EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants had just been wiped off their own field six weeks ago when Jihad Ward delivered his impassioned speech. Their playoff hopes were hanging by a thread following an embarrassing 48-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium in Week 14.
The Eagles had compiled over 400 total yards, with more than 200 coming on the ground. They seemingly just ran and ran for big gains and touchdowns. It almost didn’t matter whether it was Jalen Hurts, Miles Sanders or Boston Scott.
There was nothing the Giants could do to stop them.
“It’s about who the f--k wants it more,” Ward said afterwards. “It’s more to it than just doing your job. It’s more to it than, ‘Do I know my playbook?’ You have to do more. Well, how bad do you want it? And nobody is going to sit here and give it to us. It’s really how bad do you really, really want it.”
The Giants apparently got the message. They’ll get a third crack at the Eagles (8:15 p.m. ET, FOX) in the divisional round of the playoffs.
They met again in Week 18, but the Giants barely played any starters and Philadelphia was working without its star right tackle and a quarterback.
Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson will start. Hurts wasn’t on the injury report most of this week and is expected to be at full health.
“I’m expecting Jalen Hurts, the MVP candidate,” Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said.
But the Eagles aren’t the only ones who will look different from the last time these teams met.
Martindale will have the benefit of fielding a defense that barely resembles the unit that gave up almost 50 points just six weeks ago. New York is in significantly better shape now.
Top cornerback Adoree' Jackson, safety Xavier McKinney and defensive lineman Leonard Williams will all be on the field this time around. Jackson returned from a knee injury last week to help limit Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the 31-24 wild-card win. McKinney returned in Week 17 after missing almost two months following an ATV accident during the bye week. And Williams, the team's best run-stuffer with a run stop win rate of 39.5% (17th in NFL), has been healthy down the stretch.
“It just gives us more room to do different things,” McKinney said. “I think we provide a lot of flexibility. … We can do a lot of different things.”
Part of that flexibility was allowing Martindale to put McKinney in the box for most of the second half against the Vikings to help slow tight end T.J. Hockenson.
McKinney helped tackle Hockenson short of a first down early in the fourth quarter and made a game-clinching tackle on Hockenson near the line of scrimmage in the final seconds. These kinds of moves weren’t available to Martindale in the first matchup with the Eagles.
“The more players you have, the better it is. And you can be flexible that way,” Martindale said. “That was an adjustment that we made. It was part of our counterpunch there at the end with putting [McKinney in the box].”
That could come in handy Saturday night in South Philadelphia. The Eagles also have a dangerous tight end in Dallas Goedert, who was still sidelined for their first meeting with a shoulder injury that cost him five games.
Martindale said that it was on the plane ride home from their first meeting with the Vikings -- a 27-24 loss in Week 16 that came down to a 61-yard field goal -- that he told his group he finally knew they had a playoff defense. The Giants have allowed 19.0 points per game in their three contests since, but it’s the way the defense looks that signifies it’s becoming a much better group.
Even the Giants’ backups gave Philadelphia trouble in the season finale.
“I’d say you try to evolve after every game,” coach Brian Daboll said. “I think we’ve gotten a little bit better each week, so what’s going to matter is how we play on Saturday.”
There is a chance that the Giants defensive front will have Williams, nose tackle Dexter Lawrence, and outside linebackers Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari all on the field. They’ve been on the field together for just 56 defensive snaps this season (4.9%), including playoffs.
Ojulari is listed as questionable with a quad injury, but said this week he felt good. But injuries aren't something Martindale can’t handle.
Thibodeaux missed the first two games with a knee injury, and Ojulari and Williams have been in and out of the lineup all season because of a variety of injuries.
“I didn’t complain to you,” Martindale said with a chuckle. “My wife, on the other hand, Laura, she heard some complaints.”
Healthy at last, the front should be a strength for a defense that still managed to finish with a respectable 41 sacks. It should help the Giants not allow the Eagles to run wild.
“Playing a running quarterback or any quarterback in general, as a defense that’s the guy you want to hit. Regardless if you’re hurt or not,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said.
He later added the plan is to “be as physical as possible.”
Things won’t be so easy for the Eagles this time, especially on the ground.
“That’s our goal this week is to try to make them one-dimensional and stop the run as early as possible,” Williams said.