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By Paul Dottino
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EAST RUTHERFORD – The injured starters keep falling like dominoes – to the point where they have significantly reduced the Giants’ margin for error. And error they have. Mistakes after mistakes after mistakes have resulted in a two-game losing streak that puts them at 6-4 and is threatening to wreck the team’s season.
But there is hope in the way of the schedule, beginning with a visit from the feisty but not-super-talented Jacksonville Jaguars (6-4). The Giants’ mission is rather simple: Don’t lose any ground to the Philadelphia Eagles over the next three games in order to keep the division title in play for the Meadowlands rematch on Dec. 19.
Here are this weekend’s three key matchups:
Giants RB Brandon Jacobs vs. MLB Kirk Morrison. Jacobs makes his return to the starting lineup because coach Tom Coughlin has seen Ahmad Bradshaw (5th in NFL with 867 rushing yards) fumble six times in the first 10 games. Jacobs (387 rushing yards) has displayed a positive attitude adjustment since his helmet-throwing incident in Indianpolis and appears to be playing with the intensity, power and purpose that made him a two-time 1,000-yard rusher. He’s averaged 5.0 yards per rush this season even though Bradshaw’s more than doubled his carries. Bradshaw already has logged a career-high 213 touches and – after averaging 3.1 yards per carry over the past three games – it’s apparent that his dominant presence in the Giants’ running game does not help to establish tone or tempo. This may result in a byproduct of Coughiln going to Jacobs – a return to the “wear down the the-defense” approach that worked so well in 2007-08. The team needs more production on the ground, especially since injuries have taken WRs Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks out of the lineup. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have been pleased with the stability and leadership Morrison (acquired from the Raiders on draft weekend) has brought to their defense. He’s second on the team with 85 tackles playing behind stout DTs Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu.
Giants LT Shawn Andrews or William Beatty vs. Jaguars RDE Jeremy Mincey. Andrews has been battling a sore back due to the dramatic increase in reps he’s received since being forced into the injury-riddled starting lineup against Seattle on Nov. 7. Andrews has played well in each of his three starts despite missing at least half of his practice reps. Beatty (foot) returned to play the third tight end against Dallas and says he must prepare as if he’s going to be the starter, even though that will require him to scrape off plenty of rust. The Giants MUST get their running game back on track and have shied away from running behind Andrews and injury-substitute LG Kevin Boothe (started the past two games), who have done a more than adequate job in pass protection. Mincey, who has started the past two games after coming off the bench for most of the season, had two sacks in last week’s win over Cleveland. The Giants need to prove they can run the ball to both sides of the field, if not to win this game, then to show the rest of the teams on their schedule.
Giants LBs Jonathan Goff and Keith Bulluck vs. Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew. Goff had a solid first half of the season but Bulluck’s role was reduced by the Giants’ preference to use their Gidorah (three-headed safety) package against pass-reliant teams. These two backers ought to have plenty of chances to impact the game because the Jaguars have gone back to leaning on a power running attack during their three-game winning streak. The diminutive Jones-Drew (4th in NFL with 878 rushing yards) has been compared to a bowling ball, using his low center of gravity to bounce off tacklers. He ran for at least 100 yards in each of the games during the current hot streak.Good thing for the Giants that they have been sure tacklers for most of the season. They’ll want to neutralize Jones-Drew and put the ball in the hands of streaky QB David Garrard (67.8 comp. pct., 1,694 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs), who often holds it too long (21 sacks).
PREDICTION: Giants 21, Jaguars 16
PREDICTION RECORD: 6-4 (4-6 vs. spread)