The Giants won their final six games, all in do-or-die fashion. Questions revolving around the team’s resolve and toughness were put to rest in the span of two months. But, as improbable as the championship was, the Giants will now enter 2012 with a target squarely on their backs. The hunter is now the hunted.
Will the Giants be able to break the trend and repeat as world champions? Or will we see another team hoist the Lombardi Trophy next February.
Here are the keys for the Giants heading into the offseason.
1. Pay Osi Umenyiora
General manager Jerry Reese cannot allow Umenyiora to be unhappy. His impact down the stretch was immeasurable. He averaged a sack a game in 2011, and the Giants’ defense played above its talent level with the three-man rotation of Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. When the three of them are healthy and hungry, opposing quarterbacks tremble in fear and deficiencies along the back end are resolved.
2. Re-sign Mario Manningham… if the price is right
Manningham was passed on the depth chart by Victor Cruz during the regular season but was instrumental in the championship run. He caught touchdowns in the three NFC playoff games and made the memorable sideline play in the Super Bowl to kick-start the game-winning drive.
He will be sought after as a No. 2 option in the open market, with reports circulating that the Browns, Lions and Vikings may all attempt to make a play for Super Mario’s services. If the Giants can find a way to keep him in the fold, he completes the receiving corps by allowing Cruz to dominate the middle of the field and by keeping double teams away from Hakeem Nicks.
3. Eli must be elite again
By just about every possible measure, Eli Manning was nothing short of astounding this season. He lost two of his top targets and two offensive linemen and still managed to bring home the title. As he promised, he cut down on the interceptions – from 25 in 2010 to 16 this season. He did so despite an anemic running game, as the Giants ranked dead last in yards per game and yards per carry.
Including the playoffs, Manning threw for more than 6,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. The “elite” argument is as good as dead. What Eli does for an encore will determine how far the G-Men go.
4. Fix the running game
As previously mentioned, the Giants had a tough time running the football. The offensive line could use some major upgrades. Starting right tackle Kareem McKenzie is an unrestricted free agent, left guard David Diehl struggled before moving back to tackle and David Baas was a significant downgrade from former Pro Bowl center Shaun O’Hara.
The running back combination of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs got stronger as the year wore on. But, it’s very possible Jacobs could be cut as a salary cap casualty due to his high price tag and age (29). The Giants will need to make quick changes and establish a better balance on offense by reestablishing its identity as a hard-nosed, ground-and-pound attack.
5. Gotta have a little luck
Let’s face it – the Giants had to have a lot of things go right along the path to the Super Bowl. And, they did. Victor Cruz took a pair of short passes for huge touchdowns, against both the Jets (99 yards) and the Cowboys (74 yards). The Packers dropped eight passes and fumbled three (four, if you include that nonsense non-fumble the officials called on Greg Jennings) and surrendered a hail mary on the final play of the first half by simply not playing defense.
Kyle Williams fumbled not one, but two punts in the NFC Championship to give the Giants the deciding ten points of the ballgame.
And the normally mistake-free Patriots were plagued with drops, penalties and an untimely high ankle sprain for Rob Gronkowski. The pieces all fell into the place, the stars aligned and the Giants were champions. They will need a lot more things to go right on their own, in addition to the things they can handle, if they want to repeat.