After being dealt a pair of close losses on a just-completed road stretch, the Arizona Cardinals return to the friendly confines of University of Phoenix Stadium for Sunday's clash with a surging New York Giants team that's riding high off two consecutive big wins.
Arizona got its 2011 campaign off to a fine start, prevailing in a 28-21 home shootout over Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers during Week 1, but let two potential victories slip away in recent visits to Washington and Seattle. The Cardinals failed to hold onto an eight-point lead with under six minutes to go in a frustrating 22-21 defeat to the Redskins on Sept. 18, then had a belated comeback effort fall short in last Sunday's 13-10 setback to the fellow NFC West member Cardinals.
Miscues sealed Arizona's fate on both occasions, with wide receiver Chansi Stuckey's fumble with 1:39 remaining ending the team's hopes in the Washington game and quarterback Kevin Kolb throwing an interception in Seattle territory in the final minutes of last week's result.
"That's two weeks in a row we had the ball in our hands with a chance to do something, and we weren't able to execute," said Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt afterward. "We've got to grow up faster as a team."
While Whisenhunt is hoping his team can show some resolve, the Giants have proven capable of overcoming adversity during the early stages of this season. Beset by a rash of injuries, particularly on the defensive side, before even stepping onto the field, New York rebounded strongly from a disappointing Week 1 loss at division-rival Washington with back-to-back double-digit wins, including a convincing 29-16 triumph on the road against NFC East favorite Philadelphia this past Sunday.
The Giants squandered a 14-0 first-quarter advantage against the Eagles and trailed by two points entering the final period, but moved ahead on a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Eli Manning in the last 8 1/2 minutes.
Manning threw for four scores, two of which landed in the hands of replacement wide receiver Victor Cruz, and did not commit a turnover in an impressive 254- yard performance in which the durable signal-caller completed 16-of-23 attempts.
After giving the ball away a league-high 30 times last season, Manning has thrown just two interceptions with no fumbles over the first three weeks.
On the other side of the ball, the Giants forced three turnovers and held the potent Eagles in check despite playing without three projected starters -- including standout pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora.
Umenyiora, who's coming off a 12-sack outburst in 2010, has yet to play this season while recovering from an August knee procedure, but practiced without incident during the week and appears on track to make his debut on Sunday. Bookend Justin Tuck, however, is questionable to play for New York due to nagging neck and groin injuries.
The Cardinals expect to have leading rusher Beanie Wells back for this week's tilt after the brittle running back sat out the Seattle loss with a hamstring strain.
The Giants hold a 79-42-2 lead in a long-played series with the Cardinals that dates all the way back to the 1926 season, but Arizona prevailed in the most recent encounter between the clubs with a 24-17 Sunday-night verdict at Giants Stadium in 2009. New York had won the two previous matchups, including a 37-29 besting of the Cardinals in Glendale in 2008 that snapped a two-game road losing streak in the set. The Giants also left with a victory at University of Phoenix Stadium in February of 2008, when the team captured its third Super Bowl title by upsetting the then-unbeaten New England Patriots in a 17-14 thriller.
The Cardinals and Giants were both members of the NFC East between 1970-2001.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has a career record of 3-2 against Arizona, which includes a win while at the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000. Whisenhunt is 1-1 against both Coughlin and the Giants as a head coach.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Giants enter Sunday's tussle ranked just 20th in total offense (324.0 ypg), they've done a good job capitalizing on opportunities and keeping mistakes to a minimum. New York committed a league-worst 42 turnovers in 2010 but has just two through the first three weeks, while the team has scored touchdowns on five of its six red-zone trips so far this season. Manning's (745 passing yards, 6 TD, 2 INT) improved efficiency and decision-making have certainly been contributing factors to that success, and the veteran quarterback has put together some excellent games at University of Phoenix Stadium in the past. He'll be working with close to a full complement of receivers this week with wideout Mario Manningham (7 receptions) slated to return after sitting out the Philadelphia game with a concussion, though the sparingly-used Cruz (5 receptions, 2 TD) filled the void nicely by accumulating a career-best 110 yards and two scores on only three catches. Manning also made good use of running backs Ahmad Bradshaw (189 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 2 total TD) and Brandon Jacobs (98 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 2 total TD), with the diverse duo compiling 95 receiving yards and two touchdowns on a combined seven catches last week. Bradshaw added a season-high 86 rushing yards on just 15 carries against the Eagles, and the hard-nosed back has improved his ball security as well after fumbling seven times in 2010.
Count on both Bradshaw and Jacobs getting plenty of work against an Arizona defense that comes in just 27th against the run (122.7 ypg) and permitted 122 yards on the ground to the rushing-deficient Seahawks last week. The Cardinals did a better job stifling Seattle's non-threatening passing game, limiting their divisional foe to 139 net yards through the air and coming up with four sacks, with talented end Calais Campbell (18 tackles, 2.5 sacks) credited with 2 1/2 takedowns on the quarterback in addition to racking up 10 tackles in a monster game. Fellow lineman Darnell Dockett (9 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and veteran outside linebacker Clark Haggans (10 tackles) are two other proven pass rushers on a unit that's registered a total of nine sacks thus far. The secondary is green at the cornerback spots, with intriguing rookie Patrick Peterson (14 tackles, 1 INT) manning one side and former practice-squad member A.J. Jefferson (16 tackles, 5 PD) the other, but safeties Adrian Wilson (14 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) and Kerry Rhodes (18 tackles, 2 sacks) are an experienced tandem with five Pro Bowl citations between them.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Though they've yet to put it all together, the Cardinals have the makings of a becoming a dangerous and balanced offense once Kolb (812 passing yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) gets fully acclimated to his new surroundings. The fifth-year quarterback, acquired in a blockbuster offseason trade with Philadelphia, has had an up-and- down start to his Arizona career, highlighted by a 309-yard, two-touchdown display in the season opener and the low point coming in last week's defeat in which he tossed two costly interceptions. The 27-year-old doesn't lack quality weapons to throw to, as perennial Pro Bowl Larry Fitzgerald (15 receptions, 259 yards, 2 TD) is near the top of the league's upper echelon of wide receivers, tight end Todd Heap (9 receptions) is an established veteran with nearly 500 career catches and young wideout Early Doucet (10 receptions, 1 TD) has shown signs of a possible breakout year over the first handful of games. Wells (183 rushing yards, 2 TD, 4 receptions) has provided a viable running threat to the mix in the two contests he's played, with the 230-pound back averaging a healthy 5.7 yards per carry on the young season. The Cardinals will be keeping their fingers crossed he's ready to go on Sunday, as virtual unknown Alphonso Smith (54 rushing yards, 3 receptions) and declining veteran Chester Taylor (20 rushing yards) are both serious drop-offs in talent.
After encountering trouble attempting to contain the pass in games against Washington and St. Louis, the Giants' defense came through with an improved effort in that aspect during last weekend's win, limiting the explosive Eagles to few big plays and cornerback Aaron Ross (11 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PD) garnering a pair of interceptions of Michael Vick. Emerging star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (17 tackles, 4.5 sacks) added two sacks of the Philadelphia quarterback and is one of several high-caliber pass rushers on the New York roster, with both Tuck (6 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Umenyiora owning three seasons of double-digit sack totals during their Big Blue careers. The Giants gave up 177 rushing yards to the speedy Eagles last week but have been mostly solid against the run, with outside linebackers Michael Boley (16 tackles) and Mathias Kiwanuka (12 tackles) heading a front seven that held the opposition to 3.6 yards per rush attempt. The team's leading tackler is safety Antrel Rolle (23 tackles), a first-round pick of the Cardinals in 2005 who spent his first five seasons in Arizona before signing a lucrative free-agent contract with the Giants last year.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Red zone proficiency. The Giants have scored touchdowns on a league-best 83.3 percent of their trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, while Arizona has come away without points on 3-of-6 possessions within the red zone. The Cardinals have been stout in defending that area, however, and will need to maintain that high level while improving its play on offense near the goal line to have its best chance of success.
The wide receivers. Seattle prevailed in last week's matchup with the Cardinals in part by neutralizing Fitzgerald, who was held without a catch in the second half of the game. Arizona's secondary, meanwhile, has had some trouble defending the opponent's top receiver, with Carolina's Steve Smith (178 yards, 2 TD) and the Seahawks' Sidney Rice (8 catches, 109 yards) both having very productive afternoons. The Giants have a good one as well in Hakeem Nicks (14 receptions, 185 yards, 1 TD), whom the Cards can't allow to put up those kinds of numbers.
Special teams. Peterson was the difference-maker in Arizona's Week 1 triumph by returning a punt 89 yards for a tie-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter. Special teams hurt the Cardinals last week, though, with kicker Jay Feely misfiring on a pair of field goal attempts. The Giants haven't had to use Lawrence Tynes much in the first few weeks, but he's 0-for-1 in three-point tries on the year.
The Giants appear to be the stronger of these two participants, but they'll have to be on alert with Arizona eager to put a two-game losing streak behind, and a cross-country road trip after an emotional win over a fierce rival the week before presents the possibility of a letdown. If New York can maintain both its focus and its recent precision on offense, Manning shouldn't have too much trouble making headway against a Cardinals defense that's hardly intimidating, while the Giants' formidable pass rush could make for a difficult afternoon for a still-adjusting Kolb.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 28, Cardinals 20