EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - The Giants-Vikings game Sunday has so many captivating plots it should probably be televised as a mini-series in prime time instead of in a three-hour window on Sunday afternoon.
There's revenge. The Giants have lost four games in a row to the Vikings, including one in each of the previous three seasons. Two were close games and two were blowouts, including a 44-7 runaway in the 2009 season finale.
"Let's just say we haven't forgotten what happened there," guard Chris Snee said. "I'll just leave it at that. We know what the final score was and we know what happened in there. It's been talked about."
Eli Manning will become the sixth quarterback in NFL history to start 100 consecutive regular season games against a team that has become his personal nemesis. Manning is 0-4 vs. the Vikings (though he might have won the final game in 2008 had he not sat out the second half because the Giants had already clinched the No. 1 playoff seed). Manning has completed only 51.8 percent of his passes and thrown for two touchdowns against nine interceptions vs. Minnesota.
An intriguing subplot is that Manning could very well welcome back some reinforcements on offense, a rarity at this time of year. His top two receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith, practiced this week on a limited basis and are questionable for the game, and left tackle David Diehl worked at full speed all week. The three starters have missed a combined 10 games in the last month.
No Vikings game would be complete without Brett Favre drama and this one has it. Favre injured his shoulder last Sunday vs. Buffalo. He practiced today on a limited basis, his first appearance on the field this week. Whether he makes his 298th consecutive start might not be known until shortly before kickoff. The uncertainty has forced the Giants defense to prepare for both Favre and backup Tarvaris Jackson this week.
The Vikings are 5-7, but have matched the Giants by winning their last two games and are playing much better under interim coach Leslie Frazier.
For the Giants, the most important story line is the game itself, because the outcome will determine whether they still own at least a share of the NFC East lead late Sunday night. They are 8-4 and tied with Philadelphia atop the division. A victory will assure the Giants of at least sharing the lead when they host the Eagles next week (Philly plays in Dallas Sunday night).
Beyond the division is the larger NFC postseason competition. Seven teams are 7-5 or better, but only five of them can make the playoffs.
"In order to keep pace with the way in which it's going and unfolding, you have to keep winning," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "You have to put yourself in that position. There isn't any doubt in anybody's mind that when we come to work in the exciting time of the year that it is, and it's exciting because when you win, you give yourself another opportunity and that's what you're trying to do is trying to create an opportunity for your team to be in position."
To avoid falling behind in the race, the Giants must defeat a team that has become a nemesis. That was never more apparent than on Jan. 3, when the Vikings jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead before Favre threw his fourth touchdown pass against a secondary in which three of the starters were Kevin Dockery, Michael Johnson and Aaron Rouse (Corey Webster and Aaron Ross did not play). The Vikings built a 44-0 advantage before the Giants scored a late touchdown that did little but enable them to avoid a shutout.
The Giants are concerned only with the task at hand, but they wouldn't mind enjoying a little payback in Minnesota.
"I remember everything they did," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "The blowout, them trying to run up the score, the different things they did out there. It's a big game for us this week, we have a lot to play for. No matter what they did last year, this is a game we need to win. That's what we're going to try and focus on.
"We're not worried about what happened last year, but you definitely think about how they did us," cornerback Terrell Thomas said. "We're down to two corners, they put four wide receivers out there - kind of no respect for us. It's a big game for us. We need this win. It's going to be a tough matchup for us, but we're looking forward to playing them."
That includes Manning, who completed 17 of 23 passes last season but couldn't get the Giants close to the end zone until it was too late. Manning insists the past problems against the Vikings have no bearing on the game Sunday at Mall of America Field.
"You go in each year and know your game plan," Manning said. "You have different guys and different things going on, so you're worried about this game and going out there and playing well."
The return of Diehl, Nicks and Smith will help his cause (though part of Diehl's task is maintaining the status quo on a line that hasn't allowed a sack in a Giants-record five consecutive games). The two receivers have combined for 109 catches, 1,317 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, so Manning might commandeer the wheel of the team bus to ensure that they arrive at the stadium on time.
"It's good that we're getting some guys back healthy," Manning said. "We can do a little bit more with our pass game. Some guys will be back at their natural position and that helps out a lot when you do go into multiple receiver sets. As you get on later in the season, the more guys you have who can play and step in, fill spots, moving guys around, the stronger we can be. We just have to keep everybody in-tune and knowing what's going on. Hopefully, we can start getting some guys back healthy. We'll see what the circumstances are. We have a lot of guys who can play. We have to keep working and understand what position they'll be playing and keep executing our routes."
Manning's soon-to-be 100 consecutive starts streak is the third-longest among active quarterbacks. His brother Peyton hit No. 205 in a victory last night in Tennessee. Favre's total of 297 stretches back to 1992. Whether he takes another step toward 300 is a mystery. Favre is listed as questionable for the game. The Giants think he will play.
"I expect to see Brett Favre," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "He's answered the bell every time. There is no reason for him not to answer the bell unless he just can't do it. Brett has always answered the bell. You've got to play the percentages and I'm saying he's going to answer the bell."
"Given Brett Favre's history, you know that Wednesday he could be down, Saturday night he'll be down, Sunday morning he can be down, but game time he's ready to play," linebacker Keith Bulluck said.
If Favre doesn't play, it will be Jackson, who was the winning quarterback when the Vikings won in Giants Stadium in 2007. Jackson threw only 12 passes that day (completing 10), largely because Minnesota scored three defensive touchdowns. Because they don't know who's going to play, the Giants have prepared to face either Favre or Jackson – or both.
"It's more difficult for us as coaches just from a planning standpoint," Fewell said. "The offense will remain the same. We know that, but then you have Favre and then you have Jackson and they're two different styles, so which style do you practice and prepare for? You have to practice and prepare for both. You try to divide your practice up where you have the Favre style and you have the Jackson style of what you may see."
No matter who plays quarterback, the Giants' most important task on defense will be stopping Adrian Peterson, who leads the NFC in yards from scrimmage (1,455) and is fourth in the league with 1,123 rushing yards.
"You hope to contain him," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "I will go out on a limb in saying he's the best all-around back in the league. He's running tough, even with that supposed ankle injury. He was out there on another level last week and he's a very talented guy. We just have to do a good job of making sure he has no alleyways. He does a great job of getting two yards, three yards, negative one, and then all of the sudden, he has 75. We can't allow him to have the big home run. Make him earn everything he gets and every time he touches the ball, make sure we have three or four guys in there."
Stopping Peterson is just one way the Giants need to take care of business on Sunday.
"You can't really look at their record," Manning said. "You look at their defense and they do a lot of good stuff with good players. We have to be physically and mentally prepared. We have to go out there and have to play our best football to win."
*Nicks (lower leg) and Smith (partially torn pectoral muscle) are listed as questionable. Smith said he will play, while Nicks will wait to get the okay from the team's medical staff.
"Everything responded better than I thought," Smith said of his practice week. "I know what I can do and I know my limitations. I think I'll be okay."
Smith took a fall in practice, but said he is fine.
"Just a normal fall," Smith said. "I'm glad I fell. I know I feel good."
"(He) jumped right up, so everybody kept going," Coughlin said.
Nicks was expected to miss approximately three weeks, but if he plays Sunday he would have sat out just two games.
"Everything was pretty good," Nicks said. "Originally, the doctors had me at three weeks so I think they're deciding to cut the three weeks short. I'm just waiting on the decision now."
Nicks hopes he's done enough to get on the field Sunday.
"Each game means something at this point, so missing games doesn't sit well with me," he said.
*The only Giant declared out of the game is offensive lineman Shawn Andrews (back). Center Shaun O'Hara (foot) is doubtful.
Diehl (hamstring/hip), Umenyiora (knee), cornerback/return specialist Will Blackmon (chest), running back Ahmad Bradshaw (wrist) and safety Brian Jackson (hand) are probable. All practiced fully except Jackson, who was limited.
*Minneapolis is expected to get several inches of snow tonight and tomorrow. As a result, the Giants have moved up their Saturday departure for the Twin Cities by approximately three and a half hours.