The Giants have long been known as Big Blue, but this week they became known by another phrase that became instantly popular with broadcasters, writers, bloggers and seemingly anyone else eager to share their opinions about the NFL: brutal schedule.
It was all but impossible to watch, listen to or read about the Giants without hearing or seeing those words or some variation thereof. The 5-2, NFC East-leading Giants this week begin a – five, six or nine-week run, take your pick – that self-described experts believe is…"difficult," "challenging," "daunting" and the ever-popular "brutal."
It includes games against the teams who currently own the NFL's two best records, 7-0 Green Bay and 6-1 San Francisco, a Monday night visit to high-scoring New Orleans and a Sunday night home game vs. resurgent Philadelphia. The long slog begins Sunday in New England, where the Giants will face the perennially-powerful Patriots, who are also 5-2. It is the teams' first meeting since the Giants' 17-14 triumph in Super Bowl XLII.
The Giants are well aware of what lies ahead, but are hardly intimidated. The quote making the rounds that perhaps best describes their feelings was uttered by safety Antrel Rolle, who said, "I don't worry about our schedule, I feel like our schedule needs to worry about us."
In his own way, Rolle is saying the Giants are confident of success, no matter who they're playing.
This week, the Giants have eyes only for the Patriots. That comes from Coach Tom Coughlin, who operates on a strict one-week-at-a-time and one-game-at-a-time basis. Coughlin never looks at a block of games, only the one he is preparing for.
"We're playing this one game this week, I think, not the other ones," Coughlin said. "We play it one at a time. Everyone is aware of the schedule, but we're excited about that."
Being aware is one thing. Trying to figure out how you will fare in a group of games is an irrelevant exercise when you can play only one at a time.
"This upcoming schedule - all we know is that we play New England," safety Deon Grant said. "Don't look ahead, don't look to Green Bay, and whoever, I don't even know how the schedule goes. Our mentality is that we take care of one game at a time, so our focus is on New England right now."
"You have to approach it the same way we've been, just taking it one week at a time, one practice at a time, and focus on each opponent," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "Because when you start looking ahead and looking at Green Bay, or looking at New Orleans, you start losing focus on the team in front of you, so as long as we stay prepared and stay focused on the team that's ahead of us, we'll be fine."
Though they have the right mindset, the Giants do face a daunting challenge, one made more formidable by the potential absence of the players on their injury list. Leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), top receiver Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) and starting center David Baas (knee) are all listed as doubtful for the game. In addition, sack leader Jason Pierre-Paul is questionable while he gets evaluated for a possible concussion.
The Giants have been dealing with injuries since training camp opened, so they're accustomed to not letting absent players affect their preparation. As much as they refuse to look ahead, a victory in New England would be their third in a row and give them a power boost heading into the second half of the season. It might also slow the torrent of skepticism from those whose constant reminders of the difficult schedule infer their belief that the Giants will struggle against it.
"We're not worrying what the outside is feeling about us," safety Kenny Phillips said. "We definitely feel like we're a good team, and we play for each other, we play for our coaches. Whatever's being said, we really don't care. But if we win this, which I say we will, the outside world will say that the Giants are a good team."
"For the stretch that we have up ahead I think it is important to come away from this one with a win, because it helps you build momentum for the following games," guard David Diehl said. "In order to keep playing at your best, you have to beat the best. And if you go here and we win on the road against New England, and beat a good football team, it just builds that confidence for down the road. We've been in this same situation before. And that's toward the end of the season is when you see teams playing their best football, they're playing up against tough opponents. It doesn't matter if it's home or if it's away, and they play off of that and use that to their advantage. I think that's a huge key for this week."
Of course, playing the Patriots is a difficult enough task. They have won 20 consecutive regular season home games. They have won 18 straight regular season games against NFC opponents. Since 2002, the year they moved into Gillette (where they are 70-14 in the regular season), their record after Halloween is an NFL-best 31-7. Tom Brady, their three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, has won his last 31 regular season starts at home.
"They are tough to play anywhere but when you add in the home field advantage, they are almost unbeatable," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Obviously, they have won 20 games in a row up there. They are tough to play regardless of where they play and I think every team is a little better at home. For them, it has been a tremendous advantage."
Not in the postseason, when the Patriots have lost playoff games in each of the last two seasons. But a trip to New England to face Brady and Co. is still one of the NFL's most arduous challenges.
"I don't know about everybody else, but I love it," Rolle said. "I love going up against the best of the best. It is a true test to see where our defense is and how we view ourselves going up against Tom Brady. It is going to be a good test."
"These games are fun," quarterback Eli Manning said. "When you think of the Patriots you just think of a team that's always in the playoff picture, always a talented team and well coached. These are easy games that we get excited for and you just want to go in there and play the style of football that we know we can."
Manning would surprise no one if he uttered a similar quote prior to every game for the rest of the season. As he's learned in his eight seasons as a pro, in the NFL you worry about this week's game this week and next week's game next week."
"As you get later in the season, they all become big games," Manning said. "You're starting to fight for playoff spots and see where you stand in the division, things like that. We know we have a big game this week. That's all our focus is on, getting ready for the Patriots, understanding they're always extremely good at home and we have a great challenge to go in there and play our best."
*Bradshaw, Nicks, Baas, Pierre-Paul and tackle Stacy Andrews (who won't play because of a back injury) did not practice.
*Pierre-Paul, who leads the Giants and is fifth in the NFL with 8.5 sacks, had a helmet-to-helmet collision in practice yesterday.
"The two helmets hit together and I didn't think much of it and then all of a sudden he was off to the side," Coughlin said. "He didn't feel good and they shut him right down.
"Jason is doing all the protocols. He had a headache so we put him through all the tests for a possible concussion and we will see how that goes. That is where he is and that is what he is doing."
Coughlin said a decision on Pierre-Paul's availability will likely be made shortly before game time.
The Giants had their entire defensive line intact for the first time last week for their victory over Miami. Now they might have to compensate for the loss of Pierre-Paul, who has started every game this season, as they did when Justin Tuck and/or Osi Umenyiora were sidelined earlier.
"Obviously, that would be a big loss – he's a big part of our team," Umenyiora said. "But we're just going to have to keep on rolling – next man up."
"No one is going to feel sorry for us," tackle Chris Canty said. "We have to get the job done with the guys we have available."
*Bradshaw has a fracture in his foot. Coughlin said doctors have ruled out surgery for the time being. Coughlin said the problem is not where Bradshaw had a screw inserted in a previous surgery. There is still a slight chance Bradshaw will play Sunday, though Coughlin said, "He has to do some improving but it's possible."
*Coughlin said both Baas and Nicks have improved. Regarding Nicks, Coughlin said, "I think it is day-to-day, like we said. He felt a little better today than he did yesterday, so we will see."
*Coughlin was non-committal when asked whether cornerback Prince Amukamara and/or wide receiver Ramses Barden will play for the first time this season.
*Amukamara (foot) is listed as questionable, as if fullback Henry Hynoski (neck). Tuck (groin), Umenyiora (knee/shoulder), tight end Bear Pascoe (finger), wide receiver Mario Manningham (illness) and linebacker Michael Boley (knee) are probable.
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