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By Paul Dottino
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EAST RUTHERFORD - Maybe facing old nemesis Donovan McNabb is exactly what’s needed to bring out the best in the Giants. They’d better hope so because they should not be in a position to need a halftime speech or second-half comeback to turn back the sputtering Washington Redskins (5-6).

No, this edition of the rivalry does not hold nearly as much energy as the NFL had hoped when they packed both Giants-Redskins games into the final five weeks of the regular season. The Giants (7-4) are in the thick of a postseason chase while the Redskins – who opened the season with the oldest average roster in the league, a new quarterback and high-priced coach (Mike Shanahan) – are finishing out the string despite being mathematically alive.

Washington comes into this game holding only two obvious advantages over the Giants – on special teams and in turnover ratio. So let’s get to this week’s three key matchups:

1. Redskins KOR/PR Brandon Banks vs. Giants’ coverage units. Banks has been the Redskins’ most pleasant surprise of the season. At 5-7 and 155 pounds, this rookie free agent from Kansas State has lit a fire under their return game. A receiver by trade, he’s averaging 27.0 yards on kickoffs (5th in NFL) and 11.3 yards on punts (tied for 8th). His kickoff stat is a bit deceiving because a penalty wiped out two of the three returns he’s taken for a touchdown – only his 96-yarder is on the books. The Giants have dramatically improved their kickoff coverage, bringing their ranking up to third (19.9) with rookie DE Jason Pierre-Paul emerging as a force alongside special teams stalwarts LB Chase Blackburn and DE Dave Tollefson. The punt coverage, however, has yet to catch up because they usually don’t know where the ball is going to go. Coach Tom Coughlin still has to hold his breath every time inconsistent rookie Matt Dodge (46.8 avg.) lines up. The bottom line is the Giants do not want to allow Banks to tilt the field or provide any momentum to their overmatched opponent.

2. Giants QB Eli Manning vs. Redskins LCB DeAngelo Hall and ROLB Brian Orakpo. The Giants did not turn over the ball last week against Jacksonville, the first time they’ve been able to say that this season, and escaped with a 24-20 victory. Given that Manning will not have injured WRs Steve Smith or Hakeem Nicks in the lineup for at least another week, it’s imperative that he does not get careless with his throws. In addition, LT Shawn Andrews (back) is out which means William Beatty likely will make his second pro start, although David Diehl (hip/hamstring) is attempting to rush back onto the field. Regardless, Orakpo is a potent speed rusher (5th in the NFC with 8.5 sacks) and Manning leads the Giants with seven fumbles. And when Manning throws it, he must remember that Hall is a gambler. Sure, Hall’s not as consistent as he used to be, but he’s capable of making a big game-changing play at any moment. Just ask the Chicago Bears, who attempted to challenge Hall on Oct. 24 – and he tied an NFL record by grabbing FOUR interceptions, highlighted by a 92-yard return the third quarter that won the game, 17-14. The Redskins are tied for fifth in the NFL in takeaways (21) and ninth in turnover ratio (+5) while Manning ranks second in the league in interceptions (16).

3. Redskins QB Donovan McNabb vs. Giants’ defensive line. McNabb has done enough to the Giants with his arm and his feet in his career that nearly every member of this defense has experienced nightmares. He’s got a all-time mark of 11-7 against the Giants, all coming with the Eagles, and there’s no doubt that he’s still able to make big plays even though he does not have the assortment of weapons or the fortified offensive line he had in Philly. His two primary threats are aging WR Santana Moss and veteran TE Chris Cooley. McNabb (57.8 completion pct., 2,863 yards, 11 TDs and 13 INTs) still tries to buy time with his feet, but he’s much more interested in throwing the ball than running with it these days. After all, aging quarterbacks don’t like to get hit. He’s been sacked 31 times and has thrown at least one interception in nine straight games. The Giants front four needs to hit him hard and often – and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell shouldn’t be afraid to throw in some of those corner and safety blitzes.

PREDICTION: Giants 24, Redskins 13
PREDICTION RECORD: 7-4 (5-6 vs. spread)

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