For once, the sports cliché proved accurate. Nobody gave them a chance. I still haven't met one sober individual who, as the playoffs began, thought the Giants would win it all.
One Super Bowl championship and six months later, not a whole lot of folks are again giving the Giants a chance. I mean, most people figure they will find a way into the playoffs. But football experts don't dare use the "R'' word – repeat – in their analysis of the Giants.
ESPN's power rankings place the Giants sixth, behind, in order, New England, Indianapolis, San Diego, Dallas and Jacksonville.
AOL Sports ranks the Giants seventh, behind San Diego, New England, Dallas, Jacksonville, Indy and Pittsburgh.
The popular belief is that Dallas will be the best team in the conference. And that's just hogwash.
The Giants are a better team today than the one that celebrated in Glendale, Ariz. the night of Feb. 3. That doesn't necessarily mean they will repeat, of course. It just means they are good enough to repeat.
How can this team be better following key offseason losses, not least a certain Hall of Fame defensive end? The main reason is that their quarterback is better.
Eli Manning might have seemed to improve overnight last season. But nobody improves that dramatically in a month. In truth, Manning was improving all along, through the consecutive opening-round playoff losses, the mixture of good and bad that marked much of the past regular season. His final five games of 2007-08, beginning with the regular-season finale against New England, became the artwork of a quarterback realizing his potential.
Why some folks insist on questioning Manning's skill set is beyond me. Hey, I learned my lesson. There were moments his first three full seasons as a starter when I wondered aloud if he'd ever discover greatness.
I'm not wondering anymore. He's going to be a Pro Bowl quarterback, and I think his first appearance will be this season. In those final five games of '07, Manning became the kind of clear-thinking, poised quarterback star that Ernie Accorsi predicted when he traded up for Eli in the 2004 draft.
The days of Manning taking one step forward and two steps backward are over. Now we get a quality Manning for the full season, and beyond, and that should excite Giants fans as much as anything.
"I think he is throwing the ball better this spring, in this preseason, than he did a year ago,'' quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer said. "I think he is in a rhythm, he's got good balance and I think he's been doing a nice job."
Manning will have even more toys at his disposal, none more pleasant than a group of running backs who will significantly ease the burden on No. 10. That is, when they aren't trying to forge cleat imprints on the chests of unsuspecting defenders.
Brandon Jacobs broke 1,000 yards – and the will of several defenders – in just 11 games. Nobody should need to be reminded of Ahmad Bradshaw's bag of goodies, and Derrick Ward ran for 602 yards in just eight games last season. His punishing style isn't all that different from Jacobs.
Imagine the kind of season Plaxico Burress could have with the benefit of an occasional practice. And it's become readily apparent that Amani Toomer's going to make plays into the next century. If not, Steve Smith will pick up the slack and rookie Mario Manningham should become a weapon by season's end. Kevin Boss will make all the catches he's supposed to make and miss some blocks he's supposed to make. But offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will make sure Boss creates mismatches for the defense instead of creating mismatches for the offensive line.
So Manning won't have to be great. He will just need to keep mistakes to a minimum and make plays when they are presented. But he will be much better than that. And unlike Dallas' boy wonder, Tony Romo, Manning need not prove his mettle under the brightest lights of playoff football.
Or, if you want to put it another way, Manning won't have to worry about ending the past two seasons bobbling a hold and throwing an interception.
Plus with Manning, you don't have to worry about him taking a vacation before the playoffs or having his love interest popping up in Page 6.
"He's very knowledgeable,'' Gilbride said. "He gives us a chance to be successful about 95 percent of the time. That fact, coupled with the offensive line – everything is all coming back intact. Those are the two biggest encouragements that I have that we will be consistent.''
The folks harping on Dallas are making two mistakes. They are overrating Big Blue's losses on defense. And they are underrating the quality of this defense. Of the four notable defensive players gone – Michael Strahan, Kawika Mitchell, Gibril Wilson and Reggie Torbor – only Strahan represents a major loss. Rookie safety Kenny Phillips won't be as good as Wilson – Phillips will be better. Justin Tuck will have a greater on-field impact than Strahan. Torbor's a minimal loss and Mitchell had a so-so season before coming on in the second half of 2007.
The presence of Manning and Burress and other big names makes it easy to overlook the meat-and-potatoes of the Giants' success and, for that matter, every other team's success. Big Blue's offensive and defensive lines are the best in the conference. They don't need a flashy D-back such as Adam – the former Pac Man – Jones. They don't need a running back with 4.3-40 speed. The Giants will open plenty of holes for their backs, and they will force their own openings on defense.
There are a few analysts high on the Giants. Foxsports.com ranks them second to New England. CBSsports.com ranks them third behind No. 1 New England and Indy. But nobody seems able to fully commit to the Giants as the best team in football.
Of course that's not only fine by them, it's preferred. But I'll take my chances with Big Blue. I haven't ranked the other 31 teams. But I have my No. 1.
Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.
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