Romilly Evans previews a basement battle for tonight's MNF clash, where he expects Eli Manning to dominate and redeem his reputation
"Odell Beckham Jnr is averaging a wafer shy of 100 per game, securing two thirds of his targets from Manning"
New York Giants @ San Francisco 49ers
Start-time: Tuesday, 01:15
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Big Blue can at least avoid another depressing result
To paraphrase the great philosopher Bon Jovi, these two teams' respective seasons more closely resemble a bargain basement: all the good stuff's gone.
Which may sound a little harsh on San Francisco's Nick Mullens, a back-up quarterback who seized the thin thread of fortune and ran with it against Oakland last time, posting a debut performance that was more MVP honours than rookie errors. Many better judges than me did their dough in that 34-3 trouncing of Derek Carr's Raiders, but let's not get ahead of ourselves by thinking Mullens is the Third String Coming in San Fran after Joe Montana and Steve Young.
In reality, for all his embryonic guile and established mental agility (he committed the 49ers' playbook to memory faster than Number 5 in Short Circuit), Mullens is mediocre at best when it comes to his physical talents. Indeed, his comparatively weak cannon was the main reason he wasn't drafted in a high echelon. He's also not the fastest QB and could struggle outside the pocket in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, even against a powder-puff NY Giants defense.
Big Blue only needs to bring a little more heat and shore up the middle of the field, and Mullens' throwing lanes will be restricted to deeper downfield strikes and trickier wide routes. Considering he didn't complete any pass longer than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage against the Raiders, this is where the game should be won for the Giants. Especially with star Niners' wide receiver Pierre Garçon hampered by a knee injury. In the cauldron on Monday Night, with the eyes of the nation watching, I can see Mullens wilting under the burden of unrealistic expectation.
After donning two Super Bowl rings, Eli Manning knows a thing or two about living down to tall expectations and if this is to be his last season, he's certainly going out with a whimper in the Big Apple. In fairness, though, he's not being given much helped by a depleted offensive line whose makeshift front five appears set for yet another realignment tonight. Manning has already been sacked as many times this season (31) as he was across the entire course of last year, so you can see where his issues reside.
Fortunately, the 49ers' pass rush is not so fearsome, and Manning Jnr has some legitimately top-class wideouts at his disposal - which is why he's been getting so much criticism for not finding them. This crack receiving crew is, of course, headed by the irrepressible Odell Beckham Jnr who is averaging a wafer shy of 100 per game, securing two thirds of his targets from Manning.
While Beckham Jnr could again be the difference-maker here (either by lighting up the highlight reel himself, or by taking the spotlight of defensive interest away from others in double-coverage), the Giants really need to belatedly create some sort of ground game, courtesy of the talented but woefully underused Saquon Barkley.
This rookie rusher could soon rank amongst the best in the league (he's got a speedy pair or paws, is elusive, and averages 4.7 yards per attempted run). Trouble is he's barely been given double-digit carries for most of the Giants' games over the current campaign. That must end here, and if Barkley doesn't himself thrive, he can definitely free up Manning's throwing arm.
I mean, never say never, the Giants (1-7) are only three games off Philly and Dallas in the deeply disappointing NFC East, whereas there's absolutely no mathematical way back for the Niners (2-7) in the West behind L.A. and Seattle. So defer to Manning one final time. He's at the head of a wounded army with something to prove. And while their legion may be low on confidence, these fallen Giants can rise to the late-night occasion.
If it's his last winter in New York, here's hoping the concluding chapter in the Book of Eli isn't one of pure discontent.