The New York Giants secured their fifth Super Bowl appearance Sunday evening with a thrilling 20-17 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers. As has often been the case in the Tom Coughlin era, the Giants were left for dead late in the regular season and there were question marks across the board.
As recently as December 17, when the Giants lost to the Washington Redskins, they were written off. As has become a near annual tradition, questions were raised as to whether Coughlin was the right man for the job and whether his job was in danger. A month later, they find themselves with a chance to bring home their fourth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.
This has been a wild season of ups and downs for the Giants. In Week 9, the Giants defeated the New England Patriots 24-20 on an Eli Manning touchdown pass to Jake Ballard with 15 seconds left. The Giants left Foxboro with a 6-2 record and a two-game lead over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. All seemed well as they were ready to cruise to a division title and a possible first round bye.
A week later, the Giants dropped a tough 27-20 game to the San Francisco 49ers, coincidentally enough. That started a four-game losing streak that dropped them a game back of the Cowboys. The streak was capped by a last second 38-35 loss to the then undefeated Green Bay Packers. The Giants bounced back with a huge road win over the Dallas Cowboys before dropping an unexpected 23-10 home loss to the Redskins. That loss was just a reminder of how inconsistent the Giants were in 2011.
The Giants bounced back with wins against the Jets and Cowboys to close the season, which were enough to claim the NFC East and a first round date with the Atlanta Falcons. As was the case in 2007, the Giants have made their way through three games, two being incredibly difficult, and find themselves back in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.
But how did they do it?
Eli And His Triplets
Whatever you want to say about the 2011 New York Giants, this team's success starts with Eli Manning and his band of merry men. They do utilize the rushing attack wtih Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, but there is a reason the Giants are fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game and 32nd in the league in rushing yards per game. This is a passing team all the way. They run to keep people from keying entirely into the pass.
The big story for the Giants in 2011 was the emergence of wide receiver Victor Cruz. Big things have been expected from Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, but nobody expected the explosion of Cruz. The second year receiver out of Massachusetts had two catches for 17 yards through the first two games of the season and then burst on the scene in week three with 110 receiving yards and two touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles. He put together one of the greatest receiving seasons in Giants history and became Eli's go-to guy throughout the season.
Even as Cruz was blowing up, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham were staunch alternatives, with Nicks building on his strong sophomore campaign with 76 receptions, 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns. Add in Jake Ballard's rookie performance at tight end and it is no wonder Eli Manning put together best season of his career.
Eli And His Offensive Line
The common theme in these first two sections is Eli Manning. Eli put together arguably his best year as a pro and continues to climb out from his brother's shadow. However, as is the case with many quarterbacks, his greatest success has come thanks to strong offensive line play. The 49ers got to Eli on Sunday, but against the Packers, Eli had all day to find his receivers. When you give a solid quarterback that much time and he has great receivers, he is going to make plays. The Packers learned that the hard way and it will be interesting to see if the Patriots defense can figure something out. Otherwise, Eli and his offensive line and band of merry men could eat that defense alive.
Tom Coughlin Lives To Fight Another Day
One story that finds itself percolating yearly in the national media is that Tom Coughlin is a bit too much of a taskmaster, and his players are going to quit on him, and he needs to go. And yet, somehow this team rallies behind their often embattled coach. We see celebratory videos and hear nothing but great things from the team.
It could just be that winning cures all ills, but this team goes through enough questionable nose dives that this goes beyond just winning making things better. This team seems to truly care for their coach. He is a noted disciplinarian, but with this team, it seems to work.
Jason Pierre-Paul And That Pass Rush
The Giants offense gets much of the love in part because their defense has its share of question marks. However, one of the biggest storylines for the 2011 New York Giants was the emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul as an absolute monster of a pass rusher. JPP managed 16.5 sacks, a year after 4.5 sacks as a rookie.
JPP's emergence was a key factor in getting this defense moving in the right direction. The Giants got 48 sacks from 10 different players, but nobody was nearly as significant as Jason Pierre-Paul. If the Giants are going to raise their fourth Lombardi Trophy, It will be essential that JPP and the rest of the Giants pass rush get into the Patriots backfield and gets their hands on Tom Brady.
And of course, naturally, it comes in a revenge game against the New England Patriots. The Giants knocked off the then undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots won't be able to remove the sting of losing that zero, but a win would ease some of it. Eli Manning is looking to further solidify his status as one of the greats in the NFL. He has stepped out from brother Peyton's shadow, but now he can take a step among the historical greats with another Super Bowl victory.