There's a difference between the pretenders and the contenders in the NFL. The pretenders tease their fans with weekly dalliances with victory while the contenders find ways to close out opponents and seal those victories. As much as the 2015 Giants were pretenders, the 2016 Giants have taken on the identity of contenders.
The transformation began at the end of last season, a year in which the Giants saw six fourth quarter leads evaporate en route to a 6-10 finish. The defense was decimated by injuries and could not log in 60 full minutes of work and the letdowns were of historic proportions. The mandate from ownership was to fix the defense.
GM Jerry Reese did just that. He wisely held on to DE Jason Pierre-Paul and several other key pieces such as DT Johnathan Hankins, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, LBs Jonathan Casillas and Devon Kennard and crossed his fingers that safety Landon Collins would use his demoralizing rookie season as motivation to become a better player. He guessed right on all counts.
Then he went out and filled some major holes in free agency, nearly breaking the bank with the signings of DT Damon Harrison, DE Olivier Vernon, CB Janoris Jenkins and LB Keenan Robinson. Again, Reese's decisions have been right on.
The Giants are 7-3, with all seven victories and two of their losses coming by seven points or less. The defense is closing out the games they could not last year and the Giants are quickly becoming heavyweights in the NFC.
On Sunday, Big Blue trailed the 2-7 Chicago Bears, 16-9, at halftime. The defense did not allow the Bears another point as the offense scored just enough to seal the win, 22-16. The win was the Giants' fifth in a row, their first five-game winning streak in six years. The 7-3 start is the best 10-game start since they were 9-1 in 2008.
The win completed a a successful midseason three-game homestand. The Giants are now 5-1 at MetLife Stadium this season. It was the franchise's first three-game homestand sweep since 1962.
Two elements of the Giants' game that have been frustrating them all season -- the running game and the pass rush -- again showed signs of revivals. They rushed for over 100 yards for the second straight week and sacked the quarterback a total of four times. JPP had 2.5 sacks, Hankins had a half-sack and Vernon had the other -- his third in as many games.
Perhaps what was most encouraging was the play of the youngsters. This year's top draft pick, CB Eli Apple, led the team in tackles with a pass defended and a key fumble recovery on special teams. Second-round selection Sterling Shepard had five receptions including a touchdown. And once again, Collins was a force.
The second year safety out of Alabama made the big play to seal the game, picking off a Jay Cutler pass at the Giants' 21-yard line with 1:11 remaining to end the Bears' last threat. Collins, who is tied for the NFL lead in INTs with five, has now intercepted at least one pass in four consecutive games, the first Giants player to do that since cornerback Phillippi Sparks also had a four-game streak from Oct. 15 to Nov. 12, 1995.
It is all coming together this season for the Giants. They have one more victory after 11 weeks than they did all of last year. With a two-game rust belt trip to Cleveland and Pittsburgh the next two weeks, they will try to keep pace with the 9-1 Dallas Cowboys, who they play at home in three weeks.
This season certainly has taken on a life of its own. Even if the Giants continue to fly by the seat of their pants the rest of the way, Reese has turned this franchise around. They're contenders now.