By Paul Dottino
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It’s time for the next “must-win” on the Giants’ schedule.
And there may be a few more of these before this season is over if they are going to remain in the hunt for the NFC East title.
They visit Tampa Bay (3-4) on Sunday with the chance to rebound from their third heartbreaking loss of the season, although the offense scored 42 points against New Orleans – which proves they’ve got an explosive attack that remains dangerous even without all of their weapons at full strength.
Eli Manning’s career-high six TD passes against the Saints without an interception brings his season totals to 17 TDs against just four INTs. He has been brilliant and provides the team with a legitimate reason to think they have a chance to win every week.
They should not need Manning to carry them on his back against the Buccaneers, who nevertheless ought to provide some sturdy competition.
In addition, the Giants also may have the JPP intangible on their side: It was becoming more likely with each passing day that DE Jason Pierre-Paul has been preparing to make his season debut – and his teammates are energized by the very thought of having him return to the field.
Let’s get to your three key matchups to watch:
1. Giants receiving corps vs. Buccaneers’ defensive backs.
Why so generic? Tampa Bay has used five different lineup combinations in their secondary over its first seven games. Odell Beckham Jr. said he’s watched plenty of tape but isn’t sure which of the defensive backs are going to draw his assignment. Up to this point, the discombobulated Bucs secondary has been plagued by miscommunications and busted assignments that have allowed targets to run free. Tampa Bay has allowed 17 TD passes – tied for second-most in the NFL – and 11 of those catches were made in the end zone. Quarterbacks have put up a 71 percent completion mark against the Bucs, the second-highest in the league. And opponents are converting third downs at 42 percent, which ranks the Bucs as the sixth-worst in the NFL. Manning and Co. ought to be able to do whatever is necessary to win the game against this back seven.
2. Buccaneers RB Doug Martin vs. Giants’ front seven.
Martin (132-613 yards-3 TDs) is one of the NFL’s few workhorse backs. He’s very good at seeing and hitting creases and even better at breaking one-on-one tackles before accelerating into the second level. Don’t sleep on his second gear because he’s second in the NFL with 19 rushes of 10-plus yards. The Bucs likely will continue to rely on the run to take pressure off rookie QB Jameis Winston, so watch for Martin to get plenty of carries early to test the Giants’ slumping rush defense. Oddly enough, the Bucs don’t appear to have a favored side – they will run Martin behind any of the five linemen up front.
3. Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston vs. Giants MLB Uani ‘Unga.
Given Jon Beason hasn’t been able to practice because of a chronic knee injury, it’s highly likely that ‘Unga, a first-year pro, will have to call the defensive signals against the Bucs’ rookie quarterback. Who has the edge? Well, that depends on how much defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and ‘Unga will try to confuse Winston while reminding themselves that they can’t afford to confuse their defense, either. The Giants had too many busted assignments in allowing 52 points to the Saints last week. It’s clear that the blitz – even if it doesn’t get home – causes problems for Winston. He has completed passes at 50 percent with 1 TD and 1 TD when the opposition sends extra pressure; but stands at 62 percent with 9 TDs and 6 INTs against a standard front.
PREDICTION: Giants 30, Buccaneers 20
Follow Paul on Twitter at @GiantsWFAN