Giants win, it's still pretty close to over, as the ESPN Playoff Machine I was using to simulate the rest of the season, moved NYG ahead of Philly. Whoever loses this division is going to be kicking themselves over an earlier home divisional loss--the Eagles to Washington, the Giants to Dallas--and Sunday's battle is as close to winner-take-all as you can get.
The defensive ends are going to be crucial for both. Trent Cole needs to get some pressure on Eli Manning and force the Giant quarterback into the mistakes he's been all too frequent in making. New York can certainly run the ball, with the combination of powerful Brandon Jacobs and shifty Ahmad Bradshaw. The latter making some big cutback runs early would be the best way to keep Cole honest. New York brings Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora from both ends, but on Sunday their biggest concern is making sure they keep containment on Michael Vick. All the pressure in the world does nothing if Vick slips outside the pocket and makes plays with either his feet or downfield to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. It would also behoove Andy Reid to get LeSean McCoy the ball early and try and establish the run, an area that's been way too sporadic for the Eagles. When the Giants have the ball, an interesting dilemma for the Eagles is whether they choose to stack the box and stop the run. They've been burnt in the secondary before--recall Tennessee's Kenny Britt having a career in a game at Philadelphia--but if New York gets ahead by running the ball, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott won't have much choice.
I'm convinced the Eagles are the better team here, but I'm also convinced the gap is not that large and homefield advantage makes this one a dead heat. When I did my playoff simulations early in the week I plugged in the Giants to win, but that was really a quick default to the home team in a closely contested game. Now that it's time for the rubber to hit the road, the fact Manning has often struggled in home games late in the season and I don't want to go with a quarterback that's an interception machine in a really big game, makes lean Philadelphia's way, 19-16.
Once that game ends, the states of New York and Pennsylvania can switch over to CBS for a 4:15 PM ET matchup of NYJ-Pittsburgh in the Steel City, with the broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms present. The Jets' decline is one of the league's top stories right now, although the reason isn't being give much attention--this team can't run the ball at all. LaDanian Tomlinson has shown his age, Shonn Greene isn't getting anything going, yet all people can do is point fingers at second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. This comes with the territory, as Sanchez got undue credit when the team played well behind a defense and a running game, but the QB is going to have a hard time getting anything going without support. And finding support on Sunday, against the NFL's top-rated run defense is unlikely. Where the Jets get a break is that Pittsburgh's playmaking strong safety Troy Polamulu is not going to play. This may make the Jet offense a little more aggressive and it's reasonable to think receiver Santonio Holmes may be hungry for a big game against his former team. Holmes is quite capable of beating the Steelers' questionable corners. Whether Sanchez gets the time to find him is another question entirely.
From Pittsburgh's standpoint, they don't need to win this game to maintain control of the AFC North race. As long as they beat Carolina and win at Cleveland the last two weeks, they'll take the division. I don't suspect they'll let up at all, but be aware that this game is realistically not as consequential as the media hype might imply. The Steeler season boils down to winning in the Dawg Pound in two weeks. The Jets aren't going to catch the Patriots and it would take a colossal collapse for them to miss the playoffs. Of course they have had just such collapses in their recent past (see 2008 for the most recent example). The nervousness Jet fans runs a little higher by Sunday night, as Pittsburgh slugs out a 20-13 win.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball. and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.