The St. Louis Rams and New York Giants have both been eliminated from playoff contention and neither enters Sunday's matchup with much to play for.
But neither team has looked like it is ready to close up shop for the rest of the season, either, which could make this at least a mildly interesting game for the football diehards.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano discuss Sunday's game:
Wagoner: Dan, I'm sure you're getting a lot of questions about Odell Beckham Jr., but let's be real, he's going to be the most exciting player on the field Sunday. What is it about him that's allowed him to have such success, and is he as fun to watch up close as he is from a distance?
Graziano: Nick, I don't want to overstate the case here. But what we're watching with Beckham on a weekly basis (a daily one, in fact, when you take into account his practice antics) is a player gifted with such raw athleticism that he stands out on a field whose other occupants are also world-class athletes. He's impressive in all facets. He runs great routes. He has great hands. He plays bigger than his 5-foot-11 size would indicate, because he has the ability to outjump defenders and locate the ball in the air before they do. He has the blazing speed you've seen. Really, from a raw talent standpoint, he's the total package. What he's doing is even more incredible due to the facts that he missed all of training camp and the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury, and that he and Victor Cruz played only two games together. Eli Manning is targeting Beckham pretty much all the time, and it's working. Expect to see a lot of him.
The Rams' defense has allowed a total of 12 points over its past three games. What's behind the surge?
Wagoner: There are plenty of reasons for the surge, up to and including taking advantage of a bit of a break in the schedule in terms of opponents. But make no mistake: The Rams' defensive surge is real. They held the high-powered Broncos to seven points, the fewest since Peyton Manning took over at quarterback. The intangible part of it is the defense has finally gotten comfortable with Gregg Williams as coordinator and vice versa. Williams now knows the best way to deploy his players and they now know what is expected of them. That's manifested into a defense that's doing a bit of everything well. The Rams had a disappointing performance last week in stopping Arizona's run game, but their better efforts start with stopping the run. When the Rams stop the run consistently and force opponents into second- and third-and-long, their vaunted pass rush can be as good as advertised. It doesn't hurt that end Robert Quinn and tackle Aaron Donald form one of the most dynamic inside out duos in the league, either. But really, they're getting better performances across the board with the defense.
While we're on defense, I noticed that since Week 7, the Rams and Giants rank first and third in the league in sacks, respectively. What's been the cause of the uprising from New York's pass rush?
Graziano: The Giants had 19 sacks in their first 11 games of the season and have picked up 22 in their past three games. A lot of that has to do with their opponents -- Jacksonville, Tennessee and Washington. But in terms of what they're doing to take advantage of the matchups, they're getting contributions from all over. Jason Pierre-Paul has six sacks in those three games, but rookie defensive end Kerry Wynn is making a contribution. Rookie linebacker Devon Kennard, who was NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 14, has been a factor in the pass rush. Second-year defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is up to seven sacks for the season. The Giants are getting a variety of help in the pass rush, which is especially important with defensive ends Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers among the 22 Giants currently on injured reserve. They'll blitz a linebacker or a safety or a cornerback in key times. Basically, since the schedule turned around for them, they've been taking advantage of their matchups at a high level and in a variety of ways.
I know the quarterback situation has been a muddle, but why do the Rams still have so many unanswered questions at the other offensive skill positions? Receiver and running back?
Wagoner: Well, I think they've at least finally settled on Tre Mason as their primary ball carrier for the future, though I suppose we thought the same thing last year at this time with Zac Stacy. Mason's not getting the vast majority of the snaps right now because he's still not up to speed in pass protection, but if and when that happens, his snap count will only increase. In the meantime, he's the first option running the ball and Benny Cunningham is next in line to handle the dirty work. I think Mason will be the main guy going forward, but judging the Rams' recent knack for drafting running backs earlier than expected, maybe that should be considered a year-to-year proposition until they go with the same guy for two consecutive seasons. At receiver, they seem to have finally settled into using Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. If Brian Quick comes back from a devastating shoulder injury and they re-sign Britt, they should be pretty solid. I'd argue they could still use a true No. 1 guy like the Giants have with Beckham, but it's not the pressing need it was coming into the season. They just need to find someone who can more consistently get them the ball.
Sticking to quarterbacks, what do you make of Eli Manning at this point in his career? He's obviously had great success but also some clunkers. With so few decent quarterbacks around, there's no way the Giants would look elsewhere at that position, is there?
Graziano: No way. Other than the horrible five-interception game against the 49ers in Week 11, Manning has operated the new offense smoothly and efficiently in the first year under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. He's protecting the ball well, making good decisions, relying on shorter, higher-percentage stuff than he did earlier in his career. Considering they have four wide receivers and three running backs on injured reserve, and that the offensive line has struggled all year to protect him, I think Manning's doing fine and is among the very least of their problems.
As for quarterback, what do you expect them to do this offseason? Bring back Bradford? Move up in the draft? What?
Wagoner: At this point, the expectation remains that the Rams will try to bring Sam Bradford back at a reduced rate with incentives built in, and spend a high draft pick (first three rounds) on a quarterback. I've been writing that for the past month or so and I stand by the assertion until I hear something different. Of course, that still depends on how big the pay cut would be and whether Bradford's representation wants to explore the market. Even with his injury issues, he could become a hot commodity in such a quarterback-needy market. Moving up sounds good on paper, but I'm not sure they have the ammunition or the desire to make such a move. They could also look to bring Shaun Hill back as a backup option for Bradford and/or the new draft pick. Either way, it's the one thing holding this team back from being a legitimate playoff contender. The only problem is that it's also the most difficult problem to fix.
Beckham is now the favorite to win the award at 1-2, according to odds released by Bovada on Wednesday. Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans is the second choice at 2-1, followed by Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin (7-1) and Bengals running back Jeremy Hill (25-1).
"There's no doubt about it," Rolle said. "There's been some rookies out there obviously making some splash -- Mike Evans, a couple other names. But what Odell has done in a short period of time -- obviously he battled some injuries at the beginning of the year, but the sky's the limit for this guy. I think what he's done for this team and just for the league itself has been phenomenal, and I'm not just saying that because he's my teammate."
"Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl, you name it -- I definitely put him up there right now with the elite receivers in this league," Rolle added.
Despite missing the entire preseason and the first four games of the regular season with a hamstring injury, Beckham has 71 catches for 972 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games.
Evans, in three more games, has fewer catches (59) and yards (948), and just two more touchdowns (11).
Beckham's per-game averages of 7.1 receptions, 97.2 receiving yards and 0.9 touchdowns are the highest among rookies in a season dating to 2001, per ESPN Stats & Information.
"He's been playing at a high level these last few weeks," quarterback Eli Manning said. "Hopefully he can continue to make plays for us."
Manning was a little more diplomatic when asked about Beckham's Rookie of the Year candidacy.
"I haven’t seen all the other performances, so I’m probably not qualified to give that answer," Manning said. "[Beckham's] played very strong and played well for us, and so definitely should be in contention, I would think."
Beckham already owns the Giants' record for receiving yards by a rookie, breaking Jeremy Shockey's record of 894 yards. Barring injury, he almost certainly will surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the season this Sunday in St. Louis, but the Rams' defense should pose a challenge -- they haven't given up a touchdown the past three weeks and are ranked 10th in the NFL against the pass (232.4 yards allowed per game).
"I think there’s a physical challenge every week for the number of roles that [Beckham] plays," coach Tom Coughlin said. "But this certainly will be one, and each week he grows and develops and he sees new things, and that may very well be the case this week."
The best news of all might be that, despite all the attention Beckham is getting, he hasn't developed a swelled head, according to his quarterback.
"No, I think he’s done a good job," Manning said. "He practices hard. He does a lot of things correctly. ... He’s done everything the right way."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the spring of 2010, safety Antrel Rolle signed a five-year, $37.1 million free-agent contract with the New York Giants. This is the NFL, where contracts are by definition not guaranteed and very few players see the end of theirs.
Rolle is an exception. With two games left in his fifth Giants season, he has played every single game of the contract and made every single dollar it promised. He has not taken a pay cut, nor has that been asked of him. This is a significant point of pride for Rolle. The rarity of a player in the modern NFL completing a multiyear free-agent contract without alteration is not lost on the 32-year-old safety.
"You've got to work your ass off to do that," Rolle said Wednesday.
Rolle was in an introspective mood following Wednesday's practice and he held forth on his own situation. He said he'd like to play three more years, no more and no less, and that his strong preference is to return to the Giants.
"This is a great fit," said Rolle, who's won a Super Bowl title and been elected a team captain during his time with the Giants. "I would love to finish my career here. I want to be with JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul] and [Odell] Beckham, and I can't wait to see [Victor] Cruz come back. These are my brothers. This is where I want to be."
"First dang play," Jennings said. "Obviously, that's frustrating, as you can imagine."
Well, Jennings doesn't think his season is over yet. But the Giants only have two games left, and his chances of playing in Sunday's game in St. Louis are pretty slim. He sat out practice Wednesday and doesn't expect to practice Thursday either. He's keeping to his I-want-to-play mantra, but at least in terms of this week, he doesn't think he's got much of a chance to convince them to let him try.
"I've been fighting them to let me play anyway, and now with this happening..." Jennings said with a grin. "I wouldn't be surprised if they said, 'Nah'."
So his hope is to heal up enough between now and the regular-season home finale against Philadelphia, and to play in one more game this year. Jennings missed four games earlier in the year with a knee sprain and has been a non-factor the last two weeks due to the ankle.
If Jennings can't play, the Giants will use rookie Andre Williams as their starting running back and Orleans Darkwa as his backup. It's possible Darkwa could see some passing-downs work, and that Chris Ogbonnaya could be active as a reserve.
The only other Giant who isn't on injured reserve and missed practice Wednesday was linebacker Jameel McClain, who's been taking Wednesdays off lately due to a sore knee but has yet to miss a game.
"My standard operating procedure is that I'd like the fourth and fifth wide receivers to be outstanding contributors on special teams, and we're not there right now," Coughlin said. "That would help a lot."
Coughlin said Washington hasn't done a good enough job on the punt return and kickoff return teams to warrant a promotion to a larger role on offense, even though he spoke highly of his ability to perform when put into the game at wide receiver.
"No. He does a good job and can play multiple positions, and from the standpoint of knowing what to do, he's done that from Day 1," Coughlin said. "But he does have to become better at his job."
So there's your answer, folks. Washington's path to more playing time on offense is being blocked by his failure to excel on punt and kickoff returns.
Told you you wouldn't like the answer.
To replace Williams and Brewer on their roster, the Giants promoted defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton from their practice squad and signed guard Adam Gettis from the Pittsburgh Steelers' practice squad.
Williams was the Giants' starting weakside linebacker and leading tackler for the first nine games of the season, but he never fully recovered from the concussion he suffered in the Week 10 loss at Seattle. He'd been cleared to return to the practice field a couple times since then, but he would develop symptoms again after practicing and had to be shut down.
Brewer was inactive for the first 10 games of this season but was playing right tackle in Week 13 in Jacksonville when he suffered his concussion.
The Giants also signed safety Thomas Gordon to their practice squad to fill Hamilton's spot.
Here's the full list of Giants on injured reserve:
CB Prince Amukamara
DE Robert Ayers
LB Jon Beason
OL James Brewer
RB Michael Cox
WR Victor Cruz
WR Marcus Harris
RB Peyton Hillis
KR Trindon Holliday
CB Travis Howard
WR Jerrel Jernigan
DE Mathias Kiwanuka
OL Troy Kropog
LB Terrell Manning
WR Mario Manningham
CB Trumaine McBride
OL Geoff Schwartz
OL Adam Snyder
S Cooper Taylor
CB Walter Thurmond
LB Jacquian Williams
RB David Wilson
Beckham caught 12 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns in the Giants’ 24-13 victory over Washington on Sunday, which moved him into the lead among rookies for receptions (71) and receiving yards (972) and into second place with nine touchdowns.
Just engrave the trophy now.
Here is the latest look at the banner class of rookie receivers, which includes two Jaguars. They are ranked by targets, which is a true measure of how much a receiver is utilized. We’re using the qualifier of having a minimum of four targets per game (56 targets needed to qualify):
Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina (127 targets): He had the second-biggest week of the receivers on this list, catching eight passes for 104 yards in the Panthers’ 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay – even though he was playing with Derek Anderson and not Cam Newton. Benjamin now has 67 catches and is second among rookies with 952 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo (116): He caught just one pass for 28 yards in the Bills’ 21-13 upset of Green Bay and has 59 catches for 850 yards and five touchdowns.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay (105): He caught only two passes for 13 yards, but one was an 8-yard touchdown pass. He leads all rookies with 11 touchdown catches and is third with 948 yards on 59 catches.
Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants (95): His monster game moved him atop the list of rookies in receiving yardage (972) and catches (71) to go along with nine touchdowns.
Jarvis Landry, Miami (93): He moved up to fifth on this list after being targeted 12 times and catching eight passes for 99 yards in the Dolphins’ 41-13 loss to New England. He is tied for the lead among rookies with 71 catches for 672 yards and five touchdowns.
Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia (88): Matthews was the only active player on the list to not record a catch last week and has 56 catches for 709 yards and seven touchdowns.
John Brown, Arizona (86): He caught just two passes for 22 yards in the Cardinals’ 12-6 victory over St. Louis and has 41 catches for 591 yards and five touchdowns.
Allen Hurns, Jacksonville (86): He caught six passes for 70 yards in the Jaguars’ 20-12 loss to Baltimore and now has 46 catches for 636 yards and six touchdowns.
Allen Robinson, Jacksonville (80): He’s out for the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his right foot and finishes with 48 catches for 548 yards and two touchdowns.
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans (66): He is out for the rest of the season with a broken thumb and finishes with 53 catches for 550 yards and three TDs.
Taylor Gabriel, Cleveland (62): He caught just one pass for 2 yards in the Browns’ 30-0 loss to Cincinnati and has 32 catches for 554 yards and one touchdown.
Davante Adams, Green Bay (59): He caught just one pass for 6 yards in the Packers’ loss to the Bills and has 36 catches for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
Overall, once again, the numbers from Sunday look good. Manning threw for 250 yards and no interceptions, and he has only two interceptions in the four games that have followed his five-pick Week 11 meltdown against San Francisco. He's in a comfortable little groove right now, avoiding mistakes and completing a high percentage of his passes. But as you saw Sunday, it's pretty much all about Beckham.
On Monday night, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and delivered the nightly Top-10 list -- 10 thoughts running through his mind when he won the Heisman on Saturday night.
When he got to No. 3, this is what he said:
"I'd like to play in the NFL. Does New York have any professional teams?"
Good one. The New York Jets and New York Giants have a combined record of 8-20, so anything is fair game.
Mariota is the presumptive No. 1 overall pick for 2015 -- assuming he leaves college. Right now, the Jets are sixth in the draft order, meaning they have no shot unless they trade up.
"Just numbers, man," the New York Giants defensive end said after his big game Sunday against Washington. "If you look at the film, really break down all the statistics, I'm having a great season."
The Giants, as you know, are not. But if Pierre-Paul truly is, he's setting himself up well for a free-agent contract push that could force the Giants into an interesting offseason decision.
Pierre-Paul turns 26 in two weeks and is eligible for free agency a couple of months after that. Given his age, the brilliance he flashed during the Giants' 2011-12 Super Bowl run and what's shaping up to be a strong finish to his walk year, he's likely to generate a high level of interest on the open market. Elite pass-rushers are a rare commodity, and if Pierre-Paul can sell himself at that -- at his age -- he has reason to dream of a deal in the $12 million or $13 million-a-year range.
The Giants will have enough cap space to do a deal like that if they want to keep Pierre-Paul. But they have many other needs as well, and the way the Giants generally act with their free agents is to set a price they think is fair and tell the guy he's welcome to go try to get more elsewhere if he thinks he can. It's unclear at this point whether the Giants would break the bank to keep their 2010 first-round draft pick, though they are happy with the way he has performed in 2014.
"JPP is playing very well," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday. "Technically, early on, he was doing some things that we could correct and help with, and we did, and he has really adapted his game again to the way and manner in which we would like him to rush."
The Giants' pass rush as a whole has taken off the last three weeks in games against Jacksonville, Tennessee and Washington. After recording a total of 19 sacks in their first 11 games of the season, the Giants have 22 sacks in their last three games, pushing them all the way up to No. 4 in the league in that category. Much of that has to do with the contributions they're getting from young players like linebacker Devon Kennard, defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and defensive ends Kerry Wynn and Damontre Moore. But Pierre-Paul is the centerpiece player -- the all-around defensive end who can take on left tackles, play the run and find his way to the quarterback with his speed and instincts. That's the player they saw in 2011, and after two injury-plagued seasons that followed, the Giants believe they're seeing that player again this year.
They will need a foundation piece for the pass rush this offseason. If it's not Pierre-Paul, they'll have to find it somewhere else -- either in free agency or with a first-round draft pick that currently would be No. 8 overall. I can't tell them how to spend their money, and I understand being hesitant to commit five or six years and $12 million or $13 million a year to a guy who's struggled to stay healthy. But Pierre-Paul may end up being their best option.
He also would be the first of GM Jerry Reese's first-round draft picks to sign a second contract with the team. Aaron Ross (2007), Kenny Phillips (2008) and Hakeem Nicks (2009) all went elsewhere at the end of their rookie deals for reasons of injury or ineffectiveness. Prince Amukamara (2011) is no sure thing to break that trend. They hold a 2015 option on him and it remains to be seen what effect his season-ending injury has on their long-range assessment of his value. David Wilson (2012) had to retire in August due to neck injuries. And it's far too early to know what the future holds for Justin Pugh (2013) or brilliant rookie Odell Beckham Jr. (2014).
First-round picks are supposed to be long-term foundation pieces. The questions for the Giants are whether they believe, after five years, that Pierre-Paul is a foundation piece and how much they're willing to bet on it.
Jennings sprained his ankle in the Week 13 loss in Jacksonville and played a minimal role in the following week's victory in Tennessee. He was slated for a slightly larger workload Sunday, as evidenced by the fact that he got the first carry of the game. But says he "tweaked" the ankle on that very play, and now his status for the final two games of the season is obviously in doubt.
Assuming the injury is where it was after the Jacksonville game, it's impossible to count on Jennings for Sunday's game in St. Louis, and it's possible they could just shut him down for the rest of the season and give the starting running back work to rookie Andre Williams. We likely won't know for sure until Wednesday, when the Giants return to the practice field. But it's obviously not looking good for Jennings to have the strong finish to the season for which he was hoping.
Jennings is in his first year with the Giants, having signed a free-agent contract in March. Early in the season, when the offense was having success, he looked like a good fit as the all-purpose starter at running back. He had 176 rushing yards in the Week 3 victory against Houston and averaged 4.35 yards per carry during the Giants' first five games. But he injured his knee in Week 5, missed the next four games and wasn't back to full strength until the Jacksonville game, in which he injured the ankle. So Jennings' first Giants season will turn out to have been about injury and time missed, and his health issues will make him one of their question marks going into 2015.
"No," Coughlin said. "My concern is with getting ready to play the St. Louis Rams (on Sunday). I'm sure that will be dealt with at the right time."
Two wins in a row after a seven-game losing streak seem to have relaxed some of the public heat on Coughlin. And around the Giants' facility, the feeling is that he'll be back next year. Coughlin signed a one-year contract extension last offseason that takes him through 2015, and if the Giants do bring him back, their history indicates that they would extend him through 2016 so as not to make him a lame duck.
The Giants will finish under .500 for the second season in a row and miss the playoffs for the fifth year out of the last six. But they changed offensive coordinators and systems and overhauled their roster last offseason, so the feeling is that they're committed to a long-term rebuild and believe in Coughlin as the leader they need to execute it. That doesn't rule out staff changes, including a potential change at defensive coordinator. And those conversations between a head coach and his bosses can definitely get testy. So nothing is certain until the Giants have their postseason meetings two weeks from now. But true to his one-week-at-a-time mantra, Coughlin insists he's not thinking about it.
"We've got two games to go, and we've got to be the best we can be in these next two games," Coughlin said.
Earlier in his Monday conference call with reporters, Coughlin did talk about the future of the Giants and the benefit that playing well in December could carry into next season and beyond for the team's young players.
"You always want to be on a positive note," Coughlin said. "You would like everything to be with the arrow going up. We've talked a lot about improvement and ascending, and it is the time of year to do those things. The number of young people that are getting opportunities and having a chance to play, that all leads to thoughts about the future. These things are one game at a time, but again, the encouragement, the positivity, the winning idea, the opportunity for young people to contribute in a very strong way, those are all positive things."