Why the Giants will be preparing for playoff game

<b>Paul Schwartz:</b> The New Year produced a long-awaited victory, the first but presumably not the last of 2005.

Despite the gloom-and-doom that could come out of a 6-10 season, there is plenty of reason to believe that at this time next year, the Giants will be preparing for the playoffs and not scattered for the offseason. Perhaps the main reason for this optimism is Eli Manning. It was quite remarkable (and actually predictable) how the rookie progressed in his seven starts at quarterback, going from what looked to be an over-matched novice to a player confident enough to make a gutsy audible on the game-winning touchdown run by Tiki Barber against the Cowboys. Given his smarts, Manning will likely continue to ascend and if he does, by this time next year he'll be one heckuva quarterback.

Ken Palmer: To even assume that Manning's rise was predictable after how gosh awful he was in his first four starts is absurd. His rise was meteoric, something from another world. Whether that translates into similar success eight months from now remains to be seen. The main reason Manning and the Giants will be prepping for extra football following next season is that Ernie Accorsi is going to do the unthinkable and land Plaxico Burress. Usually, fans and media just throw around big names and then are disappointed when the Giants don't reel them in. Not so, this time around. The Steelers aren't likely to retain Burress, clearly the top receiver available. New York will outwork and outbid the Bears and Burress will make an immediate impact on the Giants offense next season.

Feel free to scoff at this if you wish, Kenneth, but another reason why the Giants of 2005 will be a post-season participant is the strength of their offensive line. OK, stop laughing long enough to think it through. I'm certain finding a quality left tackle will be priority No. 1 in free agency and even if the Giants don't land Orlando Pace or Walter Jones, they are going to come up with someone (Kareem McKenzie of the Jets or Jonas Jennings of the Bills?) who will make an immediate difference. Then just watch what happens. Luke Petitgout becomes an excellent RIGHT tackle. Shaun O'Hara anchors the middle and Chris Snee, a future star, is another year better at right guard. At left guard, there's a bevy of possibilities: David Diehl, Jason Whittle, Rich Seubert if he returns from his serious leg injury. Suddenly, there's depth on the line and enough of the right ingredients to form an impressive unit.

KP: Unfortunately, after Accorsi opens the Big Blue wallet for Burress, there's not really going to be much money left for a lineman. Figure the Giants to pick one in the draft's second round, since they coughed up their top pick for Manning. The line will round into shape if they can stay healthy and enjoy another year of playing together. Figure Barry Stokes, who will inject a whole bunch of nastiness and personality, to help out plenty as well. But the Giants are going to assist Manning and make the line appear much better by adding a dependable reserve running back. To count on Tiki Barber to get well over 300 carries again and not miss a beat would be shortsighted. With the league fighting over big free agent names like Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander and Rudi Johnson, it won't be that hard for Big Blue to sneak in and land someone like Dominic Rhodes from Indianapolis or Kansas City's Derrick Blaylock.

If you scoffed and laughed at that last one, you might not be able to control yourself with this one. One of the reasons why the Giants are playoff-bound in 2005 is Tom Coughlin. OK, now Kenny, howling is not polite. I'm banking on the fact that Coughlin is smart enough to realize he can get the same results, still be true to his beliefs and also lighten up just a little. He'll relax some of his stringent rules just enough so the players believe he's meeting them halfway. Coughlin will also have a much better handle on the talent he has in his second year with the team. He'll never be the opening act at any of Manhattan's comedy clubs but I'm guessing he'll at least try to become more of a coach to this team and less of a commander.

KP: Coughlin lighten up? He hasn't in two decades; why in the world would he now? And anyway, most guys wouldn't really notice anyway, as they often raise the volume on their iPods when he's around. The real Coughlin-related reason these guys will be going places next year is that the players have learned to play hard in spite of their feelings for the coach. There's enough veteran leadership on this club, and you saw it in the final three weeks, that they all know and understand that they're measured by wins and losses and how hard they play; not by how much they like or dislike their coach. These players didn't know what to expect heading into camp last year. Now they know and will respond accordingly. Coughlin lighten up?!? Paul, I thought cutting down on writing fiction was one of your New Year's resolutions.

If the Giants make it to the playoffs next season, they will have earned it. Have you taken a peek at the schedule? You'd better buy a new suitcase and loads of reading material. There are an incredible four cross-country trips, with games in Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego. Someone is going to clean up with frequent flier miles. Many coaches would make sure the NFL scheduled two of those trips on consecutive weekends to allow the Giants to save a trip and spend an entire week on the West Coast. You think Coughlin is going to go for such a drastic break in routine for what he probably considers a fun-in-the-sun vacation? Either way, the Giants will know all about inconvenience and difficult road trips. That will make them better.

KP: The schedule? Come on, Paul, I know it's been a long season, but you can do better than that. How about the 613 guys that finished the year on Injured Reserve? Wouldn't you like to see a relatively injury free season? Think the Giants defense will struggle like it did if Michael Strahan, Norman Hand, Carlos Emmons, Barrett Green (if he's still here) and Gibril Wilson all stay healthy enough to play the majority of the season? Doubt it. Offensively, an upgrade at receiver, hopeful return to full health by Jeremy Shockey, added experience for Manning and the coming together of the offensive line, which, as Paul said earlier, really didn't play that awful this year, will be the keys to success. Say what you will, but Tiki didn't buy all his linemen big-screen TVs late in his 1,518-yard season for nothing. The Giants have too many good possibilities to even consider sitting home at this time next season. Remember, most of us predicted they'd win six games this year, right? Next year it's at least 10.

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