The New York Giants head to the Superdome to face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Will the Giants finish the first half of the season at 4-4, or can they get there 5-3 and riding a two-game winning streak? Here are five things to watch that may help determine the answer to that question.
Can the Giants handle the chaos?
Playing the Saints in the Superdome is no easy task. It's a little bit like playing in front of the Seattle Seahawks' home crowd. Keeping your poise, handling the frenzied atmosphere is a challenge. Will the Giants be up to it?
The Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills earlier this season in an electric atmosphere at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but committed 12 penalties along the way. They were helped that day by a ridiculous 17 Buffalo penalties. They will likely not get away with it again if they commit a dozen penalties on Sunday.
Can the Giants generate a pass rush?
We know how non-existent the Giants' pass rush has been, with nine sacks (31st) and a league-worst Adjusted Sack Rate of 3.4 percent, last in the league. The Giants got away with that against quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor, Colin Kaepernick, Kirk Cousins and Matt Cassel. They aren't playing one of those guys on Sunday, though. They are facing Drew Brees, one of the most prolific passers in NFL history and a guy who is probably going to end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Brees is 36 and has had shoulder woes, but he is completing 67.6 percent of his passes and throwing for 311.8 yards per game.
If the Giants allow Brees to sit in the pocket and survey the field the way quarterbacks have generally been able to do against them this season, the Saints will march all over the Giants. How do they create that pass rush? Maybe they take Devon Kennard off the pitch count he was on last week and turn him loose. Maybe Robert Ayers, in his second week back from injury, can produce. Maybe they have to blitz off the edges more. Maybe this dress Damontre Moore this week. Lots of maybes and no real easy solutions.
What isn't a maybe, though, is that Brees will destroy the Giants' secondary if the pass rush can't make him uncomfortable.
The running back rotation
The Giants were having a difficult time finding carries for Andre Williams when they had a three-headed running back rotation. Now that Orleans Darkwa has joined that group, and if he can continue what he did last week against the Dallas Cowboys could end up the best of the bunch, how do they split the workload between four guys?
Darkwa has to get another full opportunity to show that his eight-carry, 48-yard effort against the Cowboys wasn't just a fluke. Shane Vereen is the third-down back. Rashad Jennings is a multi-talented, trusted veteran. The guy who seems likely to lose out is the one who has been losing out all along this season, and that would be Williams. The second-year man has been the least effective of the backs, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry.
The pass protection
The Giants' quick-release, short, rhythm passing attack mostly covered the team's difficulties in pass protection through the season's first five weeks. Five of the nine sacks of quarterback Eli Manning have come in the past two weeks, however, and Manning has had much more pressure in his face than he did early in the season.
Generally, the issues have come from the edges with a rookie left tackle in Ereck Flowers and a journeyman right tackle in Marshall Newhouse. Against Dallas, however, guard Geoff Schwartz surrendered two of three sacks.
Overall, the Giants rank ninth in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate on offense, at 5.2 percent. They need to get back to giving Manning a clean pocket. We know the Giants haven't generated as many big plays in the passing game as they would like. Giving Manning better protection would be a good start toward hitting some of those.
Josh Brown's kickoffs
Only 16 of Brown's 39 kickoffs this season have gone for touchbacks. That's 41 percent, which makes the Giants 29th in the league in touchback percentage. Worse than that, a number of Brown's kickoffs have been just plain awful -- low bouncers or kicks that were popped up and barely reached the 20-yard line. Last week he hit a kick that landed at the 20 and went out of bounds.
Brown, 36, had a touchback percentage of 56.1 a year ago. That was still only 27th in the league, but why he is struggling to his consistent, deep kicks is a concern. It is probably part of the reason the Giants worked out four placekickers -- Corey Acosta (Southern Mississippi), Kyle Brindza (Notre Dame), Zack Hocker (Arkansas), Tom Obarski (Concordia St. Paul) -- this week.
"There's always going to be concern when a guy doesn't knock it out of the park every time," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "Hopefully he'll just settle down and go through his mechanics and trust himself, because I think sometimes he gets a little anxious. The result of that hasn't been as good as you'd like. I think he'll settle down."