by Paul West
The New York Giants are headed to the playoffs for the first time since beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI; but their 11-5 record belies a season in which frustration and disappointment have been recurrent.
A pair of December losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, both of which would have kept them in contention for the NFC East title, put the team’s deficiencies on display and left many wondering if they were a true contender. Despite a collection of talented receivers who are the envy of much of the league, the offense was held back by baffling miscues and even more baffling play calling. The defense struggled to stop opposing passing attacks for much of the season, and the secondary often seemed like a blown coverage waiting to happen. Talented cornerback Eli Apple was temporarily felled by injury, and elite receiver Odell Beckham, Jr let defenders’ antics and head games hamper his production. Poorly protected by an underperforming line, Eli Manning was erratic, missing downfield throws and making poor decisions in the red zone. But aided by a defense that synthesized into dominance down the stretch, the Giants won their last game of the season–a week after backing into the postseason via a Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss–and employed their starters for the majority of a game they didn’t need. They also directly ended the season of divisional rival Washington, and entered the postseason with a sense of momentum. The win set up an NFC Wild Card game in which the Giants will travel to Lambeau Field to face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers‘ red-hot offense. It also left many Giants fans wondering: have we seen this movie before?
The Giants’ 2012 Super Bowl run followed a 9-7 season filled with disappointing moments and injuries; despite winning their division, they entered the playoffs as the 4 seed, and had to go through Rodgers and the Packers, at Lambeau, in the second round. En route to their 2008 Super Bowl XLII victory, in which they began the postseason as the Wild Card, they had to go through–you guessed it–Lambeau, this time in the NFC Championship. In both cases, the Lombardi Trophy favorite was Tom Brady and the Patriots, who entered the postseason as the top seed in the AFC. In both cases, the Giants beat Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Did you know that Eli Manning has won his last seven games as a playoff underdog?
During Eli’s tenure, the Giants have often underperformed during the regular season; but when they’ve made the postseason, they’ve been as hard to put away as any team in the NFL. This has largely been fueled by game-changing pass rushers like Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, as well as epic moments at the hands–or helmets–of the likes of Victor Cruz, David Tyree and Mario Manningham. But the one constant has been the goofy yet unflappable cool of Peyton’s younger brother.
Of course, true to form, the Giants are once again on the short side of the odds. After struggling early in the season, the Packers have run the table–as Rodgers famously predicted–to win the NFC North. Rodgers is playing like a two-time MVP again; Jordy Nelson is playing like an elite wideout again; and with Randall Cobb injured, Davante Adams has emerged as a dangerous receiver (meanwhile, Cobb has returned to practice and is expected to be active in the Wild Card game). Rodgers is extending plays like he’s in a video game, an ability well suited to counter the Giants’ defensive strengths: while he’s cycling around the backfield, his receivers are cycling around downfield, and the Packers’ scramble drills can create nightmares for defensive backs. The Giants rely on pocket pressure to create chances for a secondary that’s gone from unreliable and injury prone to opportunistic and explosive, and if they can’t keep Rodgers in the pocket (he’s a threat to run downfield, as well, if rushers abandon their lanes), the Packers could go into video game mode. This will require the Giants to win a shootout, which, given the Packers’ vulnerability to downfield passing, is a possibility.
Aside from containing Rodgers, the key to a Giants victory–indeed, to their postseason–will be their talented but underachieving offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan‘s insistence on establishing the run often keeps the offense from establishing a rhythm; the result is frequent third-and-long situations and frequent punts. If this remains the case, the Packers will have multiple chances to take a multiple-score lead, and the Giants could be buried early. But the Giants, as they’ve shown late in games when forced into their hurry-up offense, have a number of scoring threats. Cruz is finally working his way back into the flow; given his playoff experience and established chemistry with Eli, his resurgence could open things up for Beckham and talented rookie receiver Sterling Shepard. If Sullivan lets Manning, Beckham, Cruz, Shepard, and dual-threat running back Paul Perkins get flowing, it will keep the Giants in the game and keep their defense from getting run ragged. And if the Giants get through Lambeau, they’ll go on the road to face a Dallas Cowboys team they swept this season.
Eli and the Giants seem at their most relaxed when the odds seem to be against them; lately, even the emotional Beckham seems to be developing an air of calm. One thing we do know: they’re not afraid to be the underdog.