The 2011 Giants are Tom Coughlin's 16th team as an NFL head coach and it's safe to say this is one of the squads he has liked and admired the most.
Of course, it's easy to say that after yesterday, when the Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17, in overtime in soggy Candlestick Park to advance to Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots in Indianapolis. It was the Giants' fifth consecutive victory, including three in the postseason. The Giants, seeded fourth in the NFC, went on the road the last two weeks to beat Green Bay and San Francisco, the conference's No. 1 and 2 seeds. The journey is very similar to the one taken by the Giants four years ago, when won three road playoff games and defeated New England in Super Bowl XLII as a fifth seed.
But Coughlin's high regard for the current Giants extends far beyond victories, conference titles and Super Bowl berths. It rises above the team's punishing, relentless defense, the brilliance of quarterback Eli Manning or the knack it has demonstrated to make a big play when one is most needed.
It is the players' grit, determination, selflessness and belief that anything is possible that is admired by Coughlin.
"There's a great feeling," Coughlin said on a conference call today. "I talk a lot about spirit and I talk about emotions, I talk about vibes, I talk about feelings. I talk about an atmosphere that has been created by the cooperation of players and coaches and the harmony and the great feeling that exists. It's been that type of feeling that has sustained us throughout the course of the year, but even more as I see people grow closer together. But that naturally happens with success. But I'm talking about a real bonding. And that's what I sense and that's what I feel – a very responsive team.
"On Saturday night, they were locked in as well as any team I've ever been associated with. You could hear a pin drop in the meetings rooms. We initially started out with special teams and we go off into offense and defense. When I walked around and listened to the meetings, you can literally feel and sense the focus and the concentration. Those are things that I appreciate. I understand young people and all that goes with tha. But these guys have been able to create a very strong businesslike approach to what they're doing. You can use the word 'fellowship' or whatever you'd like to use, but there's a strong, strong feeling among this group. And it's been a great source of pride for all of us as coaches to be associated with this group of young men."
That feeling has developed rapidly over the last month. On Dec. 18, the Giants lost, 23-10, at home to a Washington Redskins team that would finish 5-11. The Giants' fifth loss in six games dropped their record to 7-7. Outsiders were skeptical the Giants would finish at .500, much less win the NFC East, much less win a playoff game and much, much less advance to the Super Bowl.
But the Giants crushed the Jets in their next game and haven't lost since. They have won five games in a row, each of them an elimination game. Now they are one victory from their second championship in five seasons.
"For some reason or another, we just looked at ourselves the week after the Redskins loss and said, 'We can do better than this,'" defensive end and captain Justin Tuck said. "At the end of the day, when you have 11 guys playing as one on that football field, you can be a tough out."
"It's just a tremendous effort by us all," said wide receiver Victor Cruz, who caught 10 passes for 142 yards in San Francisco. "We understand that any one of us can get hot at any moment. As long as we're all on the same page and just playing together, we've got a great group of guys."
Which is exactly what Coughlin has been talking about.
"We preach (mental toughness) from day one and we try to explain what it is – a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in," Coughlin said. "I think you see evidence of that."
That toughness was on full display in San Francisco. The Giants didn't have to contend with the minus-23 wind chill they faced four years ago in Green Bay, but they had to play in rain and wind and on a soggy, slippery field. The Candlestick faithful was loud and hostile. The Giants struggled to run the ball against the 49ers' stout defense. Manning, despite absorbing six sacks and numerous other hits, completed 32 of 58 passes, both Giants postseason records.
The character that Coughlin spoke of surely helped the Giants win the game. They persevered until rookie Jacquian Williams forced a fumble by reserve punt returner Kyle Williams – who played because Ted Ginn, Jr. was inactive. The ball was recovered by Devin Thomas. Less than two minutes later, Lawrence Tynes kicked the game-winning 31-yard field goal.
"Guys never quit, never ever have any doubts," Manning said. "They keep believing and fighting until the very end no matter what the circumstances are. I think everybody knew we were going to get a break, we were going to get a chance to win this game, we were going to make a play or something was going to happen if we didn't make a mistake ourselves and that was the mindset in all phases. When we play our best ball and we win games it's because offense, defense, special teams are all playing smart football, playing together, supporting each other and finding ways to win."
"It was a lot of things," Tuck said of the team's resurgence. "A lot of it was us looking at ourselves in the mirror and we knew that we had the talent to play with anybody and realizing that we got a little healthy. Osi (Umenyiora) got back, I got a little healthier. JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) has had a great season all year long. We just started playing better together. That is what it is all about. I always tell everybody once we get on the football field it has to be 11 guys playing as one. (Last night), it was 33 guys playing as one, the offense, defense and the special teams."
Coughlin couldn't have said it better himself.
*Coughlin was not pleased Manning was hit so often in San Francisco.
"We've done a really good job the majority of the year of not allowing people to get to the quarterback - last night wasn't that type of an example," he said. "There were too many hits on the quarterback last night. We threw the ball an awful lot. We weren't having much success running it. Some of the questions that have come to me about Eli – we have such great trust in him. He stands in there and he'll take the blows, he'll get right back up, he gets right back in the huddle, he's the same positive influence on everybody around him. He doesn't get real upset and point the finger or want to know what the deal is. I'm sure he does in his mind, but he's never going to show that. He's got a real sense of toughness about him and it's demonstrated by the way in which he plays. He certainly demonstrated that last night."
*Safety Tyler Sash will go through the protocol required of any player who suffers a head injury, but Coughlin seemed optimistic the rookie will make a rapid return.
"He felt pretty good, even on the plane last night," Coughlin said. "So I'm hoping that he will go ahead and pass all of his testing. A lot of that will take place tomorrow."
*The players will meet tomorrow, take Wednesday off, then practice Thursday through Saturday. The team will have a normal practice schedule next week in Indianapolis with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday practice sessions.