Injury-riddled Giants not Super Contenders

The Giants went from being one of the two best teams in the NFC to being a first-round out in the playoffs. That's where you should base your expectations as they prepare for their first postseason game in three seasons. The Giants have a better chance of going down in the first round than going to the NFC Championship Game.

That's how fast things change in the NFL. One day you are beating teams with your "B'' game, the next day you are losing with "Fs'' across the report card. The Giants were right there with Seattle a month ago. Now they are right there with the bottom-rung playoff teams.

The Giants had become one of the great mysteries of the NFL season. They had all these problems – quarterback flaws and secondary follies, to name two – but kept winning games. We all wanted to know what was wrong with Eli Manning. In the next breath we envisioned how good the Giants could be if he put it all together. Meantime, the Giants would win another game – 10 of their first 14.

But they stopped winning in Washington and the Manning story shifted to the background, momentarily replaced by injury problems. Linebacker Chase Blackburn, who in another season would be perfecting his play on special teams, was starting at middle linebacker against the Redskins. That meant two things: One was that Antonio Pierce, hugely important in so many ways, was out. The other thing it meant was that the Giants had no one else to replace him.

But Blackburn held his own, first against Kansas City, then against Washington before getting hurt tackling Chris Cooley. Blackburn went on injured reserve. Carlos Emmons was put on IR, maybe a tad hastily by the bubbly coach, Tom Coughlin. Suddenly the Giants were signing guys off the street who can't possibly be ready to help this team win playoff games.

Sound familiar? Sure it does. It's the pattern of the past two seasons when the Giants put darn near half a roster on IR. Only on this occasion, the timing is horribly worse. This time the Giants are poisoned by injuries while they try to get ready for the playoffs.

William Joseph getting hurt is one thing. Same with Shaun Williams, a good guy who deserves better. But trying to make a playoff run without Emmons and with Pierce less than 100 percent is a big problem.

Maybe the Giants could overcome the deficiencies if they had exceptional cornerbacks. But Will Allen, having a decent second half until the Washington game, turned in a scary-bad game trying to check Santana Moss. Allen resorted to old habits: losing sight of the ball in mid-air, biting on fakes and keeping his back to the quarterback. Moss and two Redskins quarterbacks, Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey, exposed Allen in an enormous game for both teams.

You could only hope Allen's problems were a one-game phenomenon. But let's face it, the guy has had similar games. So how do you explain his relatively error-free stretch following a slow start? There's the theory that teams were so filled with drool exploiting Curtis Deloatch at the other cornerback slot, there was no need to test Allen. Deloatch may become a fine NFL corner one day. But that day doesn't appear to be slotted into the 2005 season.

Manning is back to being the big story because he's always the big story. The Giants got by most of the season's second half without his best game. Now they need Manning to be more polished. They need him to be consistent if the Giants are going to do anything in the playoffs.

The defense no longer can be counted on to win games. All of the NFC's best teams have quality run games. They are going to take it to the Giants until Big Blue stops them.

Seattle's Shaun Alexander, in my mind the league MVP, would either run the Giants ragged or open up the Seahawks passing game. Chicago's defense would do two things against the Giants: surround Tiki Barber and pressure Manning. The Bears have one of the great defenses in recent years, right there with Baltimore's Super Bowl-champion unit. Those are the class teams of the NFC. The Giants aren't with them anymore.

The Giants were among the elite teams in the NFC a month ago. My how things change.

Receiving his due

Come on, give me a quick show of hands from those who thought Amani Toomer was just about done as a productive NFL receiver. I know I was pretty close to writing him off.

Early in the season Toomer wasn't getting open like he once did. When he did break free, Manning wasn't throwing him the ball. Even 5-yard catches came with defenders glued to Toomer.

But Toomer has plenty left. The biggest thing he needed was for Manning to throw more balls his way.

Toomer also has benefited from defenses doing everything in their power to contain Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey. Toomer can still beat defenders one-on-one, and those hands of his are still among the surest sets of mitts in the game. He's made a lot of big plays beginning with the game-winning TD catch against Denver.

No longer does Manning look to Toomer as an afterthought. That has turned out to be one of Manning's smartest plays yet.

Lewis deserves a shot

Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis has become one of the league's hottest head coaching prospects by turning a "D'' with good – not great – personnel into difference makers. The Giants have two great pass rushers – Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora – an excellent linebacker in Pierce and good safeties in Gibril Wilson and Brent Alexander. After that things are sketchy. Lewis has had to deal with below-average cornerbacks and OK tackles.

A half-dozen or so teams are looking for a head coach. Lewis may be best suited to a place such as St. Louis, where defense has been something to fill the time while Mike Martz figures out how to score the next touchdown.

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