By Paul Dottino
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If timing really is everything, the Giants could not have picked a better time to get healthy.

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You can expect to see receivers Steve Smith (pectoral), Hakeem Nicks (leg) and left tackle David Diehl (hamstring/hip) return to the lineup Sunday in Minnesota against a defense that is heavily geared toward stopping the run, but not so good against the pass.

Did we mention the standings? Ah, yes. The Giants (8-4) are tied with the Eagles atop the NFC East, while sharing the same record as the Green Bay Packers, who sit in the second wild-card slot. And yes, those are the Giants’ next two opponents. Big Blue will likely will have to win three of their final four games to clinch a playoff spot – the conference might wind up leaving a 10-win team home next month.

The Vikings (5-7) may have showed renewed life under interim coach Leslie Frazier and are a tough opponent, especially at home, but this is a game the Giants simply cannot afford to lose – and the players appear to be aware of it. Here are your three key matchups to look for:

1. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. Giants’ front seven and maybe more. Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Vikings are likely to feed Peterson (sprained ankle) as often as possible, unless they get behind early. This is a trend they’ve shown under Frazier, who took over for the pass-happy Brad Childress.

This philosophy makes a lot of sense, given QB Brett Favre’s injuries (shoulder/chest/ankle) and Tavaris Jackson’s inconsistent play. Like many of the great backs, Peterson is most dangerous after he breaks the initial line of defense. He has great patience and the ability to quickly cut back into a vacated rushing lane – the Giants sometimes are apt to overpursue and this would get them into serious trouble against Peterson.

The Giants’ front seven –  the linemen AND the linebackers – must be physical, but not so aggressive that they lose their run fits.  It’s likely OLB Keith Bulluck will see plenty of situational snaps to beef up against the run for as long as the Vikings are leaning on Peterson (fourth in the NFL with 1,123 yards, 4.8 avg., 11 TDs). FS Antrel Rolle has been particularly effective as a run blitzer, especially when the Giants go to their Ghidorah (three-headed safety) package. The Giants rank seventh against the rush (98 ypg) and very much want to take this game out of Peterson’s hands.

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2. Giants WRs Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith vs. Vikings CB Asher Allen and nickel Frank Walker/Lito Sheppard. The Vikings own the NFL’s fourth-rated rushing defense (92 ypg), thanks to a stout front four and OLBs Ben Leber and Chad Greenway, who usually sneak up toward the line of scrimmage, allowing them to quickly plug their assigned gaps.

So the Giants are apt to attack Minnesota’s average secondary (ranked 12th at 210 ypg) early in the game and early in each series, if for no other reason than to force the linebackers to back off before RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw do the bulk of their damage. LCB Antoine Winfield has the best cover skills of the bunch and he’ll be assigned to Smith, who may be deploying him as a decoy on early downs because the Giants are much better off using Nicks to attack the suspect and diminutive Allen (5-9) – he undoubtedly will require help from FS Madieu Williams, who’s often late in coverage.

When the Giants to go their three-wide package, they’ll move Smith inside, where he’s expected to draw either Walker or Sheppard – two veterans whose NFL careers are hanging by a thread because of their diminished coverage skills. Nicks (leg) missed two games but has been running well at practice and sounds as if he’s expecting to be at or close to a full go so there’s no reason not to expect him to have a big day.

3. Vikings WR Sidney Rice vs. Giants CB Terrell Thomas. Thomas, like several of his teammates, was bothered at how Favre and the starters didn’t leave last year’s 44-7 rout until the quarterback threw a TD pass to make it 41-0 midway into the third quarter. As Thomas noted this week, the Vikings continued to deploy four receivers in a spread formation while the injury-plagued Giants only had two available corners in the blowout.

Rice made a leaping stab over Thomas for a 12-yard TD in that game and the defensive back hasn’t forgotten this play, either. The Vikings have targeted Rice (9 catches, 20.1 avg., 2 TDs) with 20 passes in the three games he’s played since his return from a hip injury. Percy Harvin has battled migraine headaches all week, perhaps leaving Minnesota with no other choice but to force feed Rice – and he can make game-changing catches regardless of how well he’s covered. Thomas is tied for fifth in the NFL with five interceptions.

PREDICTION: Giants 27, Vikings 17

PREDICTION RECORD: 8-4 (6-6 vs. the spread)

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