The playoffs bring an increased intensity, a win-or-go-home anxiety, an upgrade in focus, desire and resolve not always evident in the regular season.
Except, perhaps, if you're the 2011 Giants.
The Giants will certainly bring all those attributes onto the field Sunday, when they host the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC Wild Card Game in MetLife Stadium. And while it will be their first postseason game in three years, it will be very much like several games they've played this season.
These Giants are accustomed to playing high-stakes, high-energy games. They've been enveloped in a postseason atmosphere the last two weeks, when victories over the Jets and Dallas Cowboys were essential to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Giants won both games, including their season-ending 31-14 triumph over Dallas last night that clinched the NFC East title with a 9-7 record.
To many Giants, the last two contests felt very much like playoff games.
"We couldn't afford to lose the Jet game and we definitely couldn't afford to lose this game," running back Brandon Jacobs said. "If we would have lost the Jet game, so many things would have had to happen - and then we would have been scoreboard watching - that you can't do while you're playing. If you need to take care of business on your own, it doesn't matter."
While they didn't play the Falcons during the regular season, the Giants faced their share of outstanding teams. They were the only NFC team to play both Green Bay and New England, the No.1 seeds in the NFC and AFC, respectively. And the Giants, Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams were the only teams to have faced the Packers, San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints, the NFC's top three seeds. While the Giants got ambushed in the Superdome – where the Saints were 8-0 – they lost by a touchdown after a late fourth-down pass was batted down in San Francisco and they fell to the Packers by three points at home on a last-play field goal.
The Giants have clearly been tested in a manner that will continue – but should not be radically different for them – in the postseason.
"I think we have been in playoff games, we have been in playoff games for the last three weeks," Coach Tom Coughlin said today. "We are battle tested in a lot of ways because we have played some really outstanding football teams all down through the second half of the season."
"We've been pretty good about handling ups and downs and it was going to come down to the finish," quarterback Eli Manning said. "Something Coach Coughlin has stressed all year and has kind of been one of our mottos or one of the things that he's talked about throughout the year is finishing the fourth quarter – finishing games and ending games and taking advantage of finishing the season strong. We got off to another strong start of the season, kind of late we didn't play as well as we needed to. We had some tough games, but we needed to win two games to make it into the playoffs – beat the Jets, beat the Cowboys. We were able to do that and play big in the fourth quarter of both of those games to seal the win."
The Giants won three of their last four games, including two against Dallas. After suffering a 23-10 home loss to the last-place Washington Redskins on Dec. 11, the Giants still controlled their postseason destiny. But the lackluster performance left many outside the locker room wondering if they had the right stuff to surge into the playoffs. Two outstanding games to close the season erased those doubts and convinced the Giants their series of regular season challenges prepared them well for the crucible of the playoffs.
"I think we faced the best of the best opponents throughout this season," safety Antrel Rolle said. "We haven't always played up to our standards through most of those games. We had a lot of ups and downs. We haven't played a consistent season under any circumstances. The record is 0-0 at this point. I think we know, coming off of this win, we have an identity. I think we all know that we're all of one accord and if we play and focus on what we have to do, the sky's the limit for us."
"I think we are (playoff-tested)," said record-setting wide receiver Victor Cruz. "Because of the role we had to take, because of the teams we had to play and the fashion that we had to play in – a lot of must-win games - I think we've been playoff-tested a lot earlier."
Although they've played many games of high importance and against the NFL's very best teams, the Giants have many important players who have never played in a postseason game, including Cruz, Jason Pierre-Paul, Hakeem Nicks, David Baas and Linval Joseph. But they have 25 players on the current roster with playoff experience, including vital contributors like Manning, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, four members of the offensive line and the entire secondary. Fifteen of the 25 players contributed to the Giants' epic run in the 2007 postseason, when they swept four games and defeated New England in Super Bowl XLII.
The players who have played there will certainly deliver some playoff life lessons to those who haven't.
"Playoffs are different, because it's win or go home," said Rolle, who played in Super Bowl XLIII for the Arizona Cardinals. "It's no different than what we've been doing for the last two weeks. You have to turn it up a few notches. You have to bring your best of the best ball. You have to leave your selfish attitude – there's no selfish football at this point. It's all about the team. When it's all said and done, you win as a team. There's going to be no individualism out there on the field. We have to go out there and play ball, play for each other."
"What I told them was the straight up truth, this is the playoffs," Coughlin said. "There are 12 teams in the playoffs and 20 teams go home, it is a single-elimination tournament and if you win, you go on. If you lose, you go home. It is reality. I think a lot of the young guys have a feeling for that. I really felt that what was very good about our football team was the building throughout the week and the outstanding practices and then the peer pressure. Not only the pressure to perform but to play smart and do the smart thing and I thought that was prevalent everywhere on our team."
Coughlin was asked what his approach will be to get the Giants to play their best football of the season in the playoffs.
"The approach doesn't change all that much, to be honest with you," Coughlin said."It's always focused on ahead regardless of whether there are issues, problems, we lost a game. It's always the work ethic, the team concept. Right at this point of the year, without a doubt you're helped by the circumstance, too. People understand and know what the consequences are of their play. The motivation is incredible. It's a great time of the year. We've come down the stretch. We've had a million questions asked about our ability to finish, so that's always been in the back of our mind. We've talked about it openly. It was our goal at the very beginning of the year and the guys have bought into that, they see it. We have some people here that know how to win, that have done it in a very, very wonderful place not too long ago, that can share with a lot of others about what it takes at this time of the year to put yourself in that position or at least to get into the tournament. That's been the main stick."
With their two big victories to end the season, the Giants will have plenty of confidence on Sunday, when they play in MetLife Stadium for the fourth consecutive week.
"I would not want to face the New York Giants in the playoffs right now," Jacobs said. "I've got the same feeling (that I had in 2007). There are a lot of guys that are here that weren't here a couple of years ago when we went to the Super Bowl (in 2007), but it's the same kind of feeling that I have. It's basically the same road as well."
"I think us playing like we played (last night) and we played the last two weeks," Tuck said, "it's going to be a tough road to beat us."
*Coughlin offered about as positive a day-after review of a game as he has all season in talking to the media about the victory over Dallas.
"I told the team out of all the things that we did and a lot were very, very good, the thing that I was most pleased with was the effort," Coughlin said. "I think we really flew around to the ball on defense. We had many people to the ball and did know that the run was something that we would have to make as a priority. We had to shut the run down and we did a good job with that and the score helped a little bit there. We held them to 49 yards rushing and we held them to 14 points. We only had three penalties and we did not have a turnover, those were the things that were most impressive to me as I looked at the tape and I studied the statistics from yesterday's game."
*Coughlin said Umenyiora "came out well" after playing in his first game since Nov. 28 because of a sprained ankle. Umenyiora twice sacked Tony Romo.
*Tight end Jake Ballard, who missed the last two games with a sprained knee, and linebacker Mark Herzlich, who has sat out five with a sprained ankle, will both try to run tomorrow.
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