WHENEVER YOU BEAT a key rival so badly that its players are using words like "embarrassed" afterward, you know the next encounter is going to be a little tougher.
The last time the Eagles played the Giants, the 40-17 victory was the Birds' most one-sided of the last 28 meetings. It was the Birds' most surprising victory of the season, especially given that New York had begun the year 5-0, looking like the NFC East's top team.
Until last week, it appeared the Eagles might have fueled the Giants' dissolution, might have dealt a fatal blow to the group that won the Super Bowl season before last. Then, last week, the Giants upset the Cowboys, 31-24, and suddenly the picture looked different, at least temporarily. Now, at 7-5, New York can match the Eagles' record by winning when the Birds visit Giants Stadium for the final time Sunday night. (If Dallas loses to San Diego, all three divisional contenders would then be 8-5.) But, of course, the Eagles can make the Giants' revival short-lived, and nail down an important potential tiebreaker by winning.
The Nov. 1 meeting was the first thing Giants running back Brandon Jacobs was asked about yesterday, when he met with New York-area reporters.
"It hurts, no question about it,'' said Jacobs, who went 74 yards with an Eli Manning pass for a touchdown against Dallas, the longest play of his career. "We know they are a good football team, but there is no way in hell that first game should have gone the way it went. Not taking anything away from them, but we played terrible. We weren't on top of our game, and they took advantage of it, just as they should have and just like we would have.''
At NovaCare this week, the response to this sort of thing has been twofold: Yes, the Eagles realize they were fortunate, that the Giants have made some defensive adjustments. But the Birds believe they, too, have evolved.
Strong safety Quintin Mikell didn't seem to be worried about the Giants being more fired up for this meeting, or something. (Funny - before the last meeting, we were hearing about New York getting payback for losing in the playoffs to the Eagles. And that postseason game was going to avenge their regular-season loss to the Birds the previous month. But the Giants still haven't beaten the Eagles since Plaxico Burress' gun went off.)
"They came out with all the fire that they had last game too, we just got on top of them early and kept rolling. The notion that we didn't get their best shot or they weren't playing as hard as they could, this is the NFL, so I don't think that's really an excuse," Mikell said. "Right now, we're prepared for whatever they do. I think they're going to come out ready to go. We're a different team than we were last time we played them. We had a lot of ups and downs, but I think we're a lot better team than we were back then."
Those were the days when we were debating the merits of a big-play offense vs. sustained drives; the Birds scored three times on plays longer than 40 yards. Since then, the offense has shown it can mount long marches down the field, as well. Even though the Giants are playing better defensively, with Jonathan Goff filling a void at middle linebacker and corner Aaron Ross back from injury, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo still threw for 392 yards against them last week.
"I think they've gotten just a little bit better with some of the moves they've made," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. Those moves include making defensive end Osi Umenyiora a situational player. "Look, they are sixth in the league in total defense, so they're a fine, fine defensive football team. Those types of games happen on occasion . . . The past has very little to do with this next game. I'm sure they'll have a few new things in for us, and that's normal."
Eagles rookie running back LeSean McCoy gashed the Giants for a 66-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter of that earlier meeting, setting the final score. McCoy, coming off his least productive game (six carries, 2 yards at Atlanta), is expected to again start for Brian Westbrook.
"They're a very aggressive defense. We caught 'em in a stunt, where they were trying to blitz,'' McCoy said. "I found a little crease and I hit it . . . They have a good defense; they're playing a lot better than what they were.''
McCoy never had to face anything like this at Pitt - you only played the big rivals once a year.
"They'll come in with that attitude, trying to pay us back. We just have to stay tough, man, kind of know our keys, so we can execute on the field . . . they're bringing a lot more pressure, and having a lot more success with the blitzes they're bringing . . . When a team runs so many different blitzes or different stunts, there's always a way out,'' McCoy said. "Because you leave so much open.''
Westbrook is back on the field now, but when he spoke Wednesday he did not seem to be pointing toward a return this week. McCoy is getting the first-team reps, something that has been crucial to his success this season. Mornhinweg agreed that it would be important to continue to get McCoy (and Leonard Weaver) carries, whenever Westbrook returns.
"This is still Brian's team,'' said McCoy, who has been uncommonly sensitive about appearing to usurp Westbrook. "He's also our leader, and I'm going to continue to follow him, take notes down, same stuff, man, working with him, and hopefully we can all be successful.''
Offensively, the Giants have gotten 78 catches for 979 yards from Steve Smith. Those are Burresslike numbers, even if Smith, at 5-11, is more than half a foot shorter than Plaxico.
"All of his routes look alike," said Eagles safety Sean Jones, who explained that it was hard to tell whether Smith was going inside or outside from the way he released - there isn't a "tell.''
"As a defensive player, it's really hard to get a bead."
That probably could be said of the whole New York team, a group that has made the playoffs 4 years in a row, but this season has won twice since Oct. 11.