The Giants today began the postseason by repeating a refrain we often heard in the regular season: they believe they can and will run the ball better.
The difference now is it might be imperative to keeping their season alive.
The Giants today began preparing for Sunday's NFC Wild Card game against the Atlanta Falcons still searching for their rushing legs. They did improve down the stretch, running for at least 100 yards in four of their last five games to match their total for the first 11 games. But they still finished last in the NFL with 89.2 yards per game on the ground, their lowest average in 12 years.
This year, the Giants' offense soared with Eli Manning and the passing attack, which was fifth in the league with a team-record 295.9 yards a game.
But the long-standing cliché is teams must run the ball well to succeed at this time of year. That is particularly true of teams that play outdoors in the Northeast, where precipitation and wind can be huge factors in postseason games. Giants teams of the past thrived in those conditions, in part because they churned out huge chunks of yardage on the ground. With rain and/or a wintry mix possible for Sunday, it's reasonable to ask whether a team that relies so much on the pass can still be good in bad weather.
"I think we're going to have to be," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "But I think we will be. Hopefully, we will run the ball better than we did last weekend, for example. Consistency is the word. I'm not trying to say good, bad or indifferent. But we've had four or five games in a row where we've rushed the ball for over 100 yards. I'll look for that to happen again.
"And Eli has in the past thrown the ball very, very well despite any kind of weather. That's always been an amazing thing to me. Whatever the weather is, the hearts are in the right place. We'll take care of whatever weather presents itself."
"I hope that we can run the ball this week," Manning said. "I hope that our defense can play great football. That's what you want to do, especially when you get late in the season – it's cold, especially if it's nasty weather like they say we might have. That's what you want to have. Are we going to have to throw the ball successfully? Yes, but you have to understand the circumstances and we have to find a way to find completions, be smart with the ball and when there are opportunities, hit a couple of big plays. Hopefully we can do that.
The members of the offensive line consider it a personal challenge to get the running game producing at a higher level in what they hope will be a long and memorable postseason run.
"I think it's definitely the case. When you get late into the season you want to run the ball well," left tackle David Diehl said. "When the elements come into play, that's when you can run the ball and be physical. But I think most importantly is when we are playing against a team like the Falcons, you've got to control the line of scrimmage because you want to take care of their time of possession. We want to do our best to keep their offense off the field and keep our defense fresh and keep them attacking. The other thing you want to do running the ball is keep yourself out of third-and-long situations. Keep yourself in a manageable down because that's something that this Falcons defense thrives on. You give them a third and long, they could pin their ears back and do whatever they can to attack the quarterback."
"Obviously, when you talk about bad weather you are talking about running the ball," guard Kevin Boothe said. "We are not what we would have liked to have been throughout the course of this year, but at this point we are just looking to continue to improve and we are confident that we are continuing to get better and whatever the weather conditions are, adjust and be prepared for."
Playoff success in the past was often predicated on a team having a stout defense and productive rushing attack. When the Giants won Super Bowl XLII four years ago, they averaged 103.8 rushing yards in their four postseason games – and held their opponents to only 74 yards on the ground.
The NFL today is much more of a passing league, one in which a hot and accurate quarterback with a strong cast of receivers can take a team to a title, as Aaron Rodgers did with the Green Bay Packers last year.
"Well, it definitely has, it's evidence, it's fact," Coughlin said when asked if a quarterback's arm can carry a team to a championship. "But the other ingredients are most important as well. You take last year's champion, they played exceptional defense. They were an outstanding, physical defensive football team, which you have to have. The encouraging thing about our situation is the way that our defense is playing right now and the fact that we've been able to do some things – stop the run, attack the quarterback, that kind of thing. So that would be the suitable formula."
Adding a productive ground game to that formula would only make it more lethal. None of the Giants' top three rushers – Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and D.J. Ware – averaged four yards a carry. The Giants did not rush for more than 122 yards in any game that season. In both 2007 and 2008 (when they led the NFL in rushing yards), they had eight games that exceeded that total, and in 2010 they had seven.
"I think we definitely can run the ball better," David Diehl said. "Throughout everything, we've maintained a positive attitude and I think each and every week you've seen us grinding and getting better. Most importantly, we may not be putting up 200 yards but each run that we are doing is taking a toll. Look at the way Brandon has been able to physically do things and also look what it has been able to do to our play action. If you can get the run game going and get those linebackers to bite up, it does so many things for that as well."
"We have been making improvements the last several weeks," guard Kevin Boothe said. "There have been a lot more good things. We have been a lot more consistent. I think the second half of the year compared to the first half was better, but we are still not where we need to be. We are hopefully continuing to improve. I think we did a lot of good things last week, especially in the first half. Not as much as we would have liked in the second half but we are looking to build off of that and continuing to improve. That is what it is all about this time of year is to keep playing your best football."
*Jason Pierre-Paul has been selected the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for December/January, not exactly a shock considering he was twice named Player of the Week during the five weeks of games the award was based on.
In the season's final five games, Pierre-Paul had 37 tackles (28 solo), including six sacks for 46 yards in losses. He twice had two sacks in a game and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after each.
In a Week 14 victory in Dallas, Pierre-Paul led the Giants with eight tackles (six solo), including two sacks of Tony Romo, the first of which resulted in a safety. He also forced a fumble that led to a Giants field goal and secured the Giants' victory by blocking Dan Bailey's 47-yard field goal attempt with one second left. Pierre-Paul had a career-high 16 tackles (11 solo) and a sack in Week 15 vs. Washington. On Dec. 24, he had five tackles and two sacks against the Jets and was named Player of the Week for the second time in three weeks. Pierre-Paul concluded the regular season with five tackles and a sack in the Giants' NFC East-clinching victory over Dallas. He finished the season with 16.5 sacks to become the only Giants player other than Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor and Michael Strahan with at least 16 sacks in a season.
"I knew that I was going to have a great year this year," Pierre-Paul said today. "I came in and last year (as a rookie) I had an alright season and I wanted to do better than what I did last year. Next year, or next season in 2012, I should be better than this year."
*Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle) did not practice today. Herzlich, who missed the last five games of the regular season, tested his ankle.
Running back Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee), tight end Jake Ballard (knee) and running back Da'Rel Scott (knee) were limited.
*Eleven Falcons did not practice today, including defensive end John Abraham, tight end Tony Gonzalez and center Todd McClure (their absences were not injury-related), running back Michael Turner (groin), wide receiver Harry Douglas (groin), cornerback Brent Grimes (knee), linebackers Stephen Nicholas (toe) and Sean Weatherspoon (head), safety William Moore groin), tight end Michael Palmer (knee) and wide receiver Kerry Meier (groin).
Six players were limited: Wide receivers Roddy White (hip) and Julio Jones (thumb), defensive tackle Peria Jerry (calf), tight end Reggie Kelly (back), running back Jason Snelling (knee) and linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle).
*In 2008, safety Antrel Rolle was a member of the Arizona Cardinals, who were 9-7 and the NFC's fourth-seeded team and hosted No. 5 Atlanta – the same situation he is in this week.
Rolle's touchdown on a 27-yard return of a fumble early in the third quarter put Arizona ahead for good in what became a 30-24 victory. The Cardinals went on to win the NFC championship and play in Super Bowl XLIII.
"It's very similar," Rolle said of the two scenarios. "Things were definitely falling into our favor, whether it was a big play or other things happening like (Darnell) Dockett causing the fumble and I was able to run it back for a touchdown," Rolle said. "It was a lot of things that played into our favor and it was a big momentum change in the game, because we were down at halftime."
*This is the first postseason meeting between the Giants and Falcons. The regular season series is tied, 10-10. The visiting team won 15 of those 20 games. The teams last faced each other on Nov. 22, 2009, when the Giants earned a 34-31 overtime victory. Prior to that game, the visiting team had won 12 consecutive games in the series, an NFL record.
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