Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The New York Giants check in at No. 5.
It was as if lightning struck twice in the same spot on the same day four years apart. That’s how similar the Giants’ surprise 2011 championship season was to their incredible 2007 run.
And when it happened again, when they made it two Super Bowl championships in five seasons, the Giants should’ve been branded an NFL powerhouse and a franchise on the verge of becoming a dynasty. Instead, they have the same questions they left open the last time they were defending champions:
Are they on the verge of greatness? Or was the whole thing just a fluke?
That may be an insulting question to the defending champs, but it’s one they’re going to have to answer this season. Are they the team that was struggling at 7–7 just before Christmas, or the team that went on a 6–0 roll for the ages through Green Bay, San Francisco and then the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI?
They return most of the starters from the team that won it all. They just need to prove that they were more than an average team that got hot at exactly the right time.
Eli Manning backed up his words and proved he is “elite” entering 2012, vaulting himself into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. His 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns and 61 percent completion rate were things the Giants had dreamed of since the blockbuster draft-day trade in 2004. The fact that he dropped his interception total from 25 to 16 was a welcomed change, too.
Of course, the doubters never cease, so the big question is: Can he do it again? Can he carry the Giants again? He helped an unknown, undrafted receiver in Victor Cruz (82 catches, 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns) become a star. He overcame a shaky, injury-riddled offensive line and the NFL’s worst rushing attack. He was the reason they survived early on and then thrived late in the season.
Can everyone else join him on the elite level? It won’t be easy, because there are some missing pieces. The most notable absence is receiver Mario Manningham, who left as a free agent and left a hole on the outside opposite Hakeem Nicks. Presumably that hole will be filled by Rueben Randle, a second-round pick out of LSU. His presence will allow Cruz to stay in the slot, where he’s as dangerous as they come.
The running game remains a big question, though. The loss of Brandon Jacobs (152 carries, 571 yards) to free agency isn’t a big one, especially since they replaced him with a first-round pick (David Wilson of Virginia Tech). But Ahmad Bradshaw has a history of foot and ankle injuries and is still recovering from yet another offseason “procedure” on his foot. Also, Bradshaw’s average of 3.9 yards per carry in 2011 was the lowest of his five-year career.
There’s no guarantee the rushing attack will be any better this season. That puts everything on “Elite” Eli’s shoulders again.
If there’s any area emblematic of how schizophrenic the Giants were last season, it’s the defense, which was beyond awful at times, and brilliant when it counted. They managed to shut down three pretty potent offenses in the playoffs — the Falcons, Packers and Patriots — and displayed a devastating pass rush throughout. Yet the defense ranked only 27th during the regular season and was a big reason why the team almost missed the playoffs.
One thing they clearly have, when healthy, is one of the best pass rushes in the league. Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (nine) were a devastating duo, and Justin Tuck is their most complete end. Chris Canty knows how to get pressure from the inside at tackle.
It’s the rest of the defense that could be an issue. The Giants have a linebacking corps with talent — Michael Boley, Mathias Kiwanuka, newly acquired Keith Rivers and speedy Jacquian Williams — but no true middle linebacker and no real impact player. In the secondary, they have cornerback Corey Webster and safety Antrel Rolle, but their hopes are pinned on Terrell Thomas’ attempt to return from a torn ACL, Prince Amukamara’s recovery from a foot injury, and safety Kenny Phillips’ attempt to rediscover his explosiveness in a contract year.
The secondary played very well during the playoff run, but Perry Fewell’s defense is only as good as its pass rush. If Tuck and Umenyiora can stay healthy, and Pierre-Paul can continue his march toward what seems to be an inevitable Defensive Player of the Year award, the defense will be as good as any in the league. If the pass rush falters, the Giants could be in a lot of high-scoring games.
One year after they couldn’t survive the foibles of a shaky rookie punter, the Giants found one they want to keep in Steve Weatherford, who was a rock on special teams. He had a brilliant season, showing a stronger-than-expected leg and a Jeff Feagles-like knack for hitting the sidelines and the corners of the field. That had a remarkably settling effect on the Giants’ special teams, which had been one of their biggest problems in 2010. The coverage improved dramatically and opposing return men didn’t seem so dangerous anymore.
The Giants’ return men weren’t very dangerous either, though. They hope Domenik Hixon can make it back from a second ACL tear. More likely, however, the Giants will hand return duties to a couple of speedy second-year players in Jerrel Jernigan and Da’Rel Scott.
Lawrence Tynes has been both consistent and clutch in his years with the Giants. The team’s last two trips to the Super Bowl were clinched on his overtime kicks in the NFC Championship Game.
Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC East
Here’s the lesson from last season: Count out the Giants at your own risk. They are talented. They are resilient. They are well-coached. And they have an internal clock that lets them know when it’s crunch time. They came back from a fourth quarter deficit to win seven times last season, including in Super Bowl XLVI. They came back from the brink of elimination with a run for the ages that began on Christmas Eve. And here’s something to note: Four years ago their remarkable run to the Super Bowl XLII championship didn’t end at their parade. They opened the following season on an 11–1 run and might’ve won it all had Plaxico Burress not infamously shot himself in the leg.
Assuming nothing like that happens again, the Giants should be considered the favorites in the NFC East and a true Super Bowl contender. Whether they win it all will depend on health and whether they can get hot again late in the season. But they’ll be in the hunt. There are no signs that this team is going away.
Related: 2012 New York Giants Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Live from New York …
After winning his second Super Bowl (one more than his brother), Eli followed his brother Peyton into the spotlight at Studio 8H and became the 10th NFL personality (nine players and John Madden) and fifth quarterback to host “Saturday Night Live.” He had turned down the job in 2008, months after Peyton hosted, because, Eli said, “Peyton had done so well. I thought it might be a little fresh in everyone’s mind.”
No Pressure, Kid
When the Giants took tight end Adrien Robinson in the fourth round, Giants GM Jerry Reese called him “The JPP of tight ends.” That’s a tough moniker to live up to, considering “JPP” is Jason Pierre-Paul, a raw rookie in 2010 who is now one of the best defensive players in the NFL. In four years at Cincinnati, Robinson caught 29 passes.
Has anyone ever come from farther out of nowhere than Victor Cruz? The former undrafted free agent caught 82 passes for a franchise-record 1,536 yards last season. His goal before the year started? “To catch a pass in a game that mattered,” he said.
The Giants traded for a former first-round linebacker, Keith Rivers, but they still didn’t draft one of their own. That makes 28 consecutive drafts for the Giants without taking a linebacker in Round 1. Their last one? Carl Banks in 1984.
From Butter To Glue
In 2010 the Giants’ season disintegrated in a mess of turnovers — 42 to be exact — which was very unusual for a Tom Coughlin team. In 2011 they nearly cut the number in half, dropping to 24 and having a plus-7 turnover ratio. In the postseason they were even better — one interception, no fumbles, plus-6 in four games.
Airing It Out
The Giants had the NFL’s worst rushing offense in 2011, and the big-play part of their game disappeared. One year earlier they were second in the NFL with 23 runs of 20 yards or more. Last year? An NFL-worst four. Of course, the Giants were fifth in the league with 67 pass plays of 20-plus yards.
Breaking Up The Band
From 2007-09, David Diehl, Rich Seubert, Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee and Kareem McKenzie set a post-NFL merger record, starting 38 straight regular-season games together as an offensive line. Now only Diehl and Snee remain, and only Snee (right guard) will still be playing in the same position this season.
The Giants feel like they have two No. 1 and two No. 2 draft picks joining the team this year because their top two picks in 2011 had lost seasons. Cornerback Prince Amukamara, the first rounder, lost all of training camp and nine regular-season games with a broken foot. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, the second-round pick, was sidelined for the entire season with a torn pectoral muscle. Austin also missed his senior season of college while serving a suspension, so he hasn’t played football since 2009.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9:Chicago Bears
No. 8:Atlanta Falcons
No. 7:Baltimore Ravens
No. 6:Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5:New York Giants
No. 4: Tues., August 28
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Related: 2012 New York Giants Schedule Analysis