By Jason Keidel
Normally, a September game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins is hardly can’t-miss, soap-operatic television. But when you consider the Redskins are the defending NFC East champs, the Giants were last year’s chumps, who canned their coach after a dozen largely successful years, it makes Sunday’s game intriguing.
There’s more to this game than just division rivals jousting for the pole position. Another round of the white-hot rivalry between Odell Beckham Jr and Josh Norman will play out in week 3. The two had perhaps the most surreal 60 minutes in NFL history the last time they faced each other.
Most concede that Norman started the strife. He chided Beckham into a fervor, which became a fever, which soon became a cage match, with Beckham literally losing his mind. The all-world wideout forgot he came to catch passes and instead stalked and attacked Norman like Sonny Liston, punching, throwing and launching himself head-first into the loquacious cornerback.
Refs through plenty of flags, all personal fouls, then just lost control of the action. Either Norman, Beckham or both needed to be ejected. Neither was, making a mockery of an otherwise fascinating football game.
Norman, of course, was playing for the Carolina Panthers last year, with the mid-season clash merely an act of happenstance. Since then, Norman was slapped with a franchise tag, only to see it rescinded. Then he migrated to Washington, which offered him way more money than the Panthers would.
That means Norman now will face Beckham at least twice a year. And we win well before kickoff.
Add to that the fact that the Redskins are — or should be — the picture of desperation this weekend. A loss to the Giants would plunge them to 0-3, with two losses in the NFC East. Conversely, the Giants would be 3-0 and 2-0 in the division.
It’s fitting and fascinating that their respective fates hinge largely on the Norman-Beckham battle. Not only is Beckham the Giants’ best player, his ability to get open in single coverage will dictate how the Redskins play the peripheral players, who are pretty good on their own. If Washington is forced to cheat on Beckham, or slide a safety his way, then that opens wide swaths of turf for Victor Cruz (remember him?) and the rising rookie Sterling Shepard.
Norman was chided by the public and pundits for Washington’s Week 1 meltdown at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Antonio Brown scorched the secondary for two touchdowns, and the most notable twerk in league history. Most of Brown’s yards came at Bashaud Breeland’s expense, so the sports world argued that Norman should have demanded that he shadow Brown all game. It’s unfair, really. Norman doesn’t design the defense, nor implement the weekly game plan.
If last year’s tete-a-tete with Beckham told us anything, it’s that Josh Norman doesn’t flee from big match-ups. Indeed, Norman will cover Beckham on all plays except when he lines up in the slot (reported by ESPN).
With the return of Cruz, the emergence of Shepard and increased expectations from RB Rashad Jennings, the Giants should have the best offense in the division, at least as long as Tony Romo is on the shelf. Kirk Cousins had a breakthrough season in 2015, yet his employer still didn’t see enough to sign him beyond his one-year franchise tender.
Cousins, with just one touchdown pass and three interceptions so far, has a few weapons of his own, in DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed, widely considered one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL. The Giants have been known to give up a few big plays to Washington in general, and to Jackson in particular.
Big Blue’s big problem has indeed been their defense, which yielded passing yards at galling rates in 2015, ranking dead last with 4,783 yards allowed (nearly 300 YPG). It didn’t help that they registered just 23 sacks, which was 30th in the NFL. By contrast, the Denver Broncos had 52 sacks last year.
Maybe it’s too early to declare the Giants defense either robust or resoundingly improved. But they clearly saw the holes in it, investing over $100 million on free agents like Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon, as well as drafting CB Eli Apple in the first round.
The Giants just held Drew Brees under 300 yards and the New Orleans Saints to 13 points. Whereas in last year’s epic, pyrotechnic clash, Brees and Eli Manning combined for 13 TD passes, and both teams totaled 101 points
The Giants should’ve been preseason favorites to win the division, despite last year’s floundering finish, litany of blown fourth-quarter leads and dismissal of iconic coach Tom Coughlin. They have the one thing that the other three NFC East teams don’t: a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback.
Eli has two Super Bowl rings, the Manning DNA, rubber bones and a penchant for playing every snap. Games are won in the trenches, but the lines are there to protect and attack the quarterback. Eli’s success may swing on his ability to get the ball to Beckham. And we know who will be waiting.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.