On Sunday, it will have been 1,436 days since the New York Giants were last in a post-season game, an eternity in the world of professional football.
Oh sure, the core of the team is still very similar as the one that started its amazing playoff journey as a wild-card team and that ended up as the Super Bowl XLII champions following their 17-14 defeat of the Patriots on Feb. 3, 2008, as leaders such as quarterback Eli Manning, defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, and offensive linemen Chris Snee, David Diehl, and Kareem McKenzie are all still on the roster.
While there are many similarities between that championship Giants team and the one that on Sunday begins its quest to duplicate that success starting with its game against the Atlanta Falcons - the 2011 Giants are a very different team than the 2007 squad.
"Right now, I don't know," said Tuck when asked what the identity of the 2011 Giants team is. "It just seems like it differs every week."
Safety Antrel Rolle, speaking about the defense's identity, paused and thought about the question for a moment.
"As far as the defense, we really didn't know what our identity was and now I think we have the best of the best guys on the field," he said. "We are intact and no matter what, we are playing for each other. There is no selfish ball out there--everyone is taking care of their assignments and their own job."
What the Giants have shown, at least in the last quarter of the season, is that they're an offense that primarily relies on the passing game and which, in their final five games, has also developed a flair for the dramatic in terms of fourth-quarter finishes (six) and big plays (67 passes of 20-plus yards, and 31 rushes of 10-plus yards).
Defensively, however, it's been a bit of a roller coaster. This season, the Giants' defense has given up 400-plus total yards to opponents five times. They have also allowed opponents to accumulate 100-plus yards on the ground in 11 of the 16 games played, and went through a five-week stretch in which they allowed their foes to convert 50 percent or better of their third-down attempts.
After a complete meltdown against Washington on Dec. 18, the defense has since taken stock and tightened up everything across the board, eliminating most of the big plays that had hurt them earlier in the season; cleaning up the mistakes and the confusion, especially in the defensive secondary; and holding the Jets and Dallas to just 28 points.
Despite the ups and downs of the 2011 Giants as compared to the 2007 team, one thing that has been very evident all along in both is the confidence level. And with that as their foundation, with the belief that their best ball is yet to come, Tuck believes that the 2011 Giants' identity will soon make itself known.
"As long as we keep progressing like we have the last two weeks," he said, "I just know it is going to be something good."
|New York Giants WR David Tyree catches a pass while New England Patriots S Rodney Harrison defends Feb. 3, 2008|
Experience Is The Difference
--Many will compare the fortunes of the 2007 Giants team to that of the 2011 squad in terms of how their respective seasons unfolded going into wild-card weekend.
However, one of the major differences between the two teams is that the current Giants team, which is knee-deep in preparation for their matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, can draw upon the experience of the 17 members from the 2007 team that topped the Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII.
"We have to rely on them and understand that these guys have been around and have played in a few playoff games, some guys played in and won a Super Bowl," said receiver Victor Cruz, in his second season as a pro.
"Just having those guys around to speak to and understand what the atmosphere is going to be like, what you are facing, and understand what it is going to be like as opposed to not knowing -- I'm definitely going to be in those guys' ears this week."
"This is the NFL -- it's as big as it gets," added rookie fullback Henry Hynoski. "You have to approach this with everything you have. We're playing for a Super Bowl, the highest honor you can get in football, so as far as what the veterans can help the young guys with, you just have to look at the leaders, see how they approach it, and basically follow their lead."
So what kind of message can the veterans who have "been there, done that" offer their teammates who are about to find themselves thrust onto the biggest stage to date in their careers?
"A lot of guys come through these league doors and you can play for a number of years and never have a chance to even be in the playoffs," noted linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, who despite being one of the holdovers from the 2007 Super Bowl team, did not participate in the playoff run because of a broken leg he suffered that season.
"Fortunately for guys like me, as a young player in the league, we won a Super Bowl. So we got kind of spoiled around here because the expectations were high and we always expect to be in the playoffs. So we have to tell the young guys that when you get that opportunity, you have to seize it."
It also helps those Giants players that have never actually been to a playoff game at a pro level that they have experienced the "win and in" sense of urgency that came with their final two games of the season, as well as playing potential playoff foes such as Green Bay, San Francisco, and New Orleans -- the first through third seeds in the NFC playoff race.
"We are battle-tested in a lot of ways because we have played some really outstanding football teams through the second half of the season," said head coach Tom Coughlin, whose Giants held their own against the Packers and the 49ers.
Hynoski agreed. "I think the young guys have a good grasp on what this all actually means," he said. "We knew what the reality of these last three or four games in the home stretch was, and what it took just trying to get into the playoffs. We all took it very seriously and were dedicated. Now that we're in the playoffs, we just have to intensify that dedication and preparation."
Kiwanuka expressed confidence that all of his teammates would come to work each day with the right mindset. "We are only a few games from the championship game, so the opportunity is there; we just have to get it," he said. "We have to take it week by week and try to explain to them how intense it is going to be as the playoffs go on. We have to focus on this first game and not anything else.