The Giants were the class of the NFC East and a Super Bowl contender last season as late as the fourth quarter of their Week 15 game when they held a 31–10 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles. They were about to roll to their fourth straight win and were getting hot just in time for the playoffs.
If only they could’ve stopped the clock right there. The final 8:17 of that game, including DeSean Jackson’s game-ending punt return for a touchdown, will live in team infamy right alongside “The Miracle at the Meadowlands.” It sent the Giants into a mini-tailspin that left them out of the playoffs, despite an impressive record of 10–6.
Look beyond the collapse, though, and what you see is a veteran team returning most of its key players, and a team that barely lost a playoff race to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. They may have missed the postseason, but they showed they had — and still have — the talent to be among the best teams in the NFC.
All they have to do is avoid another late collapse.
For a team with the fifth-best offense in the NFL last year, the Giants sure were models of inconsistency. More often than not, that’s been the norm for veteran quarterback Eli Manning, who led the NFL with 25 interceptions last year. Add in six lost fumbles by running back Ahmad Bradshaw, and you can see why coach Tom Coughlin was so frustrated at the end of the year.
That’s not the mark of a Coughlin team, though, and there’s no reason to believe their butter-fingered ways will continue. Beneath all the drops — and the tipped passes — is a high-octane passing attack. Manning may not be on par with his Hall of Fame-bound brother, but he’s topped 4,000 yards each of the last two seasons. And with future Pro Bowler Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham at receiver, Manning has one of the most overlooked and dangerous receiving corps in the league. Nicks and Manningham combined to catch 139 passes last season.
The key to the offense, though, is the running game. Bradshaw tested the market in free agency before ultimately re-signing with the Giants for four years and a reported $18 million. A seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft, Bradshaw has emerged as one of the elite running backs in the league over the past few seasons. Last year, he carried the ball 276 times for 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns while adding 47 receptions for 314 yards. There are, however, questions about Bradshaw’s health; he’s had surgery on both feet and both ankles in the past two years. With Bradshaw taking on the role of leading man in the backfield, Brandon Jacobs has been relegated to a reserve role.
The offensive line, a strength of the team in recent years, will have at least two new starters after center Shaun O’Hara and guard Rich Seubert were released in late July. David Baas, who started 16 games in each of the past two seasons in San Francisco, was signed to replace O’Hara at center.
The Giants’ defense had 46 sacks, 16 interceptions, and 34 forced fumbles in Perry Fewell’s first season as defensive coordinator; so he accomplished one of his primary goals — making the Giants defense an aggressive, attacking unit again.
That bodes well for this season, especially with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora back at defensive end, each coming off 11.5-sack seasons. They give the Giants as good of a 1-2 pass-rushing punch as any team in the league, and will be even more dangerous if Mathias Kiwanuka — who was the team’s best defensive player when he got hurt last year — can approach his old form after injuring his neck.
The Giants also have quite an aggressive secondary. Cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster had five and four interceptions, respectively, last year, and first-round pick Prince Amukamara could end up being the best corner of all. Antrel Rolle also made plenty of big plays at safety in his first season in New York.
The biggest question mark on defense remains in the middle, where their linebacking corps has seemingly been in a state of flux for a decade. They have found a solid middle linebacker in Jonathan Goff, but they don’t have a lot of punch on the outside. The Giants have high hopes for Clint Sintim, a former second-round pick who has been a disappointment so far, and they spent $25 million two years ago on Michael Boley, who has provided only an occasional pass-rushing punch.
If there was one part of the team that was simply a disaster last year, this was it. But there’s hope that things will be considerably better in 2011. The Giants have a solid kicker in Lawrence Tynes, and they believe they upgraded at punter, as former Jet Steve Weatherford was signed to compete with (and likely replace) Matt Dodge, who was inconsistent (at best) as a rookie.
The return game may get a similar boost. Both the kickoff return and punt return teams were doomed last year when Domenik Hixon tore his ACL in a June mini-camp. Darius Reynaud and a host of others were dismal at best in his place. Hixon, though, is back and says he’s well-rested and feeling 100 percent. If he’s really back to his old self, he has the talent and speed to be one of the most explosive returners in the game.
The Giants are essentially what they’ve been for most of the Coughlin era — a flawed team that can be dangerous if it gets hot at the right time. They have big problems on special teams, some questions in the middle of their defense and lots of potential injury issues on offense. But when the Giants have a full roster and they’re clicking, they’re as explosive as any team in the NFL.
Think about what happened last year. The Giants lost their best defensive player (Kiwanuka), their No. 1 receiver (Smith), their center (Shaun O’Hara), two left tackles (David Diehl, Shawn Andrews), were disastrous on special teams and had a disheartening late collapse — and still had 10 wins and didn’t miss the playoffs until the final day of the season.
So if their luck changes on the injury front and they fix some of their problems, 10 wins might only be a starting point for this team. Even if things do go wrong, the Giants have the talent and the coaching to stay around .500 and keep their heads in the wild card chase until the very end.
Outside the Huddle
No Plax? No problem
Think the Giants are still looking for Plaxico Burress’ replacement? In three- and-a-half seasons in New York, he averaged 68 catches, 1,033 yards and nine touchdowns per season. Last year, in only 13 games, Hakeem Nicks caught 79 passes for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Production Rookie Jerrel Jernigan is joining one of the NFL’s top receiving corps — led by Hakeem Nicks (see above) — but the guy knows how to move the ball down the field. In four seasons at Troy, the 5'8" native of Eufala, Ala., caught 262 passes for 3,128 yards and carried the ball 132 times for 892 yards.
Right and wrong
Eli Manning completed a career-high 62.9 percent of his passes last year — his third straight year over 60 percent. On the downside, he was 0-of-1 with an interception throwing with his left hand. Manning was intercepted last year attempting to throw a shovel pass with his left hand. The righty is now 1-of-3 with two interceptions while throwing left-handed in his career.
Prince Amukamara, the Giants' first-round draft pick, is actually a prince. Sort of. His grandfather is the chief of Awo-Omamma in the Imo State of Nigeria, and Prince is next in line — if he ever decides to move to Nigeria. However, he was born in Boston, raised in New Jersey and Arizona and went to college in Nebraska. Osi Umenyiora is also an honorary chief of a tribe in Nigeria, while Mathias Kiwanuka is the grandson of Uganda’s first prime minister, Benedicto Kiwanuka.
Hit and miss
Tom Coughlin is considered one of the NFL’s best coaches when it comes to challenging officials, but his record on replay reviews is actually mixed. He was 7–5 last season, is 30–32 in his time with the Giants and just 40–41 in his career.
Give and take
The Giants committed an NFL-worst 42 turnovers last season, but it was hardly the norm for Coughlin’s team. In his seven seasons, the Giants have a plus-six in turnover ratio, including last year’s minus-3. In 2008, the Giants tied a then-NFL record for the fewest turnovers in a season with 13.
Light on LBs
Great linebacker play was once synonymous with Giants football, but they’ve been unable to find and develop good ones for most of the last decade. Since Jesse Armstead, a former eighth-round pick, went to his fifth straight Pro Bowl in 2001, the Giants have had just one Pro Bowl linebacker — Antonio Pierce, who went as an alternate in 2006. Since Lawrence Taylor’s last trip in 1990, Armstead and Pierce are the only Pro Bowlers.
The Giants ranked second in the NFL with 23 rushing plays that went for at least 20 yards. The Raiders led the way with 27.
Don’t go four it
The Giants were the NFL’s worst team on fourth down attempts, converting only 27 percent (3-of-11) all year.
Changing of the guard (and center)
The Giants’ streak of beginning the season with the same starting five along the offensive line will come to end at five. The team released center Shaun O’Hara and guard Rich Seubert in late July, shortly after the lockout ended.