Sterling Shepard celebrates with teammates after catching a touchdown pass against the Washington Redskins in the second quarter at FedEx Field.

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Keidel: Giants Facing Surprisingly Crucial Matchup Against Titans

Jason Keidel
December 14, 2018 - 1:25 pm

It sounds silly to say a 5-8 team after 13 games will play a watershed 14th game. But when the Giants host the Tennessee Titans at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, they're playing for more than a 6-8 record.  

Indeed, the last three games of the 2018 season will go a long way to determine which players return for 2019. As it is, the Giants have just 13 players who were on the roster at this point last season, the fewest in the league (according to the Elias Sports Bureau). And perhaps December doubles as a referendum on head coach Pat Shurmur, who can prove to his bosses whether he still has the team's attention and respect. 

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It's hard to measure last Sunday's win at Washington, considering the Redskins were crippled by injuries across the roster, leaving a skeleton crew that forced them to play Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson at quarterback. It counts, but not beyond the standings. 

Now the formerly 1-7 G-Men have won four out of five. But unlike last week when they clobbered a team begging to be put to bed, they play a good team with a healthy QB, a winning record and pining for a playoff spot. The Titans (7-6) are sound and smart, led by impressive rookie head coach Mike Vrabel, one of the few Belichick disciples who seems ready to run his own club. 

They defeated the Super Bowl champion Eagles, pummeled the Patriots, are the last team to beat the Dallas Cowboys and also ended the Houston Texans' nine-game winning streak. Perhaps the best mark of a well-coached club, the Titans have lost to just one team with a losing record, a 13-12 loss at Buffalo on Oct 7. 

Big Blue has an odd history with the Titans, dating back to their years as the Oilers. The Giants went 5-0 against Houston, then went 0-5 against Tennessee, before a win in 2014 gave the G-Men a 6-5 series lead. But that was before Vrabel was coach, before Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota started under center and before Derrick Henry morphed into Bo Jackson. 

The Giants have to deal with a Titans team that rushed for 264 yards last week, their most since 2009. Henry's 238 yards (on just 17 carries) were the most in team history, an archive that includes Earl Campbell, Chris Johnson and Eddie George. Henry's four touchdowns tied Campbell (1978) and Lorenzo White (1990) for the most in one game. What makes the breakout game so surprising is that Henry had posted just two 100-yard rushing games since being drafted out of Alabama in 2016. His 99-yard burst against the Jaguars was just the second in history, joining Tony Dorsett who did it in 1983, and one of just 15 scrimmage plays of 99 yards in league history. 

Similarly, Big Blue has a bruising rushing attack, gaining at least 125 yards on the ground in four straight games, the first such streak since 2007. The Giants haven't posted that many rushing yards in five straight games since 1993. Stretching his lead for NFL Rookie of the Year, Saquon Barkley has rushed for 100 yards in four straight games, one shy of Tiki Barber's franchise record, and trails only Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley for the league lead. Barkley is also looking to become the third rookie in NFL history to have a streak of 100 yards rushing in at least five straight games (Franco Harris -- six games, 1972; Curtis Martin -- five games, 1995). 

Barkley also leads the team in receptions with 78, and is looking to become the first Giants halfback to lead the club in rushing and receptions since Barber in 2003. And his 5.4 yards per rush are the most for a Giants RB since Brandon Jacobs averaged 5.6 in 2010. 

>>MORE: What Needs To Happen For The Giants To Sneak Into The Playoffs

Both the Titans and Giants got off to slow starts, but both turned their seasons around after their bye week. Tennessee was 3-4 before its bye and is 4-2 since. New York was 1-7 before its bye and is 4-1 since.

One big factor for Big Blue is the health of Odell Beckham Jr., who's nursing a sore quad and was ruled out Friday for Sunday's game. They will need to rely on Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and the team's group of secondary receivers to stretch a stingy Titans defense ranked ninth in the NFL, and 5th against the pass.  And if they are to thwart the red-hot Henry, the G-Men will need to shore up a defense that yields 121.8 rushing yards per game, 22nd in the league. 

This will shock some cynics who have placed the blame for the tattered 2018 season at Eli Manning's cleats: the stats show that Manning is having one of his best seasons as a pro. Not only did Manning reach 55,000 career passing yards last week - just the seventh QB in NFL history to do so - he has career highs in completion percentage (67.7%), QB rating (95.8) and enjoys a career-low INT rating of 1.7 percent. 

Not to mention the Giants still have a microscopic shot at the playoffs. No team in the NFC East has won more than eight games, and only the Cowboys are threatening to do so. Maybe it's crazy to make these silly suppositions, but if the Giants can somehow beat the Titans, then go on the road and elbow past a scalding Andrew Luck, their final game is at MetLife against the hated Cowboys. 

In a season of what ifs, two more inspired games can spawn some why nots. And save a few jobs in the process. 

Twitter: @JasonKeidel