The Giants saved their biggest finish of the year for their biggest game, Sunday night’s 34-28 overtime win over the best team they’ve played all year, the Carolina Panthers. It was like watching a lousy action movie with a great, rousing finish that makes you forget that the first three quarters were excruciating.
But is it true that, as the New York Daily News’ Gary Myers wrote Monday morning, “The slump is over, the crisis has been avoided. The Super Bowl run can commence”? (And I’m only quoting from Myers here because his column was the most typical.) Let’s review:
–For the third straight game, the Giants’ rush defense couldn’t stop the opposing team’s best running back. The Panthers’ DeAngelo Williams rushed for 108 yards and four touchdowns, the final one on a ridiculously easy 30-yard romp with 3:48 left in the game when the Giants defense seemed to be on the verge of collapse.
–For the third straight game, Eli Manning was out-passed by his opposite number. Carolina’s Jake Delhomme was 11 of 19 for 185 yards while Eli was 17 of 27 for 181.
–For the third straight game—and this is perhaps the most unsettling single fact about the Giants’ play in the month of December—New York’s pass rush was bafflingly ineffective. Delhomme wasn’t sacked at all, while for the third straight game the other team’s pass rushers were all over Eli in key situations. (He has now been sacked 14 times in the last three games and knocked down 14 more.)
A great finish, of course, covers a multitude of sins, but looking back on it, you have to wonder why the Giants, playing on their own frozen home turf, needed a great finish to win this one. And despite Manning’s cool hand on the final regulation drive, which produced a touchdown and the tying two-point conversion, and his calm leadership on the winning TD thrust in overtime, you also have to wonder what the Giants offense is going to come up with if they face a team in the playoffs who they can’t simply bull their way through on the ground.
After the game, Derrick Ward told reporters, “We’ve had our doubters, that we hit our peak in the past. We knew that we could run the ball. That’s what the New York Giants do. We run the ball.” Well, they’d better. The inconsistency of their passing game means that the Giants, though they boast the NFC’s best record, will face the postseason with a quarterback who can accurately be described as mediocre. (Despite playing on the NFL’s best team, Manning goes into the final week of the season ranked just No. 14 among NFL passers—eight notches, by the way, behind big brother Peyton.)
Not all of the fits and starts suffered by the passing game can be pinned in Eli. Down the home stretch, it’s become all too obvious that the Giants’ talented offensive line is much better suited to opening holes for runners than to picking up pass rushers. Against Carolina, Ward didn’t merely have his best day of the season: with 215 yards on just 15 carries, including nearly all the Giants’ key offensive gains on their last two possessions, he had what will probably prove to be the best day of his entire career. (His 215 yards were the fourth highest total ever gained by a Giant running back.) It was a great clutch performance, and without it, the Giants would have been sunk. Ward actually averaged more than twice as many yards per rush, 14.3, as Manning averaged per throw, 6.7, reversing the NFL’s usual average of rush to pass gains.
In all, counting Brandon Jacobs’ 87 yards, the Giants pounded out 302 yards, or about twice what a prudent analyst would have anticipated against a team as good as Carolina. The consequences of the Giants losing the Carolina game would likely have been disastrous—how could they conceivably have gone into the playoffs with any confidence after losing three consecutive games to NFC teams with winning records? And losing two of those games at home? Of what use is the home-field advantage in the playoffs when you’ve played such indifferent football at home in the big games?
If the Giants had lost to Carolina, winning the season finale against Minnesota would have been relatively meaningless. And yet, the idea that the Vikings game is now inconsequential—a popular notion if one listens to the radio call-in shows—is a dangerous one. Minnesota is 9-6 and leading the NFC North, and they have no intention of laying down for the Giants in their own dome. They are fully capable of doing to New York what the Eagles and the Cowboys did and what Carolina very nearly did. One great quarter of football and a spectacular drive in overtime hasn’t made up for 11 consecutive quarters of listlessness. The Giants may have clinched home field, but there’s still something very important at stake: their confidence.