As the Giants studied the statistics of the Buffalo Bills, their opponents this week, three numbers could not have stood out more had they been written with a bright pink highlighter: 12, 16 and 11.
Twelve is Buffalo's NFL-leading number of interceptions, which is four more than anyone else in the league (San Francisco is second with eight). Sixteen is the Bills' league-high total of takeaways, two more than the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. And plus-11 is their NFL-best turnover differential.
As the 3-2 Giants attempt to put a game in the win column before their bye, they are very aware of the Bills' ability to force turnovers and ruin the carefully-constructed plans of opposing offenses. And the Giants don't need to be told how important it is to take care of the ball; they committed five turnovers in their loss to the Seattle Seahawks last week. They know they can't match that number when they face the Bills Sunday in MetLife Stadium.
So what, exactly, are the Bills doing to get all of these takeaways?
"They have good players and that's usually a good starting point," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "I think they're doing a great job of being opportunistic – a lot of tipped balls and they're grabbing them. They're just doing a very, very good job of taking advantage of any opportunities that come their way. We have to be obviously very careful and circumspect with how we take care of the ball. But they're flying around, there's no question."
"They do a good job getting turnovers," quarterback Eli Manning said. "(We) can't play any differently. We are going to go out there and run our offense and throw to the guy you think is open."
The Bills are not just intercepting passes, they're converting them into points. In the last three games, Drayton Florence, Bryan Scott and Nick Barnett have returned picks for touchdowns.
"Many of these interceptions have contributed to the opportunity for them to win," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "They have scored defensive touchdowns in three games … when you do the stats on that, it's normally between 75 and 85 percent wins if you score on defense. They're doing all the right things."
"They are fast," Manning said. "They run around and they make plays. They are stripping balls from guys or just being around the ball and getting it tipped up. They are very sound on defense. We have to make sure that we are careful with the ball. The receivers have to watch it all the way in and myself throwing it in the right spots, being accurate and making sure I am making the right reads."
Safety George Wilson is one of eight players with an NFL-leading total of three interceptions (Giants cornerback Aaron Ross is also in that group). Florence, Barnett and Scott have two picks apiece. Leodis McKelvin, Reggie Corner and Da'Norris Searcy each have one.
"That's definitely something that we take notice of at our position," said Hakeem Nicks, the Giants' leading receiver, of Buffalo's interception total. "We have to focus on our side of the ball. We have to make sure we are running our routes at the right depth. Making sure we are down with the timing with Eli this week specifically and know we've got to get our head around quick because they do feed off of that. They fly around. On film they fly around a lot and they've got guys who are hungry and look like they want to make plays out there."
"We understand that we have to take care of the ball and we are going to do that this week," wide receiver Victor Cruz said.
Taking care of the ball means securing it when it hits the receiver's hands, because the Bills have made a living by turning tipped passes into takeaways. When a pass down the center of the field is tipped, the end result is seldom good news for the offensive team.
"They've been Johnny-on-the-spot," Coughlin said of the Bills. "They've really reacted well with the ball in the air. They've closed on the ball, taken advantage of a bunch of those opportunities and put themselves in position where they've given up yardage, but because of the turnovers, they've kept the opponent out of the end zone."
"They have done a great job and it is not like balls are getting thrown right to them," Manning said. "They are getting pressure, they are getting tips and they are very good and athletic. When the ball is in the air, they are coming down with it."
For the Giants, the obvious question is how do you prevent the crippling tipped passes?
"Got to have great communication between quarterback and receiver," Coughlin said. "It's got to be decisive. (Tom) Brady had four interceptions against them, so they obviously do a good job of that. So you work very hard to put yourself in position where you're not so contested that the ball ends up being tipped. Some of it is because (the Bills) are aggressive, too. They play aggressively, they knock the receivers around. The receiver's not clear, the ball comes in that direction anyway, you hope it doesn't, but it does. That's how some of those situations occur.
"If it's a high ball, you have to get your eyes up. A lot of those things occur when the eyes are the last thing up and the hands are up there and you end up tipping the ball, the high ball. The ball catches you by surprise. You don't want that to happen. You have to see the ball all the way. You have to get your head and eyes right back to the ball. If you're surprised by the ball, whatever your body position, if you're surprised by the ball and you don't catch the ball and it's a high throw, it's going to be tipped. Any time you tip the ball over the middle of the field it's going the other way. The level of play at this level is far superior and the ball is going to get caught."
Manning, whose streak of 98 consecutive passes without an interception ended last week vs. the Seahawks, said he will focus this week on making good throws, as he always does, and not worry about interceptions.
"You just have to make your reads," Manning said. "It comes down to throwing it in the right spot and make sure your guys are winning. You have to have faith in guys and we do. We have been doing a good job, making plays and making good decisions.
"They have done a great job of making plays on defense. We have to make sure that they don't get many."
*Five Giants players have been declared out of Sunday's game: guard Chris Snee (concussion), running back Brandon Jacobs (knee), defensive end Justin Tuck (neck/groin), fullback Henry Hynoski (neck) and cornerback Prince Amukamara (foot).
Two players are questionable: center David Baas (neck) and long snapper Zak DeOssie (concussion). Both practiced on a limited basis.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (knee) and linebacker Michael Boley (knee) were limited, but are listed as probable for the game.
*Snee's absence will end his streak of consecutive regular season games played and started at 101. He was last sidelined when he missed the final five games of his rookie season in 2004 with an inflamed gland. Snee's streaks are the second-longest on the team to Manning, who has started 108 consecutive games. DeOssie has the next-longest games-played streak in a Giants uniform at 69 games, followed by Michael Boley at 29 games. (Deon Grant has played in 165 consecutive games for four teams: Carolina, Jacksonville, Seattle and the Giants).
With Snee sitting out, there is a four-way tie for the second-longest starting streak in a Giants uniform after Manning. Kareem McKenzie, Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Chris Canty have all started 21 consecutive games.
*DeOssie practiced today for the first time since suffering his concussion last week vs. Seattle.
"I was running downfield (in punt coverage)," DeOssie said. "Mark Herzlich and I converged on the punt returner, and I was collateral damage on the play. But those things happen."
DeOssie and the medical staff are following the protocol mandated by the NFL when a player suffers a concussion. It includes passing a battery of tests to confirm the player is healthy enough to return to the field.
"It's not my decision to make," DeOssie said. "I take all these necessary tests, and we have third parties that are making these decisions because of a conflict of interest with concussions. If I had it my way, I would have been back on Tuesday. But thank God we have a great staff here that pays attention to every detail and we take every precaution necessary because a concussion is very serious."
Asked about playing Sunday, DeOssie said, "I'm trying to find out myself. Again, I feel good. I practiced today and that was a big test. We'll see how it goes, and I feel pretty optimistic about it."
Tuck will miss his fourth game this season and has said as the defensive captain, he feels an urgency to return to the field. DeOssie is the special teams captain and while he has the same desire to play, he knows you can't be careless with his injury.
"We're talking about a concussion," he said. "We're not talking about a hamstring. So it's important to put my brain first and foremost before that urge to get on the field as captain. Yes, I want to be there for my teammates, there's no doubt. I would do everything I can do to be on the field when I need to be. In retrospect, when you step outside the box, when you're dealing with concussions, you need to take every precaution – get your family involved, get doctors involved, and it's essential you get all the right answers and you don't rush."
*Buffalo listed four players as out: tackle Demetrius Bell (shoulder), wide receiver Donald Jones (ankle), cornerback Aaron Williams (chest) and linebacker Chris Kelsay (calf).
Linebacker Shawne Merriman did not practice today and is doubtful with Achilles and shoulder injuries. Nose tackle Kyle Williams (foot), linebacker Nick Barnett (ankle) and safety Da'Norris Searcy (ankle) are questionable.
The Bills lead the regular season series, 6-4. This will be the Giants' first home game vs. the Bills since 2003, when Buffalo won, 24-7. The Giants lost the last three games in which they hosted Buffalo, in 1990, 1996 and 2003. The only time they defeated the Bills at home was in the teams' first-ever meeting on Dec. 6, 1970, when the Giants won, 20-6. The Giants won their most recent meeting, 38-21, on Dec. 23, 2007 in Buffalo. They also won the most significant game the teams played against each other, defeating the Bills, 20-19, in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa on Jan. 27, 1991.
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