It was midway through the 2012 NFL season that the New York Giants were riding high. They followed up their Super Bowl run of 2011 with a 6-2 start and a bid for a repeat title was very much alive. Then, Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast. While it’s a stretch to say the natural disaster provided the cause and effect, the hurricane does neatly divide the period between the good times and bad times for the Giants.
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New York lost five of their final eight games that season, with one win coming after their collapse was completed. Last year was a disaster from the start, with a 7-9 record and a non-playoff year—the fourth time in five years the Giants have finished out of the money.
Yet in spite of all this, New York is a credible threat to win the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles are the early season favorites to take the division, but that’s more the result of oddsmakers simply giving last year’s champ the benefit of the doubt. Meaning no disrespect to the Eagles, their 10-6 season and home playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints don’t exactly mark them an unbeatable favorite.
If you’re skeptical of the Eagles’ ability to win the NFC East two straight years—and I am—the Giants are the natural team to turn to.
Yes, the Dallas Cowboys will be in the conversation, as they always are. But with a track record of December disappointment and a roster slightly less talented than New York’s in any case, there’s no reason to assume the Cowboys will break their run on the 8-8 treadmill.
And those of us who are fans of the Washington Redskins can point to the fact that when Robert Griffin III enters a season healthy, the ‘Skins win the NFC East—that’s a 1-for-1 proposition. But it usually takes me until August to get that level of optimism worked up and even then, I’m not sure I could make a case to persuade an objective observer—the Redskins have too many issues with fundamental play to think about anything beyond game-to-game improvement.
That leaves the Giants as the principal challenger to the Eagles, and I like the chances for Tom Coughlin’s team. The 7-9 record came in a year where about the maximum amount realistically possible, went wrong. Eli Manning was horrendous, throwing 27 interceptions. The pass rush, the key to their 2007 Super Bowl run, and to a lesser extent in 2011, collapsed. The running game was non-existent. The Giants lost their first six games and never really got back into the race.
The 0-6 start points out though, that this team did finish on a good, sustained up note. New York won seven of their final ten games and built some momentum back up for the New Year. Let’s run through a few keys to their success for the coming season.
*The offensive line has to stabilize. This is a unit that’s been in decline, and there are some changes up front. A center has to be identified and Chris Snee has to stay healthy. I expect this unit to be a bit better than in 2013. The days of the Giants lining up and running over people are gone for now, but this is still a group that’s good at pass protection and capable of at least making the running game a respected option again.
*Jason Pierre-Paul has to become a real threat to pressure the quarterback again. The defensive end’s game fell off badly, and with Justin Tuck departed for the Oakland Raiders, it’s Pierre-Paul that has to give the defense it’s big-play ability up front back. New York tied for 25th last year in sacks.
*Rueben Randle has to take that proverbial next step at wide receiver. Randle is in his third year out of LSU and has shown the ability to be a big-play receiver, but the Giants need him to stretch defenses consistently. If he can, we know Victor Cruz can get himself open on mid-range routs. So can Odell Beckham, and another possession target, Mario Manningham, is back in New York this season.
*Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie needs to have a big year at corner. He’s the one capable of being a real lockdown corner, and if you combine that kind of elite play with the steadiness you get from Antrell Rolle at safety, the Giants suddenly have a really good secondary. In spite of the problems with the pass rush last year, the secondary still did a good job limiting big plays, finishing fourth in the NFL in yards per pass attempt.
*Will anyone emerge at running back? New York signed Rashad Jennings from Oakland, and drafted Boston College’s Andre Williams, who finished second in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting. I like Williams a lot, although in either case, the success of these players is tied very directly to the offensive line. Neither is going to create a lot on their own.
I think most of these questions invite an optimistic outlook if you’re a Giants fan. Even the running game, where I’m most pessimistic, has to be better than last year, when no one even cleared 500 rush yards for the season.
That leads us to the big question and that’s the quarterback. I’ve never been a promoter of Eli, but that was only when the media was insisting on ramming him down our throats as “elite” based solely on two miracle January runs, one of which (2007) was far more about the defensive line than about him.
But at the same time, who really thinks Manning is as bad as he looked last year? Or who even thinks that, in the bigger picture, he’s even just average? I still consider him an above-average quarterback and fully expect him to return to that level in 2014.
Thus, we have a team that finished on a strong run in 2013 in spite of their quarterback being an interception machine, having no running game, no pass rush and fumbling the ball more than any team outside the city of Buffalo. How can they not be better?
If there were a great team in the NFC East, I wouldn’t see the Giants as division title material. But in a division whose champion might only be the sixth-best team in the entire NFC, it will take no more than 10 wins to find yourself hosting a playoff game. I won’t make my final predictions until just prior to the September 4 opener, but I’m leaning to picking New York to win the NFC East.