*The Giants are playing meaningful games down the stretch, a first for many Big Blue players: *
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Moments before the Giants left their locker room to face the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, running back Rashad Jennings delivered a message to his teammates.
"Just pumping everyone up and letting them know that our season is on the line," Jennings said. "This is meaningful. A reminder to some of the younger guys, this is year eight (for Jennings in the NFL), and I've never been in these moments. Savor it and let's make the most of it. It's here."
Indeed, it is. With a 9-4 record, the Giants are poised to play in the postseason for the first time since 2011, when they won Super Bowl XLVI. But with three games remaining, a playoff berth is not guaranteed. They can clinch this weekend, if they defeat the 9-4 Detroit Lions at home Sunday, and Green Bay, Minnesota and Washington all lose.
It's very possible the playoff chase will continue into the season's final two weeks. The players relish this opportunity. The Giants finished with a losing record each of the previous three seasons. Only 16 players on the current 53-man roster have been to the playoffs, and just six of those with the Giants. The players know these chances are not to be taken for granted.
"This is my first winning season in the NFL," Jennings said. "We only have three more games that are promised (including road games in Philadelphia and Washington). Each one is precious for so many reasons. It's go time. I think everyone in here has a little edge to them."
Long snapper Zak DeOssie is the second-longest tenured Giants player after Eli Manning. Now in his 10th season with the team, he played on the Super Bowl XLII and XLVI championship squads. After four seasons watching the playoffs, DeOssie appreciates the opportunity to make a run at them.
"It's really exciting," DeOssie said. "Haven't had this sort of buzz in the building in a while. It's good to know that we have that opportunity in front of us at this point in the year. Over the last couple of seasons, we were always yearning for this type of feeling. Now, I'm cherishing it.
"Over lunch or on the field, some guys are excited for the big, big games. We try and bring a level of consistency approaching each week. It's important not to get too excited and too complacent. It's important to focus on the task at hand, which is a week-by-week basis."
For players who joined the team in 2013 or later, this is their first real shot at making the playoffs. And they're just as excited as their more seasoned teammates to be in the race.
"It's definitely exciting," said second-year right tackle Bobby Hart. "Coming from last year (when the Giants were 6-10) and just seeing how things were, mopey and stuff. Now, everyone has the energy. It's hope. Hope that the goal that we set at the beginning of OTA's is still alive. That's definitely something that not many people can say. In the beginning of OTA's, everyone has the same goal. To be one of the teams who has the opportunity to keep what you started alive, it's definitely special."
"It feels great," said third-year defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. "The intensity is up and everyone is excited. I haven't felt like this since I've been in the NFL. It's good to have something to fight for and motivate you more to go out there and give it your all."
The Giants currently own the NFC's No. 1 wild card. Tampa Bay has the second-best record among the teams not leading their division at 8-5. The Packers and Vikings, two teams that defeated the Giants, are 7-6. The Giants have won seven of their last eight games, but the race could be decided in the final regular-season games on New Year's Day.
That's why the Giants already have a playoff mindset. They treated their 10-7 victory last week against Dallas, their meeting Sunday with the Lions, and will consider their games against the Eagles and Redskins as virtual postseason games.
"I feel like the last two or three games that we've had, or this month of December, is basically like a playoff game," Hankins said. "You're basically playing to get into the playoffs. Nothing is solid yet. You have to continue to go out there and play like this is our last game. You know what's on the line and you know that you can't really make mistakes or slip ups. When you're out there at practice, you're making sure you're doing every technique right and getting on the guys that aren't. Making sure they do their job. Just living in the moment. It's been a while since the Giants have been in playoff contention. I'm happy to be a part of it and helping to do something special."
"Every week gets bigger," said linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Casillas. "We may not play a one-loss team this week, but it's a division leader and it means a lot when it comes to the playoffs. Every game is going to get bigger, whether the record of the team that we play against is one loss, two losses, three losses, whatever it is. The games are going to get bigger and this is the biggest game we have to date."
Manning, the most experienced Giants player, understands better than anyone that the Giants must be at their best this time of year.
"We're fighting for playoff spots," he said. "We don't have time to let down or relax or start feeling good about ourselves. We've got to improve offensively, we know we've got to improve, we've got to play better and keep finding ways to win."
These five players could make a key impact in Sunday's matchup with the Lions