EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - The outcome of the Giants' season will be decided in their final four games – three of them on the road, three possibly played in frigid conditions and two against NFC East opponents. It's a high-pressure environment with a postseason berth riding on the results and little margin for error.
"It's exciting, actually," guard Chris Snee said on a conference call today. "You get down to the games that are crucial, you're challenged to play your best and that's where the true competitors step forward and I feel that we're loaded with those on this team. So I am really looking forward to what we can do down the stretch."
"It's December," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "You've got to be in a position where your team understands completely that you have to win. You've got to continue to win. You've got to be in that spot if you're going to have a chance."
Because the playoff contenders in the NFC are so tightly bunched, the stretch drive has already begun for the Giants and their competitors. Yesterday, the Giants won their second game in a row, routing the Washington Redskins, 31-7.
"I like to think we started a run," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "Coach Coughlin had us looking at it where at a point, we were kind of down at the Philly game and he said we're going to look at it as a six-game season. So far in our six-game season, we're 2-0. Defensively, we didn't play our best football against Jacksonville in the first half but the last six quarters were pretty good and pretty representative of Giants football and the way we want to play. Offensively, we've fought through some injuries and we have some guys coming back here as December plays its way out, so I'm very excited about our prospects."
The victory against the Redskins improved the Giants' record to 8-4. They are tied atop the NFC East with Philadelphia, but the Eagles currently own the tiebreaker by virtue of their 27-17 victory over the Giants two weeks ago. In the conference, Atlanta is 10-2, New Orleans and Chicago are 9-3 and Green Bay is also 8-4. Tampa Bay is still lurking at 7-5. Only five of those seven teams can make the playoffs, because the West winner is guaranteed a postseason berth. St. Louis and Seattle are tied for the lead at 6-6.
The Giants' task is simple: keep winning. Of course, that is an exceptionally challenging proposition. They return to action on Sunday against Minnesota, where they lost the season finale each of the last two years and will face a rejuvenated Vikings team that is 2-0 under interim head coach Leslie Frazier.
The following week, the Giants will host the Eagles in a game that could well decide the division race. Then they return to the road for their final two games, visiting the Packers before ending the season with a rematch against the Redskins in Washington.
To enhance fan interest at the end of the season, the NFL scheduled more division games in the season's final month. The entire 16-game schedule in Week 17 is made up of teams facing division rivals.
"These (division games) will all be cold weather games, which we enjoy – big linemen," Snee said. "Not that we're looking past Minnesota, but … Philadelphia is a very big matchup with a lot on the line, so I definitely think they made the right decision in moving most of the divisional games toward the end of the season."
"I think it definitely keeps it interesting, just not even with us but watching other games and seeing Baltimore and Pittsburgh playing and the Jets and the Patriots," Cofield said. "That's what fans love, and that's what me being a big football fan myself, I love to watch these games at the end of the year. It seems like it did work out well, and there is definitely some competitive football being played down the stretch. I think it's what any fan would want to see and I think it's great for the game."
That being said, the Giants have as daunting a stretch run as any NFL team faces, with two games against teams that are four games over .500 and two in hostile environments vs. 5-7 teams.
"It depends if you're afraid of playing on the road, which we're not," Snee said. "I would love to play three out of four at home, no question, but it's the hand that we were given and we're certainly not afraid to go out on the road and try to quiet someone else's crowd and they're going to be tough places to play. We know that. But we are certainly not afraid of that challenge by any means."
Coughlin is confident his team has what it takes to succeed.
"What we've learned about our team is that we have a number of guys who have outstanding hearts, outstanding attitudes and they give outstanding effort and whatever we've asked them to do, they've done it and they've tried to do it to the best of their ability," Coughlin said. "It's not perfect, but we're getting some things accomplished and we're growing in that we've won a couple of games, we are in December - it is a critical time of the year – and more people are responding and when they are called upon, they have performed."
The Giants showed they have what it takes to win late-season, cold-weather games. Their defense punished Washington's offense, limiting the Redskins to one touchdown in 14 possessions and coming up with a season-high six takeaways. Washington had the ball five times in the fourth quarter. The Redskins punted once, lost three fumbles and Corey Webster intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass on the game's final play.
"Our defense did an outstanding job of turning the ball over," Coughlin said. "I thought that was the huge difference in the game from that standpoint. We had plus-five, which was really a breakout game for us in terms of that. We did have the one turnover on offense, but we did come up with several created fumbles and were able to recover the ball."
Offensively, the Giants wore down Washington with a potent ground attack that included a combined 200 yards rushing by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, who scored two touchdowns apiece.
The Giants also have a quarterback in Eli Manning who has won on the road, late in the season and in cold weather. So while they do have a difficult task, they have the talent, energy and enthusiasm to succeed.
"I'm aware of the good records that are out there," Cofield said. "I'm aware that we need to pretty much treat every game like a must-win. It's kind of cliché but if you take that attitude and approach and go out there and win every game, that's really the only way to ensure that you're going to the playoffs and that's our goal. If nothing else, we know we have to keep pace with Philly and we know that we expect them to play at a high level, and our number one goal coming into the season is to win the NFC East. As long as they're playing good football, we have to play good football and obviously that's going to be a big game."
"In order to keep pace with the way in which it's going and unfolding, you have to keep winning," Coughlin said. "You have to put yourself in that position. There isn't any doubt in anybody's minds that when we come to work in the exciting time of the year that it is, and it's exciting because when you win, you give yourself another opportunity and that's what you're trying to do is trying to create an opportunity for your team to be in position."
The Giants are in position. Now they have to take advantage of it and keep winning.
*During the opening statement on his conference call, Coughlin volunteered that he was pleased with this special teams.
"I like the way our special teams played yesterday," Coughlin said. "I thought we had great enthusiasm and fire. Obviously, we were very much concerned about (Brandon) Banks, the return man. He is a real threat and he is relied on heavily to create field position or points for the Washington team. He was very much on our minds. We adjusted the type of the kicks that we made when we kicked off to him with the distance kicks and the mortar kicks. There was one missed kick in there that was also a part of the plan but wasn't called for at the time. I thought we, for the most part, did a good job with our kickoff coverage unit but not so well with our punt coverage unit."
*Coughlin is uncertain if wide receivers Hakeem Nicks (lower leg) and Steve Smith (pectoral) will return for the game Sunday in Minnesota.
"I don't know that Hakeem has been looked at since he was looked at on Wednesday and things were going very well for him," Coughlin said. "I know that he is going to start to run – I don't know if that means he's going to be able to practice. That hasn't been stated, but Steve will continue to practice and hopefully we'll be able to move him along."
Nicks said last week he expected to have his stitches removed over the weekend, but Coughlin didn't know if that had occurred.
"The doctor wasn't concerned about that," Coughlin said. "The kind of stitching that was done, he can go ahead and run with them, with the stitches in."
The Giants would also like to get back their injured offensive linemen, David Diehl, Shaun O'Hara and Shawn Andrews.
"I think that we're going to have Dave Diehl practice, just like we did last week, and advance him along and we'll have to see how that goes," Coughlin said. "Shaun, I'm not sure about. (With Andrews) there has been improvement, but, again, I'm not sure what the status will be Wednesday. He's got two full days of treatment and then we'll see, but there is some improvement."
*Giants Hall of Famer Frank Gifford commented on the death today of Don Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback with who Gifford worked in the Monday Night Football broadcast booth for 11 seasons (1971-73 and 1977-84).
"It is mind boggling that so many people from all walks of life have expressed to me their thoughts and sympathies on the passing of Don," Gifford said. "We spent a lot of years together, not only on Monday Night Football, but in sharing so much of our personal lives. I first met him when I was broadcasting games for CBS-TV. As we became closer, we would spend more and more time together. When he quite suddenly retired from the game in 1969, I suggested he talk with ABC's Roone Arledge about a new project Roone had in mind, primetime football on Monday nights. To say that Don was an instant success would be a gross understatement.
"I joined the Monday Night Football team in the second year and, together with Howard Cosell, we helped change Monday night television into Monday Night Football or as some people called it Monday Night Madness. He occasionally would try his hand as an actor, but it wasn't long before he realized that for millions of football fans, he would always be the one who 'topped' Howard Cosell with one-liners or a simple 'Come on, Howard.'
"But perhaps his trademark signature to Monday Night Football was when a team had a game locked up, be it midway into the fourth quarter or whenever, Don would break into a Willie Nelson hit called 'Turn Out the Lights the Party's Over.'
"Since Don's retirement, he and his wife, Susan, had spent many happy years together in Santa Fe, New Mexico. More recently, Don had taken up painting and writing and over the last few years he and Susan had become deeply involved in their colorful and artistic community."