Just like in the summer of ‘07, the Giants weren’t expected to make much noise this season. After making quick free agent splashes with top UDFA Mark Herzlich and C David Baas, Big Blue found itself sitting idly by as other teams stole headlines and marquee names.
GM Jerry Reese was under serious fire before a single preseason snap was played. Two of Eli’s top targets, Steve Smith and Kevin Boss, were allowed to quietly walk out the door and in one case into the arms of the franchise’s most hated rival. Ahmad Bradshaw too was almost not retained, but a pay cut taken by Brandon Jacobs led to his return.
After a season staggered with disappointing losses to lesser opponents (including opening day), the Giants appear to have hit their stride in the closing two weeks. In Week 16 of 2007, it was the Bills that the Giants surged past to clinch a playoff berth and in 2011 they would step on the throats of a free falling Gang Green.
I agree there are similarities, but there is also one alarming difference. Earth, Wind, and Fire is no more. In 2008, Brandon Jacobs teamed with Derrick Ward to amass over 2,000 yards on the ground. The pair was so effective that Ahmad Bradshaw barely even saw the field during the entire campaign despite playing a major roll in the previous post-season success of the franchise.
This year, a less effective offensive line and dinged up RBs have hampered Big Blue. The good news, Eli Manning has managed to counter the lack of balance by putting on a passing clinic. He has racked up 4,933 passing yards in 16 games. After publicly claiming that he was in Tom Brady’s class, Manning backed up his words by finishing just 67 yards shy of 5,000. His 15 4th quarter TD’s broke an NFL record that was previously held by big brother Peyton.
An equally dangerous ground game might have lowered Eli’s career-high numbers, but it would make for a more dangerous post-season offensive attack. Thus far, the Giants have banked on the ground game producing brief spurts of genius with mid range TD runs and the occasional break out. While this is of course a positive, I still feel that the Giants will miss the ability of the rush to set the tone and allow Eli to control the game and the clock.
On the flip side, there is a positive difference between this season and the prior Super Bowl run. The Giants currently have Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham at their disposal. None of the current Giants receivers were on the championship roster. That game’s heroes included the likes of David Tyree (who will be on the sidelines Sunday) and current Jet Plaxico Burress. As many of you probably remember, current Eagle (see: not in playoffs) Steve Smith hauled in a key 3rd down conversion on the Giants historic final drive.
Obviously there is great anticipation to see if Cruz’s sensational performances will continue into the playoffs, but Eli’s other top option will also need to perform at a high level. While Cruz’s big play potential has made Nicks look like a possession receiver as of late, the former UNC star is far from it. Yet to make a post-season appearance, I am very excited to see what he will do. This week could prove especially interesting for the WRs as Atlanta CB Brent Grimes may not be able to overcome injury in time for Sunday’s kickoff.
Jake Ballard, who is attending the ceremony for the Giants at The Empire State Building this evening, is expected to return to action. Along with Manningham, Eli’s top 4 targets should be readily available.
Before we focus on the Falcons, I’ll end with another similarity to the 2007 run. The key to the Giants defensive success then was the possession of 3 stellar DEs. With Osi Umenyiora expected to play despite a minor setback to his ankle, the Giants once again boast a full compliment of pass rushers. Unlike in ’07 however, future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan has been replaced by a surging Jason Pierre-Paul.
I still have concerns regarding both Tuck and Osi’s durability. In the later stages of the season, Tuck was pulled out of games several times due to his litany of physical ailments. He looked ferocious against Dallas, but then too he needed to nurse a shoulder flare up. The Giants not only need consistent production from all three rushers (I have no catchy nickname for them as my “writing assistant” failed to produce one), but they also need them to stay healthy throughout the entirety of the playoff run.
Now on to the matchups for Sunday. Matt Ryan has yet to notch a post-season win but there is a first time for everything. His 4,177 yards this season top his previous career high by 472. He will have at his disposal Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. If a short passing game with three dangerous receiving threats is not enough to overtake the pass rush, then Atlanta will turn to Michael Turner for answers.
The pass rush has and will continue to make the secondary look better than it truly is. The linebackers will need to play to their fullest potential to help carry the load.
If the Giants can stifle both Turner and the Falcon air attack, then Atlanta will have to rely on their defense to stop Manning. Ranked 8th in pass defense, sleeping on them wouldn’t be wise. While not stellar, remember that 11 of their games were played in a dome (perfect passing conditions).
The Falcons were less successful against the rush and gave up 114.6 yards per game. Again, the Giants would benefit from the formidable rushing attack that they boasted not so long ago. An above average game from either Jacobs or Bradshaw will go a long way.
Trust me, I’d love to be angrier. But when the coach who’s head you have been calling for kicks out of a two count and carries his now revived team into the playoffs, it can be easy to see the glass as slightly above half full. At the end of the day (I owe Anrel Rolle a royalty fee), only one similiarity or difference will matter for the Giants and their fans.
In 2007, Tom Coughlin’s attempt to revive a rock bottom Giants team appeared to be at its end. After starting the season 0-2, the Giants completely shutdown in a Week 15 cupcake matchup against guess who?: The Washingston Redskins. An improbable and thrilling playoff run, culminating in the greatest upset in Super Bowl history saved my fellow Syracuse grad’s tenure in New York. Will the story be the same in 2011? Love me or hate me, I’d love to have more comparisons to draw for the Divisional Round.