The disappointment that the Giants felt when they missed the playoffs last season, 11 months after winning the Super Bowl, was only matched by their shock and confusion. They were 9–7, which isn’t bad. Along the way they beat some of the NFL’s best teams. But they also lost to Atlanta and Baltimore in Weeks 15 and 16 by a combined score of 67–14.
Those shocking blowouts set the tone for an offseason of introspection in which the Giants tried to restock for another run in the Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era. They know that the remaining players and coaches will be hungrier now, and that will certainly help.
But they knew they needed to find something else in the offseason, too. “We need to re-establish that toughness in front,” Giants co-owner John Mara says. “Teams ran the ball against us too easily last year. And the offensive line, that performance needs to get a little better, too.”
In other words, in an era that may very well be defined by speed and spread-option offenses, the Giants are going back to an old NFL truism: Games are won in the trenches. This season, they’re hoping that’s true.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 2nd
As long as Manning stays upright — and he’s started 146 consecutive regular-season and playoff games — the Giants’ offense should be fine. He’s so good that a shaky offensive line allowed a league-low 20 sacks last season, and the Giants averaged 26.8 points — sixth in the league — despite a middling rushing attack and a star receiver (Hakeem Nicks) battling a knee injury all year.
Nicks had that knee repaired during the offseason, and the Giants are convinced that if he’s healthy, they’ll have one of the most explosive offenses in all of football. Victor Cruz is a sensational slot receiver, but Nicks is their most dynamic receiving talent. And with promising young receiver Rueben Randle, they’ve got a threesome as good as they had when Mario Manningham was in town. Randle's presence is even more important given Nicks' injury history and the fact that Cruz injured his heel in a preseason game. And free agent pickup Brandon Myers, who caught 79 passes for 806 yards in Oakland in 2012, should be at least as good at tight end as Martellus Bennett was last season.
As for the middling rushing attack, with the oft-injured Ahmad Bradshaw gone, things are in the sometimes-slippery hands of David Wilson, their uber-explosive first-round pick from last year. Wilson only rushed for 358 yards in 2012, but he averaged a healthy 5.0 yards on his 71 carries. The Giants were planning on complementing Wilson's speed with Andre Brown's power, but the team's second-leading rusher last season suffered a fracture in his left leg playing in the final preseason game. This marks the second straight season Brown has broken that leg, although this fracture won't require surgery and he reportedly could be back in less than two months. Until then, the Giants will look to seventh-round pick Michael Cox and veterans Da'Rel Scott and Ryan Torain to help Wilson carry the load.
The Giants return their entire offensive line from last year, but injuries and age are catching up to this veteran group. Three of the returning starters had offseason surgeries, while four of them are already over 30 years old. The talent is there, but the Giants are crossing their fingers that the old gang will be able to hold together for one more year before the rebuilding starts in 2014. The early results have not been promising, as center David Baas and right tackle David Diehl both got hurt during training camp. Baas injured his knee, but he's hopeful to be ready by Week 1. That's not the case with Diehl, who needed surgery on his right thumb and is expected to miss most, if not all, of the first month of the regular season. These injuries put even more pressure on first-round pick Justin Pugh, who could start the season in Diehl's spot.
New York Giants: Game-by-Game Predictions for 2013
Perry Fewell’s defense was a big reason for the Giants' Super Bowl XLVII run, and perhaps the biggest culprit for the 2012 collapse. It was a disaster from front to back. It couldn’t stop the run. The coverage at times was terrible. And what once was a fierce pass rush was filled with players who looked old, tired and done. That miserable combination had them ranked 31st in the league.
What’s different this year? Not much other than the losses of several key players, including pass-rush specialist Osi Umenyiora. The Giants did beef up the middle of their defensive line, signing ex-Eagles defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. But other than plugging in ex-Cowboy Dan Connor at middle linebacker and bringing back Aaron Ross as the third or fourth corner, they didn’t do much. Losing starting strong safety Stevie Brown, who led the team with eight interceptions in 2012, to a season-ending ACL injury during the preseason certainly doesn't help either.
Despite Brown's loss, what the Giants' defense and coaching staff are counting on is that everyone will play better. They believe defensive end Justin Tuck, an aging warrior, has one last good season in him. They believe end Jason Pierre-Paul, after seeing his sack numbers fall off the cliff last year, can return to his dominant form, although his season debut could be delayed a game or two following June 4 back surgery. And they believe the defensive line will get a boost from Mathias Kiwanuka joining the fun after being miscast as a linebacker for several years.
From there, they pray that everything will fall into place. The Giants believe that everything starts up front — that if the defensive linemen can stop the run and rush the passer, their defense will be good again. Last year was a reminder of what can happen when their front line disappears.
The Giants have a solid, veteran pair of kickers, though it’s slightly different from a year ago. Gone is the clutch leg of kicker Lawrence Tynes, and in his place is veteran Josh Brown. If there’s a drop-off, it should be negligible. Steve Weatherford remains the punter and continues to be an underappreciated weapon who is a terrific directional punter and a master at handling the swirling Meadowlands winds.
The return game is a bit of an unknown, though. Wilson is a huge threat on kickoff returns — one of the most dangerous in the NFL. But with his increased role at running back, it’s unclear how much the Giants will use him on special teams. They don’t appear to have anyone else in his class. As for punt returns, Randle figures to get the first shot, though it depends on how he holds onto the ball. Coughlin values ball-security above all else. He’s not looking for a lot of yards — he just doesn’t want the ball to end up on the ground.
Final Analysis: 1st in NFC East
As bad as last year was — and it probably felt worse than it looked — the Giants were still 9–7 and in the playoff hunt until the final day. They haven’t gotten worse, so there’s no reason to believe they won’t be a contender again. They are going to score a lot of points, and probably will until Manning retires.
What separates this team from other contenders, though, is its defense. It was 31st last season and doesn’t look much better now. Unless Tuck can rediscover his youth, the pass rush can’t be better now that Umenyiora is in Atlanta. Pierre-Paul probably will return to form, but the defensive front doesn’t have the fear factor of the Giants’ last two Super Bowl teams.
So expect the Giants to be fun to watch. Expect them to beat some of the best teams in the NFL, and also to suffer some inexcusable losses. In other words, expect these Giants to look a lot like the confusing, maddening version from 2012. They are capable of great things — including the playoffs and a run to the Super Bowl — but it’s far from certain they’ll have enough consistency to reach their potential.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
San Francisco (9/3)