By Paul Dottino
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Let’s get one thing straight right here and right now: The Giants cannot afford to give away games if they are going to have any chance at posting a winning record this season.

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In fact, they likely are going to have a steal at least a couple of them.

A variety of elements, including injuries, caused them to blow an opportunity to turn away the gutsy Washington Redskins in the opener. But the Giants will play another inferior team in their home opener tonight in the form of the St. Louis Rams and coach Steve Spagnuolo, who was New York’s defensive coordinator in 2007-08.

None of the players in the Giants’ locker room would term this a “must win” last week. In fact, some even referred to the 2007 team that started 0-2 before finishing with a Super Bowl title for their reluctance to do so. That team, however, brought so much more to the table than the current roster, which would be foolish to believe it could come close to replicating such a feat.

WR Hakeem Nicks (knee) has said he plans to play and DE Justin Tuck (neck) indicated he’s “encouraged” about suiting up – they are listed as questionable – these two players easily could be the difference between a methodical victory and another regrettable result.

Here are three of the match-ups to watch:

Giants rookie MLB Greg Jones vs. Rams RB Cadillac Williams or the injured Steven Jackson (hip). The Giants must find a way to put the game in the hands of young QB Sam Bradford, which means they’ve got to shut down the running game.

Williams, whose career with the Buccaneers was derailed by injuries, is healthy and appears to have gained some quickness. The Giants would be wise to consider him a change-up to Jackson rather than as a downgrade. Williams also has terrific hands and will make plays in the passing game.

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Jones was good enough in his NFL debut against the Redskins that the Giants held off signing a veteran free agent – despite flirting with Chase Blackburn and Kawika Mitchell. A bigger issue is whether defensive coordinator Perry Fewell puts a little more on the defense’s plate after using a passive game plan because of his personnel in the opener.

Giants offensive line vs. Rams defensive line. The subpar performance of the entire Giants’ offensive line last week has forced the naming of these players as a group rather isolating an individual battle. They did not block well in short-yardage situations against the Redskins – other than on the two short TD runs – and they allowed four sacks.

They must immediately flick the switch and get back to winning the line of scrimmage before this turns into a poisonous trend. The Rams have two defensive linemen who could be problematic: LDE Chris Long, a solid two-way player, draws RT Kareem McKenzie; and former Giants LDT Fred Robbins, who can still disrupt a passing game, draws RG Chris Snee.

Giants WR Brandon Stokley vs. Rams nickel CB Justin King. The Rams’ secondary is badly beaten up, although the Giants are unsure if Nicks will play and the rest of the receiving corps has yet to live up to its potential – especially on third down.

Their substandard performance since camp started has prompted the signing of Stokley, a veteran slot specialist who has picked up a first down on 73 percent of his 338 career catches and only fumbled three times in his first 12 NFL seasons. (To compare, former Giants WR Plaxico Burress owned a 68 percent first-down rate in his four seasons with the Giants and Steve Smith made a first down on 56 percent of his Giants’ receptions.)

Coach Tom Coughlin raved about Stokley’s hands at his workout, although the Giants must hope he’s still a precision route-runner at game speed and can use his crafty skills to beat the diminutive King, a fast but inexperienced player who has made eight starts in three pro seasons.

PREDICTION: Giants 20, Rams 10


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What’s your prediction for Giants-Rams? Let Dottino know in the comments below…