Eli Manning and the New York Giants can talk about lack of execution, poor decisions and bad plays all they want to explain their offensive woes the past two weeks.
What's missing is obvious. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has been out of the mix since returning to the lineup four games ago and his chances of getting back in this weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals don't look good with his left knee acting up again.
With Nicks and Victor Cruz on the outside, Manning usually has two targets opponents have to be worried about.
A 1,000-yard receiver each of the past two seasons, Nicks has rarely been 100 percent this season. He broke his right foot in the offseason and then hurt his knee in Week 2 in a game in which he earned NFC offensive player of the week honors with 10 catches for a career-best 199 yards and a touchdown.
After being sidelined vs. Carolina, Philadelphia and Cleveland, Nicks returned. But his statistics the past four games are just 13 catches for 152 yards and no touchdowns. In the 24-20 loss to Pittsburgh this past weekend, the fourth-year receiver had one catch for 10 yards and was the intended target on a 41-yard play that resulted in a pass interference call. He was targeted on three other incomplete passes.
Teammates understand Nicks is playing in pain.
"Obviously when he is at full speed, it affects it (the offense)," backup quarterback David Carr said Wednesday. "It makes it a lot better obviously. It takes a lot of pressure off Vic and takes a lot of pressure off the running game. You really have to put two guys on him. It's one of those deals, it's football. He's banged up or he is nicked or whatever it is, he is not 100 percent. He is not going to tell you he is not feeling 100 percent. He's going to go out and be a competitor and try and play through it."
Opponents have caught on. Cruz is seeing more and more double teams. Nicks is getting more single coverages. Defenses also are putting an extra body in the box to aid against the Giants' running game.
The results have been startling. Manning has completed 25 passes in the past two games and has been held under 200 yards two straight, including just 125 against the Steelers. Prior to that, he had surpassed 200 yards in 24 straight games.
But Manning has hope. He thought Nicks ran well last week, in fact, and showed good speed.
"He is doing what he can do," Manning said. "Hopefully, we can continue the course and get him more and more healthy. I definitely think he is better than a few weeks ago."
Nicks, who did not practice on Wednesday, was not in the locker room for comment.
Cruz, who set a single-season team record for yards receiving last season, said the Giants reverted to some training camp drills and did a little more work with one-on-one and seven-on-seven situations to get their timing down on pass plays.
However, Cruz also admits that he has been getting added attention from defenses on game days. There are more cornerbacks in his face and defenders are certainly trying to be more physical.
"We're still able to find our spots and find our areas where I can get the ball and be effective," he said. "But I have to work through a lot more traffic to get there."
Cruz knows things will change when Nicks gets healthy.
"Everybody knows Hakeem is a big-play guy," Cruz said. "He really stretches the field for us. Once he gets healthy, we'll be all right."
With a bye week coming after Sunday's game in Cincinnati (3-5), one has to wonder whether coach Tom Coughlin might consider resting Nicks this week to let him heal. The Giants (6-3) will not play against until Nov. 25 at home against Green Bay.
That could mean that Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden or rookie Rueben Randle would step in. None of them caught a pass last week.
"We have to continue to work through it," Hixon said of the aerial woes. "I was asked earlier in the week about Eli's stats of 100-something yards. At the end of the day, we had a chance to win the ballgame."
Hixon also said Nicks is playing when other receivers might have shut it down.
"We appreciate that, and he is nicked up," Hixon said. "He is doing everything he can every week to be out there."
With a 2½ game lead in the NFC East, the smart move might be to rest Nicks this week and have him healthy for the final six games of the regular season. Especially considering the Bengals have lost four in a row with a suspect defense.
NOTES: Coughlin said S Kenny Phillips, sidelined since suffering a knee injury against Philadelphia Sept. 30, will not play until after the bye. ... LB Chase Blackburn hopes to return Sunday after missing the Pittsburgh game with a hamstring injury. ... Rookie S Will Hill returned to practice after being suspended the past four weeks by the NFL for using a banned prescription. The Giants have a roster exemption until Monday, but they must activate Hill by Saturday at 4 p.m. if they want to use him vs. Cincinnati. ... P Steve Weatherford, CB Prince Amukamara and several practice squad players visited two storm-ravaged New Jersey towns on Tuesday: Seaside Heights and Toms River. "It was just (a) morale boost, more than anything" Weatherford said. "We just dropped off lunches and spoke to the Toms River East team, which has a playoff game this weekend."
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