PHILADELPHIA — One team’s head coach called plays for the other team’s quarterback in college.
The two star running backs were college teammates.
One team’s offensive coordinator was in the same draft class with the other team’s best pass-rusher.
One cornerback is or has been teammates with most of the players in the game.
Between Giants coach Brian Daboll and Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, Giants running back Saquon Barkley and Eagles counterpart Miles Sanders, Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, and former Giant-turned-Eagle James Bradberry, there will be plenty of familiarity Saturday during the NFC divisional-round playoffs. Let’s take a deeper dive into the matchups we’ll see:
Giants pass offense vs. Eagles pass defense
Daniel Jones enters riding the best three-game stretch of his career (108.1 passer rating). How much is because the Colts stink and the Vikings (faced twice) leave receivers wide open in soft zone coverage? How much is because the offense has evolved to become more attack-minded with confidence that Jones (eight turnovers in 17 games) will protect the ball? Isaiah Hodgins just topped 100 yards, and he scored a touchdown for the fifth time in six games. Darius Slayton’s speed poses a deep threat, even if his inconsistent hands still produce untimely drops like he had late against the Vikings. Richie James and tight end Daniel Bellinger need to be accounted for in the red zone.
But the Eagles boast one of the NFL’s best veteran cornerback duos with Darius Slay and James Bradberry, cut by the Giants in May. Ballhawk safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and defensive end Robert Quinn are back from December injuries. With the secondary able to lock up receivers for an extra second, the Eagles pass rush generated a near-NFL record 70 sacks this season. There is a chance Haason Reddick, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham and Quinn wreck the game if the Giants offensive line — particularly right tackle Evan Neal — isn’t on its “A” game, but left tackle Andrew Thomas allowed zero pressures on 44 dropbacks last game.
Giants run offense vs. Eagles run defense
It is important that the Giants play from in front or at least keep the score close so that they can utilize the legs of Jones and Saquon Barkley to shorten the game.
Jones has 32 carries for 203 yards and two touchdowns in his past three games. If the defensive ends crash hard on zone-reads, Jones has a chance to keep the ball and pick up chunks. Barkley averaged 22 carries per game during the Giants’ 7-2 start and just 13.3 over his past eight games, including a season-low nine against the Vikings. But he has had some of his best career games against his hometown’s (Whitehall Township, Pa.) beloved Eagles, averaging five yards per carry.
The Eagles ranked No. 24 in the NFL, allowing 4.6 yards per carry. Their average of 121.6 yards per game allowed on the ground would be higher if not for so many big fourth-quarter leads. Veterans Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph were added late in the season to correct this weakness, especially because the great Fletcher Cox is in decline. The Giants ranked No. 4 in rushing offense (148.2 yards per game) because that is the strength of their interior blockers, including rotating left guards Ben Bredeson and Nick Gates.
Eagles pass offense vs. Giants pass defense
If Jalen Hurts is healthy, he leads one of the most explosive offenses in the league. He completed 66.5 percent of his throws with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson stifled Justin Jefferson, the NFL’s leading receiver, last week in his return from a seven-game injury absence. Jackson missed both games against the Eagles. The difference between the Eagles and Vikings is that even if Jackson can contain his former Titans teammate A.J. Brown (88 catches for 1,496 yards and 11 touchdowns), the Eagles have a major advantage on the other side with DeVonta Smith (95 catches for 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns) against Fabian Moreau.
Safety Xavier McKinney also missed both games against the Eagles and could be an X-factor if he ever figures out how to hold onto an interception with the wrapped splint around his healing left hand. If edge Azeez Ojulari (quad) is out or limited, the Giants’ best bet is to get a pass rush up the middle with Dexter Lawrence (7.5 sacks) and force Hurts into the dangerous throws he is prone to in the red zone. Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson destroyed the Giants in two recent meetings — tapes that Dallas Goedert certainly is studying to replicate mismatches on linebackers.
Eagles run offense vs. Giants run defense
Most Eagles’ opponents begin preparations with Miles Sanders. That’s a fair place for the Giants to start, too, but there’s no better time to figure out a way to stop Boston Scott’s dominance. In his five-year career, Scott has 414 of his 1,209 rushing yards, 222 of his 514 receiving yards and 10 of 17 touchdowns against the Giants, as three different defensive coordinators have let the diminutive scat-back punch above his weight class.
Like Barkley, Sanders (1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns) was one of six running backs with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. The Eagles ranked No. 5 in rushing (147.6 yards per game), but a lot of that success is dependent on Hurts (760 yards and 13 touchdowns). He was hesitant to scramble in his only game back since a shoulder injury — the regular-season finale against the Giants’ backups with the NFC East title on the line.
But the Giants defense looks much different now. Defensive tackle Leonard Williams and McKinney didn’t play in either matchup. Inside linebackers Jarrad Davis and Landon Collins didn’t play in the first matchup. It should be tougher to run up the middle now — and not just because Lawrence is playing at an All-Pro level.
One of the advantages the Giants take into most games is nullified because Jake Elliott is about the equal of Graham Gano. Elliott made 87 percent of his field goals, was 5-for-6 from 50-plus yards and infamously made a 61-yard walk-off against the Giants in 2017. Gano made 90.6 percent and was 8-for-9 from 50-plus.
In their one meaningful regular-season matchup, the Giants blocked a punt to set up a touchdown (and injured punter Arryn Siposs in the process) but made their own big mistake when Jamie Gillan dropped the ball before punting it and hurriedly kicked it for a turnover-on-downs penalty. Gillan’s net average (40.2) is better than replacement Brett Kern’s (36.6).
The Eagles have more dynamic returners. Rookie Britain Covey is averaging 9.3 yards on punts and Scott is averaging 27.1 on kickoffs. Richie James’ job for the Giants is just to secure the catch after he fumbled three punts in the first half of the season. The Eagles are susceptible to big kickoff returns (26.1) if Gary Brightwell gets a shot.
Whereas Adam Gase’s awkward Jets introductory press conference haunted him for two years, Nick Sirianni’s similarly poor first impression is an afterthought. Why? All the winning. The Eagles are in the playoffs for the second straight year under his leadership, after starting 8-0 and 13-1 before Hurts’ injury.
If nobody did more with more this year than Sirianni, nobody did more with less this year than Brian Daboll, who inherited a core that went 19-46 over the previous four seasons and developed those players into the playmakers for a playoff team. He pressed all the right strategic buttons — usually the aggressive ones, like his fourth-and-short quarterback sneaks instead of kicking in the fourth quarter against the Vikings.
The common thread between the two is they were hired for their quarterback backgrounds and offensive play-calling and gave up the responsibilities for a broader view. Both staffs have offensive coordinators (Mike Kafka, a former Eagles draft pick, and Shane Steichen) and defensive coordinators (Wink Martindale and Jonathan Gannon) getting head-coach interviews. The Eagles have consistent identities on both sides of the ball. The Giants are more malleable week-to-week.
None of the Giants have ever won in Philadelphia in this uniform. A nine-game losing streak at the Lincoln Financial Field includes three straight years blowing double-digit leads (2018-20). It’s only human to relive some of those broken hearts. The Eagles were 7-2 at home this season and are 6-4 in the playoffs at the Linc since it opened in 2003.
Debating the bye week is a playoff pastime. But, in this case, given Hurts’ recovery from the shoulder injury, the pros of rest seem to outweigh the cons of rust.
All the pressure is on the Eagles. The Giants’ season is an unquestioned success, even if it were to end on a blowout loss.