G-Man on the G-Men

The Giants are the best team in a division that everybody calls the toughest in football. They should win the NFC East and, for a change, actually show up for the playoffs.

Eli Manning will be far better than the player who regressed down the stretch last season. He just finished his best camp, almost forcing coach Tom Coughlin to accomplish a feat he's been successful at only every Leap Year or so:

A smile.

Manning will give Giants fans plenty to smile about. He will make better decisions as he continues a maturing process that will soon make him a top-five quarterback. His completion percentage will be a lot closer to 60 than to 50 because Manning, having full understanding of the offense, will be able to focus entirely on passing fundamentals.

Analysts soon will be raving at Manning's progression. Arm-chair quarterbacks will go back to saying, "Gee, maybe he is better than Roethlisberger.''

Tiki Barber is coming off consecutive career years and there's no reason to believe he's slowing down. Barber would seem to have at least two more high-caliber years in him before his body is afflicted with NFL-itis.

Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey are the best receiver-tight end trio in the conference. Tim Carter finally has figured out a way to stay on the football field, though who knows if that will be the case by press time.

The defense could wind up being pretty potent. The secondary is much improved, if only because we will no longer be treated to Will Allen playing balls like Lastings Milledge. Quarterbacks will suffer from insomnia while considering the Giants' defensive ends, which I believe at last count totaled 40 players. For sure, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora will make things rather stressful on the opposition.

Jeff Feagles is the best punter in football. David Tyree is one of the best special teams players in football. Jay Feely is one of the most reliable kickers in football. So the specials should be special.

Now for the less optimistic portion of the program:

The Giants could do everything better this season and still wind up with a record worse than last year's 11-5 finish. That's because the person who made up their schedule apparently got chased from Coughlin's porch one Halloween as an innocent 8-year-old Trick-or-Treater. There's no other way to explain the Giants' first six games, four of them away, against teams with a combined 60-36 record in 2005.

Yes, I received the memo about the NFL being a separate entity from season to season. But the Giants aren't playing a bunch of fly-by-nighters. Indianapolis, Seattle, Jacksonville and Carolina are usually pretty good, if not excellent, and Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Chicago and Tennessee have their moments.

The first two games at Giants Stadium, of course, feature the season-opener against Indianapolis, which finished a meager 14-2 last season, and Washington, which went 10-6 and won a playoff game.

There is no stretch for the Giants to catch their breath. Three straight home games follow the Scintillating Six, but two of the opponents – Tampa Bay and Chicago – should be dangerous. Then it's off to Jacksonville and Tennessee, home against Dallas and off to Carolina.

No worry, when the Giants need a win to either clinch a playoff berth and/or win the division title, they get a breather:

At Washington.

There are two very dangerous effects of playing such a brutal schedule. One, obviously, is the potential to lose more games than you win, which does wonders for a team's collective golf game. Two, less obviously, is the distinct possibility of making the trainer's room look like nickel beer night at Scores.

The Giants need no reminders of what injuries can do to a team's post-season chances. If I'm not mistaken, they were combing the hallways of East Rutherford High to find a linebacker down the stretch last season. Say what you want about the Giants' no-show performance against Carolina in the first round, Big Blue was beaten up worse than Arturo Gatti moments after the opening bell against Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Wait... quiet... did you hear that?... I think somebody mentioned the Giants' linebackers. You know, what many folks are penciling in as the second coming of the Harry Carson-LT Giants.

Before we get too gleeful over the addition of LaVar Arrington, highlight two words next to his name: knee swelling.

If training camp taught us one thing, it's that Arrington's knees semi-regularly turn into grapefruits at the sight of a football field. Coughlin, usually as patient with injuries as a Pit Bull with raw meat placed under his chin, smartly didn't try to shove LA onto the SUNY-Albany field. But there will be times this season when the Giants need Arrington in the worst way, and he won't be able to go.

Speaking of being unable to go, Carlos Emmons has developed another nagging injury that may wind up increasing Brandon Short's playing time. Emmons, remember, went kicking and screaming onto injured reserve in crunch time last season. Left tackle Luke Petitgout's back has been acting up on him again lately, and center Shaun O'Hara (sprained knee), though he insisted he'd be ready for Indy, gave fans cause for concern.

Then there's that other problem nagging the Giants – not injuries but ineptitude – at defensive tackle. To his credit, Fred Robbins came to camp in shape this year. But Robbins, who had a window seat in Coughlin's 2005 doghouse, continues to show only flashes of the ferocity needed to clog the middle.

The other tackle is a former first-rounder posing as a starter. His name is William Joseph, and his claim to fame in three NFL seasons is boycotting the media. In Joseph's defense, why waste time talking about your job when you have such difficulty succeeding at it. He has 51 tackles in 39 games, and though tackles don't define defensive tackles, 1.3 a game is a tad low. Even Robbins is at 1.8.

So there are plenty of holes and uncertainties facing the Giants this season. Manning and the offense wouldn't seem to be among them. But parts of that defense, and that schedule, could wind up costing the Giants a lot more than a playoff run. It could wind up costing them a playoff berth.

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