EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As many of the New York Giants were returning to work Wednesday after an arduous weekend trek through the Midwest, they were greeted by news that Steve Smith was lost for the season.
But now Tom Coughlin has to prepare for life without his Pro Bowl receiver thanks to a season-ending knee injury. The Giants (9-4) have played four games without Smith this season, winning twice, but the news still was crushing for the team.
"Very deflating," said Hakeem Nicks, the Giants' leading receiver this saeson.
Nobody will feel the effect more than quarterback Eli Manning, who won't have his most trusted receiver when he faces the Eagles (9-4) with the NFC East on the line.
"It is unfortunate, but you can't dwell on it," Manning said. "We can't let it affect myself and we can't let it affect the team. We know he is an important factor to our success this season, but we have won games without him and we have guys who can fill in his role and we got to keep moving."
Smith is Manning's security blanket. He rarely has to worry about Smith not fighting for a ball or not being where he is supposed to be. Fortunately for the Giants, Manning and the offense had to play without Smith for a month after the receiver suffered a partially torn pectoral muscle. So they know how to operate without him.
Still, Smith was targeted by Manning an average of 8.3 times per game this season in the nine games he played. Nicks leads the team with an average of 10 targets per game.
Smith's season ends with 48 receptions for 529 yards and three touchdowns after he had a team-record 107 catches last season. Mario Manningham now will become the No. 2 receiver behind Nicks, and Derek Hagan is expected to slide into the third receiver role.
Manningham suffered a hip flexor injury during the Giants' 21-3 win over the Vikings on Monday but insists he will play against the Eagles.
Hagan, who now has been with the team for a month after he was re-signed Nov. 16, anticipates playing a lot more slot receiver with Smith out. He has developed a rapport with Manning and had seven catches for 64 yards against Washington on Dec. 5, when Smith and Nicks were both still out.
"He just knows where I'm going to be," Hagan said. "If it's third-and-9, more than likely I'm going to go 11 yards to get the first down, and he knows that when in doubt he is able to put the ball in any spot and I am definitely going to try and make the play and go get it."
When the Giants had to play without Smith and Nicks in late November, the team added Michael Clayton and Devin Thomas. Both are more comfortable and have provided the team with depth at a position that has been decimated. Whenever the team places Smith on injured reserve, he will join receivers Ramses Barden, Sinorice Moss (who was later waived), Victor Cruz and Domenik Hixon.
"One guy is never going to decide whether you win or lose a game," Manning said of losing Smith. "We are better prepared now because we have had some new receivers in this last month and we have been working with them and we are not scrambling to get guys in different places."
Manning will need to cut down on his interceptions against the Eagles without Smith to throw to. He has 19 interceptions after throwing two more against the Vikings on Monday.
Having Nicks back healthy helps a great deal. And Nicks now knows how to play without Smith.
Nicks played two games without Smith against Dallas and Philadelphia, and said he saw extra safety attention. He finished with six receptions for 65 yards against the Eagles on Nov. 21 but suffered an injury in the second quarter that led to swelling in his leg, requiring surgery the next day.
Nicks played that entire game against the Eagles on Nov. 21. He said he will elevate his game in the rematch Sunday.
"Definitely," he said when asked whether he will be better this time around because he is healthy again. "I will let my game rise this week."