For the New York Giants, the best chance of the season to break their losing skid comes this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jags are 1-10, and have a roster that features a lot of young players in very prominent roles. In the words of Ryan Day of Big Cat Country:
We suck, and I'm not going to pretend we don't. We're the worst team in the league with arguably the worst roster in the league. Do we have a lot of rookies and second-year guys playing prominent roles? Sure. And that's one of the better reasons to justifiably suck. But we're still garbage.
So, this should be a game that a team with a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback, one of the best young receivers in the league, and a few Pro-Bowlers not on the injury report should feel pretty confident about winning. Right?
Ordinarily I'd say "Yes, absolutely"
But this team has shown a distressing ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
So then, what will be critical to the Giants' victory on Sunday? To my eye, it's winning the battle in the line of scrimmage.
When The Giants Have The Ball
Thanks to injuries, reshuffling, and some not-good players, the Giants have consistently struggled along the offensive line. The return of both Rashad Jennings and Geoff Schwartz have helped considerably in the running game. The Jaguars have a stout interior defensive line, so running between the tackles could prove difficult.
Running the ball well might be a key to victory because the strength of the Jaguars team is their pass rush. They are currently third in the league with 33 sacks. Anyone who has watched the Giants these past few games has to know that Odell Beckham Jr. is the Giants' offense. If Eli Manning can't connect with Beckham, the rest of the offense can barely function.
The Giants need to beat the Jag's pass rush, and that starts up front. Whether that is straight-up pass protection or running the ball to extend drives and wear out the defense, that is a battle the Giants need to win.
When The Jaguars Have The Ball
On the other side of the ball, the Jaguars have handed the keys to their offense to rookie Blake Bortles. Though Bortles could, eventually, be a player the Jaguars build their franchise around, he isn't that yet. Like all quarterbacks, he is rattled by pressure, and like most rookie quarterbacks, that's easier to accomplish, and more often leads to opportunities for the defense.
The Giants' front seven was embarrassed on the final drive of their game against the Cowboys. Twice the defensive line completely, hilariously, failed to get pressure on Tony Romo. Part of that was personnel choices. Part of that were some brutal no-calls by the officials. But the fact remains that Romo could have read, and then re-read, 'War & Peace' while waiting for his receivers to work open.
Bortles has some similarities to a young Ben Roethlisberger. He is at his best when he has the freedom to run around and create plays. The Giants simply can not allow Bortles --or any quarterback-- to have the kind of time and security they allowed Romo to have. Tom Coughlin acknowledged that Robert Ayers and Damontre Moore should have played more snaps. Both are very efficient pass rushers and should play significantly more snaps against the Jaguars.
With Denard Robinson emerging from his unique "Offensive Weapon" position as a threat, the Giants will also need to respect the run game, and find some way to account for him. Once again, that starts up front. Disciplined run defense and penetration to disrupt plays should keep Shoelaces from being too much of a thorn in the Giants' side.
This is a game the Giants should control from beginning to end. But the Giants simply cannot afford to overlook the Jaguars. Their pass rush is formidable, and Blake Bortles has the tools to become a good quarterback. New York can absolutely win the day, but to do so, they need to control the line of scrimmage. They'll need to protect Eli Manning, and run the ball to set up safe(r) big plays. They'll need to stop the Jaguar's running game and put the onus on Blake Bortles' right arm, then get pressure on him.
If they can do those things, if they can win the battle in the trenches, the Giants should win the game.