In the NFL, the quarterback almost always gets most of the credit when you win, most of the blame when you lose and most of the money either way.
That's certainly the case with Eli Manning of the Giants, who has been the subject of intense scrutiny since he came to the Giants in 2004.
And Manning surely will be a focal point in Monday night's critical NFC matchup against the Saints at the Superdome. But as much as Manning's play will be a major factor, there's another position that ought to be in the spotlight. The Giants' big-time, big-money defensive line, considered the team's greatest strength coming into the season, has been a colossal disappointment in recent weeks. And if they can't collectively put a heavy rush on Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense, not even Manning might be able to undo the damage.
"If we don't do that, then we minimize our opportunity to win," Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said of the Giants' pass rush. "The front four is vitally important. We've said to them, 'Hey, if we're going to be successful in this ballgame, you have to come through for us.' "
Simple as that.
What's not so simple is ending the slump in which the Giants have produced only five sacks in their last three games. They came into the weekend tied for the NFL lead with 31 sacks, 29 from their defensive linemen and hybrid pass-rusher Mathias Kiwanuka, who also plays linebacker. But they got only one hit on Eagles quarterback Vince Young in a home loss to the Eagles on Nov. 20, and their two-game losing streak after a strong performance against the Patriots has left the Giants a half-game behind the Cowboys in the NFC East.
"If you allow Drew Brees the opportunity to sit back there and go through his progressions, it's going to be a long night," said Justin Tuck, who has battled through an assortment of injuries and has only two sacks. Second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul leads the team with 10½ sacks.
So what's the root cause of the pass-rush problems? Good question. Fewell wishes he had the right answer. "I can't put my finger on it," he said.
He nevertheless is optimistic the Giants can find their rhythm against Brees, who is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record of 5,084.
"I do think we can return [to form] and we can rush these guys," Fewell said. "They have a good offensive line, don't get me wrong. They have a good, solid offense, period. There's really no weak links on that offense, but we just have to watch the occasion and our D-line has to come through for us."
It had better; otherwise, this will not be pretty for the Giants, whose beast of a second-half schedule continues with the Saints, then the unbeaten Packers at home, then the Cowboys on the road.
"Pressure is very important," Kiwanuka said. "The main thing is to get in [Brees'] face, up front, hit him, make him move his feet, get off of his launch point. That's the biggest thing we can do up front."
Not so easy, though. After giving up six sacks in a 31-21 upset loss to the previously winless Rams in St. Louis, the Saints haven't allowed a sack in either of their last two games.
"We have to play a lot better than we've played the last couple of weeks, and I think that's known in the room between each other," Giants defensive end Dave Tollefson said. "The bottom line is we get paid to get after the quarterback, and recently we haven't done it to the level that we expect ourselves to . . . We expect a lot of ourselves."
They should. There's too much talent on this unit to explain away their poor performances in recent weeks. Say what you will about Manning, who has to do his part in igniting an offense that also has stagnated. But if the Giants are going to reverse yet another second-half swoon and get back to the playoffs, the Giants' pass-rushers need to elevate their play in a hurry. If not, there's more misery ahead Monday night in the Big Easy.