By Paul Dottino
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Neither the Giants or the Philadelphia Eagles would want it any other way – for all practical purposes, the NFC East title will be on the line when these two 9-4 teams clash on Sunday.

A Giants’ victory would put them in strong position to grab a No. 2 seed and a bye in the first-round of the playoffs because of their early-season victory over the Chicago Bears, who own a win over the Eagles. A Giants’ loss and they’ll almost certainly have to win their final two games in Green Bay and Washington to grab a wild-card berth.

The Eagles have won five consecutive games against the Giants, but it’s the 27-17 game from Nov. 21 that’s been a thorn in the Giants’ side ever since it ended. The Giants got sloppy in several key moments on both sides of the ball and allowed the game to get away. In truth, the Eagles also were sloppy that night. Should either team bring its “A” game Sunday, it won’t be hard to determine a winner. If they both bring it – you’d have to favor the Giants because they’ve got the better ground game and the better defense against the run. Here are this weekend’s three key matchups:

1.       Giants RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Eagles MLB Jamar Chaney. The middle linebacker position has got be keeping coach Andy Reid awake these days. Omar Gaither was unable to hold down the job before Stewart Bradley seized the challenge and became a force against the run. But Bradley suffered a dislocated elbow last weekend and is out for three weeks, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

Gaither’s stock has dropped so far that Reid will start 7th-round pick Jamar Chaney (Miss. State), an undersized rookie who’s been limited to special teams. All you need to know about Chaney is that the Giants passed on him to draft Phillip Dillard on the fourth-round this spring – so they know exactly what Chaney brings (and doesn’t bring) to the table.

To put it bluntly, Chaney can be outmuscled and has trouble shedding blocks and finding his way through traffic and, despite good speed, does not have much range. This provides Jacobs and Bradshaw, coming off a game when each ran for 100 yards, a better chance to run between the tackles against a Philadelphia defense that’s already soft off the edges against the run, specifically because their corners are more interested in overplaying for interceptions.

2.       Giants WRs Derek Hagan and Mario Manningham and TE Travis Beckum vs. Eagles CBs Joselio Hanson and Dimitri Patterson. The loss of Steve Smith (knee surgery) for the season would be magnified if the Giants were forced to groom a new player from scratch.

Hagan returned to the team nearly a month ago and already has proven to be a quick study who has earned Eli Manning’s trust and is expected to be in the slot against Hanson. We’re going to assume the Eagles will shadow big-play threat Hakeem Nicks with NFL interception leader Asante Samuel (knee) and – as was the case when the Redskins shadowed Mario Manningham with DeAngelo Hall – it’s best for the Giants to leave that matchup alone.

Why play with fire when you don’t have to? Samuel’s an interception machine who can change a game with his takeaways (he had two in the first meeting) and the Giants cannot afford for this to happen again. Hagan and Manningham should be able to produce against the remaining two corners so it’s up to them to win their individual battles and make plays when called upon – that means no drops and being able to wiggle free for some yards after the catch.

In the first meeting, Hagan beat Hanson for a 5-yard TD on a crossing route off a play-action pass to give the Giants a 17-16 lead early in the fourth quarter. After a Philadelphia touchdown, Manning went back to Hagan, who tipped the pass, which then bounced off Hanson’s helmet and into Samuel’s hands. Hagan must convert on all of his opportunities this time. Ditto for Manningham, who must do a better job with his routes against this gambling secondary.  Beckum, who’s expected to line up in the slot in some instances, beat FS Nate Allen for a 2-yard TD with an out route.

Why is all of this talk about the passing game important? Because the Eagles are likely to utilize a heavy dose of run blitzes early to try to match forces against the Giants’ ground attack and Manning must open up with the pass to force Philadelphia back on its heels before allowing Jacobs and Bradshaw to do their thing.

3.       Giants CBs Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas vs. Eagles WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. The Giants already proved they could contain scrambling QB Michael Vick in their first meeting – they are the only opponent to hold him to less than 7 yards per carry this season.

They clearly made him uncomfortable by forcing him to roll to his right while vacating the pocket. But what about his big guns downfield? Well, the Giants were one of the few teams this season not to be beaten by Jackson or Maclin on a long vertical route, although they were hit on two deep crossing patterns (Maclin for 35, Jackson for 23).

Actually, over the past three meetings with Big Blue, the two wide receivers have done their share of damage, combining to grab 27 passes for 473 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps the most dangerous part of their game is how well they produce yards after the catch. Jackson (42-972 yds-6 TDs-30 first downs) ranks fourth among NFC receivers with 331 YAC and Maclin (57-831 yds-8 TDs-38 first downs) is 14th with 232 YAC.

PREDICTION: Giants 23, Eagles 16

PREDICTION RECORD: 9-4 (7-6 vs. the spread)

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