January 2006


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The back pages. All week long, the back pages. Pictures of Tiki, Strahan, Eli, Coughlin; big, bold headlines with some innocent enough comment turned into a screaming headline. There’s nothing like playoff fever, and with the Mets and Yankees quiet, the Knicks a lost cause (or so it seemed a week ago) and hockey still dead (Mark Messier night notwithstanding), the Giants were the only show in town. What a pleasure it is to read every article in every paper, to pour through quotes and gauge the confidence levels of both teams, to listen to every expert’s “keys to the game� – the awesome anticipation of it all!

Early in the week, the forecast was predicting low 40s and rainy, a real unpleasant, slushy, nasty day for what was going to be, by all indications, a hard-fought battle between two very evenly matched teams. Both the Giants and the Panthers came into the game with identical 11-5 records, and had pretty much stayed within a game of each other among the upper echelon of the NFC the entire season. The Panthers had shown flashes of brilliance at times, but had been plagued by an inconsistency all year long that had prevented them from attaining the NFC top-dog status that, with the dropoff of the Eagles, many people thought was theirs for the taking. Their previous two games illustrate this frustrating inconsistency: First, a bitter home loss to a decent, but inferior Cowboys team that would ultimately preclude them from winning the division; but the next week, an impressive 44-11 road blowout of the Falcons (who, admittedly, seemed to have mailed in their season) that propelled them into the playoffs. The question remained: Just who were the real Panthers?

Nobody knew, but we did know this: they were led by an outstanding defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in DVOA (an advanced metric created by the smart folks at footballoutsiders.com that breaks down every play of the NFL season and calibrates each play to the league average, which you can read about further by clicking on my simplified explanation here), a unit spearheaded by the league’s best front four, as well as an outstanding secondary that gives them the ability to blitz frequently because their defensive backs are more than capable of holding their own. On offense, they were led by Steve Smith, the electrifying little dynamo who was the consensus best receiver in the NFL this year, and their sometimes brilliant but interception-prone quarterback Jake Delhomme, to go along with their sometimes-brilliant, but sometimes-ineffective running game comprised of the big-small combination of DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings. We knew that the Panthers were good, but there were a lot of variables that would determine exactly how good.

The same could be said about the Giants, a team that had looked outstanding at times this season, but came into this game with both a struggling young quarterback and a severely depleted linebacking corps. Eli Manning had a wondrously auspicious start to his first full season as a starter: through his eighth game, he had thrown 14 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions, but he struggled mightily in the second half, throwing 15 interceptions to 10 touchdowns. Eli is still The Franchise, and his second half dropoff, while indeed an extreme case, is not uncommon to young quarterbacks who are enduring the rigors of their first full season of NFL action. It is clear, though, that Eli is not an excellent NFL quarterback quite yet (he ranked 21st in DVOA among quarterbacks), and that the days where he will be leading the Giants to the Super Bowl, as opposed to competently riding the coattails of an offense chock-full of weapons, are somewhere in the future. And as the New York papers pointed out ad nauseum all week long, the bulls-eye is clearly on Eli’s back in this game; the Panthers have declared a pre-game defensive strategy of ganging up to stop Tiki Barber in the running game, leaving them to take their chances with the young quarterback and his passing game.

The linebackers, by this point and after so many news articles, are another old story. To quickly rehash, they have lost four of their top five guys, and enter this playoff game with only one player (Nick Greisen) who was even within shouting distance of the rotation, let alone the team itself, at the beginning of the year. The other starting linebackers are Alonzo Jackson — who has been playing special teams the entire year — and Kevin Lewis, a former starter for the Giants who lost his roster spot to Chase Blackburn (since injured) and whom the Giants rescued from the unemployment line a few weeks ago. The linebackers looked competent last week against the Raiders, however, and the Panthers running game, while occasionally excellent, doesn’t exactly inspire fear. It should be an excellent game, and nobody knows who is going to win. The Vegas odds have the Giants favored by 3 at home, a line that gives you a good idea of who the home team is, but not necessarily of who the better team is.

79,378 Giant fans have an opinion on the matter though, as they rabidly wave white towels given to them at the gate in giddy anticipation of their first playoff game since 2002, and their first home playoff game since 2000. Those early reports of crummy weather have proven false; as kickoff approaches, it is a gloriously sunny day in the Tri-State area, with a dry field and a neutral temperature in the high 40s, conditions you would expect more in Charlotte, North Carolina than East Rutherford, New Jersey. Nevertheless, “Hell’s Bellsâ€? blares, as it has all season, the crowd crescendos, as they have all season — only this time with more vehemence — and when Jay Feely puts the foot to it, the playoffs are underway.

Things look promising for Giants in the early going: with Carolina facing a 3rd and 13 on their first series, Osi Umenyiora swoops around the edge and dexterously knocks the ball loose from Jake Delhomme’s hand, a move that the freakishly athletic Umenyiora has perfected in this his breakout year, and although the Panthers recover the fumble, it seems as if more good things are in store for the jacked-up Giants and their hungry fans. This optimism continues as the Giants take possession, pick up a quick first down, and then cross into Panther territory on the next play, a 7 yard run by Tiki Barber, presumably the first of many Tiki successes. So far, so good.

The Giants stall on this drive, however, when they fail to convert a 3rd and 2, and from there, the remainder of the first quarter would lock into a brisk, intense stalemate, with both offenses playing it close to the vest. But as the teams switch sides for the second quarter, the Panthers are able to string together some first downs — four of them on the drive — to take them down to the Giant 22. On the next play, the Panthers eschew incremental progress and send the blazingly fast Steve Smith on a circular post pattern, who easily beats the overmatched Terrell Buckley and is hit in stride for the touchdown. A ghastly silence falls over the Meadowlands as Smith unveils his latest creative touchdown celebration, a mimed snow-angel on the Meadowlands field turf — forget that the weather is temperate and sunny. It wasn’t his greatest stroke of creativity, but he makes his point: the Panthers are perfectly comfortable here in Meadowlands, and the shocked silence of the crowd is supplanted by a kind of wounded booing. On the play, the Giants had Terrell Buckley in press, bump-n-run coverage against the speedy Smith, with safety Brent Alexander stationed deep to provide the over-the-top help. But the Panthers sent their other receiver — lined up wider than Smith on the same side — on a deep pattern, and Alexander overanxiously jumped this outside receiver and lost track of Smith. This left Smith in a one-on-one with the aged Buckley, who was a fine corner in his day, which happened to be in the mid-nineties, and who the Giants signed towards the end of the year as a “street free agent.â€? Needless to say, the NFL’s best receiver won this matchup, staking his team to the 7-0 lead.

It was a long, bruising clockeater of a drive for the Panthers, 7:46 all told, and now it’s been a while since the Giants have had the ball. There is a palpable tension in the Meadowlands right now; the Panthers drive was a statement. But the Giants are able to pick up a couple of first downs on their ensuing set, and get into Panther territory before stalling, forcing an excellent Feagles punt which pins the Panthers down at their own 7.

The crowd celebrates the punt, trying very, very hard to stay alive as a presence for their home team, and they rise to their feet when the Panthers quickly face a 3rd and 8. But Nick Goings, the Panthers darting change-of-pace back, catches a pass out of the backfield and scurries his way to the first down, and the disappointed, antsy onlookers must settle back down in their seats. Soon enough, however, the Panthers face another 3rd and long, this time a 3rd and 11, and the crowd dutifully rises again – this time we’ll stop ‘em! But it is Goings again, on a draw play this time, picking up 10 yards before he is even touched, falling across the first down marker for the next disappointment as the clock continues to tick – 2:29 remaining in the half now – and the uneasiness continues to build. Goings again on the next play, ripping one off for 18 yards that gets the Panthers close to midfield; at this point, things look bleak. The Giants inability to stop the Carolina run is extremely troubling, with their struggling linebackers getting pushed around and missing tackles all over the place, allowing the Panthers to accumulate deflating first downs and control the clock. And while the Giants are able to stop the Panthers on their next set, this series — which saw the Panthers move from deep into Giants territory all the way to midfield — represents both a moral and field position victory for the visitors.

Nevertheless, as the Panthers line up to punt, the Meadowlands crowd revs up again in the hopes of spurring on their dragging heroes, and they erupt in a roar when punter Jason Baker shanks one of the side of his foot, a brutal kick that represents the first break the Giants have caught in nearly a full half of playoff football. But because the punt was so unexpectedly short, Gibril Wilson, who was downfield blocking the flanked “gunner� on the play, has no reason to suspect that the ball is perilously close to him; it bounces off his unsuspecting calf and onto the ground, a live ball, and is recovered by the Panthers at the Giants 15. A horrible break, and the Meadowlands crowd is surreally silent, confronting in earnest for the first time the possibility that it is not the Giants’ day.

The Panthers eagerly hop out to expand their lead, which actually seems like it should be much more than 7-0 given how much they’ve dominated the action. The Giants defense is able to buckle down here, however, and the Panthers settle for a John Kasay field goal that pushes the lead to 10-0 going into the half, and as the teams trot into the locker room, a loud, angry rumble of boos rains down on the flat Giants, who have played worse than anyone could have possibly feared. The Panthers have had the ball for 21 minutes, the Giants 9, and have run 37 plays to the Giants 17. Although a ten point deficit is certainly surmountable, the lifeless Giants offense faces a tall order against Carolina’s stout defense, which has so far succeeded in its game plan to bunch up and stop Tiki Barber.

But if there’s one thing that the Giants have showed us this year, it’s that they are capable of generating offense both quickly and when they need it; and even after this truly awful half of football, they are still a break or two from being within one score. Many a football game follows this path: one team dominates for the majority of the time, but because their lead is not commensurate with their domination, the trailing team is able to catch a couple of breaks, pull close, and then, shockingly, find itself with the momentum and a chance to win the game. Such a scenario is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for the Giants, and the faithful is back into it as John Kasay kicks off to begin the second half. And on the first play from scrimmage, Eli Manning lofts a nice touch pass to Jeremy Shockey – who has done absolutely nothing to this point – for a 25 yard gain, taking the Giants across midfield and giving their fans some hope that this game will become what the announcers call “a game of two halves.â€? Every team is capable of outplaying any other team in one half of football, the Giants and their fans hope — if they can do it, we can do it!

But Big Blue stalls on their next set, and the lead remains 10 as the Panthers trot out for their first crack at the second half, which, after a few plays, begins to look frighteningly familiar to the first half, as the combination of DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings continues to trample over the Giants depleted run defense. Between the running of those two and the crisp passing of Jake Delhomme, the Panther move all the way down to the Giants 36, on the doorstep of at least 3 more points, if not a devastating touchdown. But Michael Strahan valiantly grinds his way to a key 3rd down sack of Delhomme – one of the rare times the Giants have been able to stop the Panthers on 3rd down today – and the visitors are forced to punt. The lead is still ten, and the game is still within reasonable reach.

So with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter, the Giants resume possession at their own 16. They’ve certainly been bad today, but not completely awful; if they could have just had the fortune of putting some of their first downs together to get them in field goal range, we would have a ballgame. But on the first play of their set, Eli gets flushed out of the pocket by a Panther rush that’s been consistently present, and in his overanxiousness to make something happen, the young quarterback commits a fatal error, flinging the ball across his body and into triple coverage, where it is snatched out of the air by Carolina’s leaping Kenny Lewis, who makes a few moves and brings the ball all the way back to the Giants 12. Heartbreaking, but it was nothing compared to the next play, when Steve Smith takes the handoff on an an end-around, jets around contain-man Gibril Wilson, and follows a caravan of blockers to the endzone for the easy touchdown. 17-0 Panthers, and as the Meadowlands falls into an awful silence, and as the ecstatic screams of the visiting Panthers fill the void in the air, this game, and the 2005 Giants season, is over.

With 6:57 remaining in the 3rd quarter, there was of course more football to be played, but it can’t be said that anybody in the building harbored any hope for Big Blue. Their next possession ended with an Eli interception, which the Panthers followed with some more dominant running and a sprinkling of effective passing by Jake Delhomme. The Giants were obviously expecting the run, and their inability to stop it attests to the painful fact that in this game, at this point in the season, Carolina is just the much better team. They take it all the way down to the 11 and settle for a field goal, pushing the lead to 20-0, as we’re now in the fourth quarter.

Eli throws another interception on the next series, capping an awful game that capped the major step back that was his second half of 2005. All in all, it’s certainly unfair to call 2005 a disappointment for the Franchise Quarterback who showed such great promise at the beginning of the year, but his eventual status as an elite quarterback is far from a foregone conclusion. For the record, the crowd chooses this last punch to the gut to take their leave; it’s been a painful day. As the crowd thins out, the Panthers march downfield again, picking up first downs and winding down the clock. They get all the way down to the Giants 1, and then John Kasay closes out the scoring by knocking a field goal against a backdrop of empty red seats. 23-0 Panthers, and after an Eli fumble – his fourth turnover in four second half possessions – the Panthers take a few knees and the final gun sounds on the 2005 Giants season.

***

Any way you look at it, it was a complete annihilation. The Panthers outgained Big Blue 335 to 112, out-first-downed the G-Men 23-9, and had the ball for 42:45 to the Giants’ 17:15. There is certainly a lot of blame to throw around for this one, but to me, it started with the now oft-written-about “depleted linebacking corps.â€? The Panthers’ running game, not a dominant force by any stretch of the imagination, was made to look like the Cowboys of the mid-nineties. So consistently were the Giants linebackers out of position, and so often did they miss tackles, that the team’s leading tackler on the day was Gibril Wilson, a safety, who had 15. Wilson and Brent Alexander, the two safeties, amassed 25 tackles between them compared to the 24 made by all three Giants starting linebackers.

It was the Panthers ability to establish the run and consistently “win on first down� that allowed them to control the clock, move the ball, and keep the Giants offense off the field, which, for its part, was never able to establish any sort of rhythm. The Panthers’ strategy of stuffing men in the box to stop Tiki Barber proved successful, as Eli Manning and the Giants’ passing game had no answer. Eli had an awful day, going 10/18 for 113 yards and those three interceptions, to go along with a lost fumble. It was a discouraging day for the quarterback who had looked so encouraging early on, but I think I speak for all Giants fans in expressing utmost confidence that Eli will one day lead us deep into the playoffs.

As was the case with Eli, the Giants endured an ugly ending to what was, overall, a very encouraging season. Big Blue had their moments and showed their flashes: Eli’s four eleventh-hour, final drive heroics; the Giants mid-season defensive dominance; Plaxico’s emergence into a big-time player, and someone who should really further emerge into a star; Osi Umenyiora’s explosion into a dominant force at defensive end and Michael Strahan’s remarkable comeback; the overall solid play and good health of the offensive line; Amani Toomer, an old Giants dog who learned the new tricks of a possession receiver; Jeff Feagles continued excellence, in a year that saw him set the NFL’s consecutive games record; the stoutness of the Giants defensive tackles, an unexpected source of consistent solidness; Antonio Pierce’s emergence into, in Michael Strahan words, the “heart and soul� of the defense; and Tiki Barber, who had the greatest season of any offensive player in Giants history. The future looks bright in East Rutherford. Go G-Men!

No, it wasn’t the prettiest game, and there were certainly some unsettling and scary moments, but the Giants managed to ring in 2006 by clinching their first NFC East title in five years, prevailing 30-21 over the lowly Raiders. The win assures them a prized playoff home game against a tough, battle-tested Carolina Panthers team that storms into the playoffs with the same record as the Giants (11-5) and on the heels of an impressive 44-11 trouncing of the Falcons, propelling them into the postseason with confidence and momentum.

But first the game itself, a rather ugly slog that was more difficult for the G-Men than it should have been. The Raiders came into the game a defeated and dead team, limping to the end of a wildly dissapointing 4-11 season that had fallen well short of considerable pre-season expectations, a season that had left their McAffee Coluseum half-empty by week 17 and rendered their coach, Norv Turner, the lamest of ducks. Surely it shouldn’t have been too tough for the Giants, and things got off to a good start: Midway through the first quarter, Tiki Barber took a handoff from the 5-yard line, skated through a big, beautifully blocked seam, glided around the left bend and then continued down the sideline, patiently setting up yet another persistent escort block by Plaxico Burress before hitting a fifth gear, gone for the astonishingly easy 95 yard touchdown. The greatest year for an offensive player in Giants history continues as Big Blue stakes out the early lead.


On the next series, however, Oakland’s offense — which has been dormant for weeks — wakes up against the sputtering Giants defense. Kerry Collins is able to set his feet and step up in a well-protected pocket, and he fires a series of elegant passes to his stellar receiving corps, who have the Giants undermanned secondary on its heels. The Raiders march all the way down to the Giant 15, and then Collins hits Randy Moss on a skinny post for the touchdown that ties the game for the home team.

But as the first quarter gives way to the second, the Giants march right back, and Eli’s beautiful, back-shoulder-pinning timing pass to Plaxico Burress gives them a 1st and goal at the Raider 10. But the Giants inability to capitalize in the red-zone — a pronounced problem all season, including last week against Washington — surfaces once again, as they are forced to settle for a Jay Feely field goal, with 12:41 to go in the second quarter.

Big Blue is able to get the ball back in short time, however, thanks to a Raider offense that has nakedly abandoned the running game in favor of airing it out in this, their last game of their miserable season. Shortly after the Giants take over, Eli completes a mid-range square-in to Plaxico, who outruns a wild, bumbling tackle attempt by the late arriving safety Stuart Schweigert, turning up into a wide-open field, and finding himself off to the races for another breathtaking Giants touchdown. At 17-7 midway through the second quarter, the Giants are smelling a rout. And as the half winds down, the Giants move the ball again into Raider territory, but they stall — again — at the 20 and have to settle for the Feely field goal. He boots it through, however, giving the Giants a comfortable 20-7 lead.

With just under two minutes remaining in the half, all they have to do is stop the predictably pass-happy Raiders in their two-minute drill to take this cushy lead into the half, but they eschew the blitz or any other form of defensive aggressiveness and let Kerry Collins methodically march his squad downfield. With all the time in the world to operate, Collins goes 6 for 9 on the drive, including an 8-yard touchdown toss to Doug Gabriel that brings the Raiders to within six at halftime.

It is a frustrated Giants team that goes into the locker room; they are painfully aware that they could have already put these Raiders away if not for their lax defensive scheme and frighteningly porous secondary, which is looking as bad in Week 17 as it did in the season’s first few weeks. As play resumes in the third quarter, the game takes on a dragging, listless quality as the Giants punt, and then the Raiders punt, and then the Giants punt, and then the Raiders punt. But on this last Raiders punt, with 4:33 to go in the third quarter, Chad Morton, after corralling the ball at his own 39, jukes, jitterbugs, and then darts his way through a tight seam, squeezing all the way down to the Raiders 3 for Big Blue’s third huge play of the night (which have accounted for a huge portion of their offense). A couple plays later, Brandon Jacobs missiles his way across the goal line for the score, and when Feely knocks in the PAT, it’s 27-14 Giants.


But alas, the Giants squander their breathing room once again when rookie Corey Webster, who is replacing Curtis Deloatch and looking just as overmatched as his dissapointing usurpee, somehow loses track of Randy Moss, who smoothly gathers Kerry Collins’ pass and waltzes down the sideline and into the endzone for the quick Raiders answer, pulling them back within six.


If you’re planning on burying a dead team, it is best to do so early in the game, when the decision to play hard for sixty minutes is still being considered. But thanks to a passive Giants secondary — which has allowed Kerry Collins to look as good as he did in his best days with the Giants – the Raiders have hung around for this long, so they might as well hang in and fight for one last quarter. The Giants are in for a scrap.

On Big Blue’s next series, they are able to march down into Oakland territory, where they face another tense moment as Jay Feely is brought on to attempt a difficult 46 yard field goal. This is a crucial kick, not only because it will provide the all-important two-score cushion in this surprisingly tense game, but also because Feely’s precarious confidence going into the playoffs might very well hinge on it. But Feely steps up and thumps it through, giving the Giants a 30-21 lead, and his psyche a boost as he heads into the pressurized world of playoff kicking.

The Giants aren’t out of the woods yet, however, and the remainder of the game was fraught with frightening moments. Earlier in the half, actually, Michael Strahan was violently poked in the eye by a pass-blocking Raiders tackle, and he spent the remainder of the game on the sidelines holding an ice-pack to an eye that was as swollen as that of a losing boxer. A few plays into the fourth quarter, Eli’s leg contorted somewhat unnaturally when he was hit while releasing the ball. Then, worst of all, Tiki Barber hurt his ankle when a Raider tackler crashed down on the outside of his leg. As Tiki writhed on the ground, the ESPN Sky Cam provided the dramatic, terrible overhead shot of what appeared to be the absolute worst-case-scenario. ESPN followed this shot with a commercial break, giving Giants fans a harrowing sixty seconds to ponder the possibilities of life without Tiki. But when the action resumed, Sam Ryan’s sideline report informed us that that Tiki had trotted off the field without a significant limp – the man will be fine. But still, this long, last quarter of this frustrating last game wasn’t over, as Nick Greisen became the next Giant man down when he suffered a neck injury while making a tackle. Yet another tense moment for the Giants, but fortunately – mercifully – all of these players will be fine for this coming week, and none of them should show any ill effects from their scary, but not serious injuries. This avalanche of injuries in the fourth quarter of this game, however, parallels the avalanche of injuries that the Giants have endured in the fourth quarter of their season. Sure, all the guys that went down in this game will be fine, but the linebacking corps remains severely depleted, the defensive line is thinned out, and Jeremy Shockey – a key target for young Eli as he enters his first playoff action – is questionable for this Sunday’s game as of this writing.

But there was still more football to be play, and it wouldn’t be easy. Down by 9 with 5:37 to go, Kerry Collins is once again able to quickly pass his team all the way downfield, taking them to a 1st and goal at the Giants 1. But with their backs to the wall, the Giants defense stiffens, albeit with the help of some remarkably uninspired playcalling by the now-fired Norv Turner. They stop three predictable dive-runs by fullback Zack Crockett before Kerry Collins fails to sneak it in on 4th and goal. A replay confirms that Collins probably did in fact push the ball across the plane, but the video evidence was apparently not “indisputable� enough for the refs to overturn their original call. The Giants D – many of whom haven’t played much with the exception of tonight or the previous couple of games – sprints off the field, elated and triumphant. And after a clutch Tiki Barber first-down on the Giants’ ensuing possession, this one is finally over. The Giants finish the regular season at 11-5, champions of the NFC East. Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora do the honors of dousing Tom Coughlin with the Gatorade bucket, and Colonel Tom cracks a smile. Hugs and good feelings abound; the Giants are ready for 2006 and the start of the playoffs.


***

It is sort of a shame that the tie breakers worked out the way they did: The Giants, the Panthers, and the Buccaneers all finished the year with 11-5 records, but the Bucs’ 9-3 conference record gave them the division over the Panthers and the #3 seed over the Giants. Had things worked out a bit differently, perhaps the Giants might be facing the underwhelming Bucs instead of this more formidable Panthers. Look at a statistical comparison between the two teams in terms of Points Scored vs. Points Allowed, and also footballoutsiders.com’s DVOA system, an advance metric that breaks down each play of the NFL season and calibrates to the league average (for my simplified explanation of DVOA, click here):

Panthers
PS-PA: 391-259
DVOA: 13.0%

Bucs
PS-PA: 300-274
DVOA: 4.6%

With all that said, however, the Giants might just want to count themselves lucky that they didn’t draw the hard-charging Washington Redskins, who, after shellacking the Giants in week 16, beat the Eagles this past week to clinch a playoff birth. They finished at 10-6, and notably lost a few close contests during the middle of the year, including one against those same Buccaneers on a since-disproved two-point conversion run by the Bucs Mike Alstott that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the ‘Skins. It is always ridiculous to play the coulda-woulda-shoulda game when it comes to NFL officiating, but in this case, it’s worth mentioning that if the referees had properly ruled that Alstott did not in fact cross the plane of the goal line, the Redskins would have won that game, and because of their 11-1 conference record, would have won the NFC East and been the #2 seed in the playoffs instead of the #6. Of course, this presupposes that the Giants would have come out as flat as they did against the Redskins in week 16 even if the game had much more relevance to them than it actually did, so you just don’t know – but still…. Here’s how their PS/PA and DVOA numbers stack up, numbers which, it must be mentioned, are better predictors of a team’s future success than won-lost record.

Redskins
PS-PA: 359-293
DVOA: 22.6%

and, for good measure…
Giants
PS-PA: 422-314
DVOA: 24.6%


So despite the relative weakness of the NFC when compared to the AFC, there are definitely some sharks in these playoff waters. And the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the Giants are not playing their best ball at this point. Their offense has been pretty steady throughout the season, with the late-season heroics of Tiki Barber compensating for the dropoff of Quarterback Eli Manning. Footballoutsiders.com has a stat called variance, which measures the week-to-week consistency of teams on offense, defense, and special teams. According to this stat, the Giants rank 27th in the league in variance for offense, which counterintuitively means that the offense has been the fifth most consistent in the league. On defense, the Giants rank 1st in the league in variance, which means, of course, that they’ve been the most inconsistent unit.

This makes sense when we think about the path of the Giants defense this year, which has careened from awful to excellent, and everywhere in between. The defense that had Michael Strahan lamenting that it was the worst group for which he’s ever played after that ugly Week 3 pasting in San Diego was the same unit that, weeks later, inspired comparisons to the dominant D of the 1986 team. But in the past few weeks they have definitely fallen off: In week 14, they allowed an offense comprised of Philadelphia’s second-stringers to score 23 points and accumulate 337 total yards. A week later, against Kansas City, the Giants performed better and allowed only 17 points to a good Chiefs offense, but still allowed 362 total yards, including 167 rushing yards to Larry Johnson, the second week in which this formerly dominant run defense had been rushed on at will. A week later, they allowed the middle-of-the-pack offense of the Redskins to roll up five touchdowns in that worrisome 35-20 pasting, while Clinton Portis racked up the third consecutive 100+ yard game against them, and in the season’s final game, they allowed a sleepwalking Raider team to come within a hair of scoring at least 28 points had it not be for that questionable call at the goal line on Kerry Collins’ fourth down sneak attempt.

The reason for this defensive dropoff is not too difficult to ascertain: Against Philadelphia in week 14, stalwart linebacker Antonio Pierce went down with a serious ankle injury, forcing undrafted rookie Chase Blackburn into the starting lineup. A week later, solid starter Carlos Emmons went down, leaving Nick Greisen as the only starter left for the last two games (Greisen actually wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the year, but he Wally Pipped Reggie Torbor and has established himself as an integral part of this defense). The next week against Washington, Chase Blackburn went down for the season, and Reggie Torbor went down too, leaving the team to scramble from the practice squad and the unsigned scrapheap to find guys to play the position. It is staggering to think that the Giants have lost four important linebackers thus far, and their recent slump on defense can be chalked up, in large part, to this misfortune.


And going into the postseason, it’s not as if the Giants will get much healthier. Pierce, who had really come on strong as the leader of what was then a very strong defense, is still in a cast, with no timetable yet set for his return. Emmons is out for the year, Blackburn is out for the year, and Torbor is doubtful for this weekend: the Giants will enter the playoffs with only one linebacker who was even remotely close to being in the rotation at the beginning of this year, in Greisen.

The good news is that Kevin Lewis — a solid, established NFL player who for some reason was banished to the practice squad at the beginning of this year — stepped up and played a nice game this past Sunday. He can presumably be counted on to hold his own. And Alonzo Jackson, a third year guy from Florida State who was actually a 2nd round draft pick of the Steelers, doesn’t look like a liability either. It is unfortunate that this new linebacking corps will not have had much time to play together, but we can reasonably expect them to improve as they get more experience as a unit. Yes, the Giants have been hit hard by injuries at an inopportune time — William Joseph and Fred Robbins have been hurt, leaving the D-Tackle duties in the capable but overextended hands of Kendrick Clancy and Kenderick Allen – but so is every team, or so we must tell ourselves.

On offense, the Giants have survived the year intact, with the possible exception of Jeremy Shockey, who is questionable as of this writing. The Giants do have enough weapons to get by without him, but his red zone adroitness is sorely needed for a team that has struggled to punch in touchdowns of late. But aside from the possible – and, one hopes, weatherable — loss of Shockey, the Giants can expect their offense to continue to play pretty well, as it has recently and has, for the most part, all season. Eli has cut down the interceptions of late (his only recent pick was that play against the Redskins where Shockey broke off his route to plead with the referees, ignoring the ball and leaving it to be snared by the defender), and the previously frustrated Plaxico Burress had a much needed monster game against Oakland that will hopefully reestablish his confidence. And of course, Tiki, who is playing as well right now as any football player I have ever seen. The guy is absolutely unconscious, and will presumably show no ill effects from his ankle tweak this past week. Of course I’m biased, but I really can’t understand the case for Shaun Alexander for MVP. He Won the Rushing Crown, yes, but by a mere 20 yards, while Tiki outgained him in yards from scrimmage by 432 yards. With all due respect to Alexander’s touchdowns, this discrepancy in yards from scrimmage means much, much more.

It should be a good one. Right now, Vegas has the Giants favored by 3, nothing but the obligatory bounce for home field advantage: this line really means that they are equal teams. Either way, this season has been an expectation-surpassing success for the Giants, and an absolute joy for this Giant fan. To the playoffs!

From this week’s New Yorker. Much of the article is basically Angel’s wistfully lamenting the fact that modern-day athletes, because of their outlandish physiques, ridiculous salaries, and, in his words, “infantile tastes” are somehow less accessible than they were when he grew up in the 1930s watching good salt-of-the-earth guys like Hank Greenberg and Jimmy Foxx, and that their personalities — what’s Roger Clemens really like? — are bound to leave us disappointed when contrasted to their excellence on the field. But, to his credit, he catches himself from this false nostalgia and makes the point that we sports fans shouldn’t concern ourselves with the fact that Shaq has a Superman beadspread or that Tiki has a gigantic mural of himself in his son’s bedroom; these guys still provide us with something sublime and mesmerizing on the field of play. That is all they can give us, that is all that is fair to ask of them, and that is enough.

He is midsized and not particularly fast as running backs go, but here he was, again cruising close to his blockers and then finding the hole or the invisible seam and driving for yardage before disappearing under a vanload of tacklers. The Giants scored a couple of field goals and a touchdown on a pass from Eli Manning to Amani Toomer, but the play of the day was a second-quarter run by Tiki, around the left side and then brilliantly back and forth between grasping and flying frustrated Chief defensemen, forty-one yards, for a touchdown. He ran some more after that, driving in for the twenty-yard clinching touchdown late in the day—it was night by now, and you kept your eye on his gleaming blue helmet in motion, always a little lower than the rest. In the end, he’d run two hundred and twenty yards from scrimmage—and away from us, you might say—for a franchise record, and had compiled 1,577 rushing yards for the season, breaking the team record he set last year.


on their engagement, as of 3:00 a.m., January 1st, 2006!