The Giants' task this weekend is to avoid falling into a trap that has ensnared them in the past.
Few teams rise to an occasion like the Giants, who were 5-0 in road playoff games en route to their two recent Super Bowl triumphs. And that doesn't count the title game victories over New England.
But the Giants have not risen to that level in some home games they were widely expected to win. Two years ago, in their second regular-season game in MetLife Stadium, the Giants lost by 19 points to a Tennessee Titans team that finished 6-10. In 2011, they fell by 11 to the soon-to-be 7-9 Seattle Seahawks.
Now here come the Cleveland Browns, lugging a 10-game losing streak dating back to last season, as well as a nine-game slump on the road. The game sits between an emotional loss in Philadelphia last Sunday and a trip to San Francisco for an NFC Championship Game rematch with the 49ers next week. But it's a game the football media and public expect the Giants to win.
Cleveland is the NFL's shortest (average height 6-1.1 inches), lightest (242.6 pounds), youngest (25.55 years) and least-experienced (3.25 years) team. The Browns are 0-4 this season.
While outsiders might interpret the data as proof Cleveland will lose to the defending Super Bowl champions, the Giants believe none of it.
"Don't be misled by Cleveland's record," coach Tom Coughlin said. "They're a good, young team. They have some 15 players that are rookies, 11 second-year players. But they play hard, they battle hard. … We have our work cut out for us."
"If you look at the tape of the Cleveland Browns, they're a talented football team," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "They should not be winless, because they've really battled some people very well. If you look at the Baltimore game, they took them down to the wire. If you look at the Philly game, they took them down to the wire. So all you have to do is turn on the tape."
The Browns employ many impressive young players. Trent Richardson, the third overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, leads the team with 222 rushing yards, 15 receptions and four touchdowns. Brandon Weeden, the soon-to-be 29-year-old rookie quarterback, has twice thrown for at least 320 yards in a game. D'Qwell Jackson has become one of the NFL's best middle linebackers with little fanfare, and Joshua Cribbs is as dangerous as any return specialist in the league.
But in the NFL, you are what you are, and the Browns are 0-4. Just don't try to convince the Giants that the record is indicative of their opponent's strength.
"I never worry about records," quarterback Eli Manning said. "A lot of the time, I don't know the opposing team's record. I watch film, I see the situations, and see how they're playing, and I see a team that makes a lot of big plays. They get turnovers, they get sacks, they have a good scheme, and they do some good stuff defensively that causes problems. So, we've got to be well-prepared, and it's going to come down to execution, and guys stepping up and making plays."
"They're a lot better than their record presents," linebacker Michael Boley said. "They've been in every game they've played, losing the first game by a point. This is a good, young team. They've got a lot of talent, a lot of guys that can make plays."
The last two times the Giants played a winless team this late in the season, the games were decided in the fourth quarter. In 2007, they faced the 0-7 Miami Dolphins in London. Despite getting shutout in the second half, they held on for a 13-10 victory. Last year, the Dolphins were 0-6 when they visited MetLife Stadium. The Giants trailed by a touchdown in the fourth quarter before rallying for a 20-17 victory.
The Giants can impressively play their best against the strongest teams and in the biggest games, particularly on the road. But it begs the question why they struggle at home against teams they are expected to beat, like Tennessee, Seattle, Miami the previous two seasons.
"I don't know if it's our preparation, I don't know if it's the mindset that we go in there with," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "Hopefully, we'll gear up this week, and be prepared for this team, no matter what their record is. They're still a good football team, and we have to prepare ourselves to win a football game."
Trailing Philadelphia by a game in the NFC East race, and with a difficult schedule looming over the next 12 weeks, the Giants can't afford to let down against the Browns.
"We didn't win the ballgame last week," Fewell said. "We're 2-2. We're desperate for a win. There are only 16 of these things and we know every win is important for us."
"We understand that this is a must-win for us," Cruz said. "We have to get ready to play, prepare, and we've got to have all of our weapons handy, go in there, play a good game, and win."