Just a few weeks ago, both the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens were running away with their respective divisions. But now the G-men have lost four out of six and the Ravens have dropped three straight, and both have their backs against the ball for a Week 16 meeting in Baltimore.
Something has to give, because the Ravens don't lose at home, and they definitely don't lose three straight in Baltimore. Yet the Giants don't lose to good teams on the road in the winter time, and they definitely don't lose back-to-back games of that nature.
The loser will be in dire straits, while the winner will have new life. Here's what the Giants have to do to ensure they get that much-needed victory.
Increase pressure by sending extra rushers more often
The Giants have given up a league-high 12 40-yard completions after surrendering one to Julio Jones in the first half against Atlanta. They also allowed Harry Douglas to pick up 37 yards on a throw from Matt Ryan in the same half and have surrendered 52 20-plus-yard completions, which is the fifth-highest total in football.
It's tough to know what exactly to expect from the Ravens offense under Jim Caldwell, since he took over for Cam Cameron only a week ago. However, expect Baltimore to keep taking shots against a defense like this. Against the Broncos in Caldwell's debut running the offense, Joe Flacco completed two 40-plus-yard passes, but only attempted four deep balls. This defense, however, is a lot more vulnerable than Denver's.
Only Andrew Luck has attempted more deep passes than Flacco this year, and no quarterback has more deep touchdown strikes than him, according to Pro Football Focus.
The danger is that Ray Rice is such a threat underneath and the Giants have really struggled against the run at points this season. Michael Turner embarrassed New York's front seven on a few occasions last week, as the Giants missed a season-high 11 tackles in that ugly loss.
It helps that the Giants will likely get Prince Amukamara and Kenny Phillips back in the secondary, but the pass rush isn't getting consistent enough pressure to make things easier on the rest of the defense. So this won't be easy.
While the Ravens aren't any more susceptible to pressure than the Falcons, Flacco is worse than Ryan when the pressure gets through. His completion percentage under pressure is just 43.2, which ranks 22nd in the NFL, per PFF. And according to the same source, only six quarterbacks have been sacked more often than he has.
As much as it's counter to what they regularly do, the Giants will have to dial up a few well-timed blitzes and send extra rushers more often than usual. Flacco's completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating drop considerably when he's blitzed, and he's more flustered in those situations than the majority of the league's top quarterbacks.
The Giants blitzed Ryan eight times last week, to absolutely no avail. The Falcons quarterback had a perfect passer rating on those eight dropbacks. This week, they can't afford to shy away from sending extra rushers. If anything, they have to increase the frequency of blitzes and find unique ways to get to the quarterback.
Frankly, the defensive line isn't pulling its weight right now. The Giants can't sit around and wait for their big three pass-rushers to wake up. Instead, they have to give guys like Mathias Kiwanuka, Chase Blackburn and Michael Boley some shots at Flacco.
Does that put them in danger of giving up more deep balls? Sure, but it also gives them a chance to take control on defense and make plays in the secondary. They're going to give up some points in this game, but the key will be to limit the damage by winning the turnover battle. The Giants might be able to help that cause by turning up the heat.
Use lots of three-receiver sets, but maintain balance
I'm not as concerned about the Giants offense. Sure, it was shut out last week, but this unit is too good to be kept down this week. Ahmad Bradshaw might return from injury, and Hakeem Nicks should be healthier, too.
Plus, the Ravens have been vulnerable in the air of late. And that just so happens to be where Big Blue is at its best. The inconsistent Corey Graham wasn't tested much in the slot against Denver, but he's struggled when facing quality receivers in that spot. Cary Williams was owned by Eric Decker last week, and nickel corner Chris Johnson hasn't been tested enough.
Time to test them all. With Lardarius Webb on injured reserve and the front seven severely depleted, the Ravens are as vulnerable as ever. The Giants have to work on establishing some balance, but with Bradshaw and David Wilson, they can do that while still exploiting this D with lots of three-receiver looks.
They'd be playing to their strengths. Domenik Hixon is coming off of one of his best ever performances and deserves a shot at more playing time, and the Ravens are only ranked in the middle of the pack when it comes to sacks, so Eli Manning should have time to get through his reads.