Long road to travel between Giants and postseason

Let's be optimistic. Let's say things fall neatly into place for the Giants this season. Eli Manning makes the leap from green rookie to top-15 NFL quarterback. The offensive line shows its talent, and not just its depth. The defensive line tightens up its middle to complement Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.

The secondary makes more plays, like occasionally catching a ball thrown to them. Strahan rebounds from a painful injury to take his customary place among upper-echelon NFL linemen. Tiki Barber keeps the bounce in his step. Jeremy Shockey rediscovers his stride as a receiver. The special teams become difference makers, especially kicker Jay Feely.

And the Giants stay relatively healthy.

Give the Giants check marks in all those parts, or most of them, and you have yourself an 11-win season.

But no reasonable man, or woman, can expect the Giants to properly answer every one of those questions. So let's be optimistic, and realistic.

The Giants are an eight- to 10-win football team.

They have the pieces to make a playoff run. No doubt they have the pieces to make a playoff run.

But an awful lot of things have to go right for them to execute the plan.

So, you may be saying, we can make the same statement for the other 31 teams in the league. Not true.

Not every team will count on a quarterback with seven career starts. Or a defense with so many questions. Or an offensive line that must make a mark pass blocking.

Manning, assuming he's healthy by the opener, can be expected to sprinkle in clunkers with glimpses of pure, second-generation Manning magic. He remains a relatively inconsistent, inexperienced quarterback, no matter how badly the Giants need him to accelerate his maturation process.

And that's the good news on Giants quarterbacks.

The bad news, make that frightful news, comes if Manning's elbow injury is more serious than the team has portrayed, or if he goes down during the season. If that happens, the Giants better find someone better than Tim "I'm not Matt" Hasselbeck.

Nothing personal to Mr. Hasselbeck, but he's started five games in three seasons. The other problem is that he's lost four of them. The team he beat? Well, that would be the crisp 2003 Giants squad that managed to go 4-12 on Jim Fassel's way out the door.

Remember that December day at Giants Stadium? Don't blame you if you don't. Hasselbeck was 13-of-19 with two touchdowns in Washington's 20-7 win. The next week he went 6-for-26 with four interceptions in a 27-0 loss to Dallas.

So unless Hasselbeck suddenly finds it, the Giants had better have a Manning – Archie included – playing quarterback.

Another legitimate concern is whether they will have the old Strahan at left defensive end. Strahan has prided himself on not only playing every game, but practicing every day. Now a summer after missing the season's final eight games with a torn pectoral muscle, Strahan has missed practice time with strained rib cartilage. It didn't keep him from pitching a tent in Chad Pennington's jersey during the annual Giants-Jets snoozefest. But the injuries could be early signs that Strahan is slowing down.

Ah yes, he is 33 years old – Strahan reads about his age a lot these days – and coming off a significant injury. Sometimes the gray side of 30 greets players with clusters of injuries. Fans can only hope Strahan's torn pectoral muscle didn't pop the seal.

The Giants need Strahan in Pro Bowl form because of other uncertainties on defense. The other end is a budding star in Umenyiora. But opponents will make every effort to exploit the Giants' hole in the middle. Fred Robbins is the logical choice to plug it, but he spent a good chunk of training camp in coach Tom Coughlin's doghouse. William Joseph? He had a good camp, but Giants fans have seen far too much of Joseph's back and belly when the games count.

Even at linebacker, where newcomer Antonio Pierce promises to lend credibility, questions abound. Will Barrett Green ever become healthy enough to return to his 2003 form with the Lions? Can Nick Greisen hold the fort if Green misses the opener?

And what about the secondary? Corey Webster isn't ready to take Will Allen's job just yet. But the question is whether Allen is ready to reestablish himself as an upper-tier NFL cornerback.

Unlike last year, the Giants will keep us interested into the final month. They will be fascinating to watch, at times the picture of success, at times a yard-sale portrait. More than not, though, they will be good enough to win.

The Giants get no great favors from the schedule maker, who decided to set them up in a second residence on the West Coast. Four trips out West are a bit much, and only the 49ers meet the criteria of a team the Giants absolutely should beat. The others – San Diego, Seattle and Oakland – will be 60-minute crapshoots.

Speaking of Oakland, how's this for a scenario: The Giants needing a win to make the playoffs in their regular-season finale, at 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve no less, against the Kerry Collins-led Raiders. You think Collins, who believes he was mistreated on his way out of East Rutherford, will have extra incentive to keep the Giants from the playoffs? You bet he will.

Let's just hope the Giants have locked up a berth in the tournament by then. Somehow, some way, I'm penciling them in for 10 wins.

And that's being optimistic.

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