A month ago, the notion that the Giants would play in the NFC Championship Game this weekend was as farfetched as Tom Coughlin canceling practice and instructing his players to just show up for the game on Sunday.
The Giants had just lost a lackluster home game to the last place Washington Redskins, 23-10, scoring their only touchdown with just 33 seconds remaining. It was their fifth defeat in six games, a stretch that included a four-game losing streak. The Giants were 7-7 and trailed the Dallas Cowboys by a game in the NFC East race.
But the Giants owned one very vital commodity – control of their postseason destiny. All they had to do to make the playoffs was win. And that's exactly what they've done. They dispatched the Jets and Cowboys in the final two regular season games to win the division title and Atlanta and Green Bay to open the postseason. The margin of victory in each of the four games was at least 15 points, the first time the Giants have done that since their surge to the championship to close the 1986 season.
"I think we are playing well," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "I think we are complementing each other. I think there are areas to be improved upon. I think our guys are having fun and are excited about the opportunity that is created for them. It is a great challenge and we are excited about it. We continue to try to take those areas that are most concerning for us and we can continue to complement each other."
On Sunday, the Giants will attempt to continue their inspiring run when they face the San Francisco 49ers in the conference title game in Candlestick Park. The winner will advance to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on Feb. 5.
So what, exactly, changed? How did the Giants improve so quickly and dramatically that the Redskins game now looks like little more than a shallow pothole on a championship drive?
"I think it's just the team coming around and playing together," quarterback Eli Manning said. "All season we have kind of had the defense play great one game and the offense would play good the next game. It was never a combination, it seemed like. We weren't complementing off each other. Now it's that way. The defense is playing with great confidence. Offensively, we're not making mistakes and putting our defense in a bind. We're making teams try to drive the whole field if they are going to score. That's the case, both sides are healthy, everybody is back and playing at a high level. We have to continue to do that."
"We always knew we were a good football team," said defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who has five sacks in the last three games. "The way we were getting beat before, I don't think we were just getting annihilated, we were just making mistakes. We knew that once we corrected those mistakes, that we were going to have a chance to be a good football team. And for some reason we were able to correct them at the right time. Everything's coming together right now."
The Giants' turnaround is due to several factors. They are as healthy as they've been all season; almost every player on the roster practiced today, a rarity at this time of year. Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Ahmad Bradshaw, David Baas, Mario Manningham – all of whom missed at least three games this season – have recovered from or are ignoring their ailments to become key contributors down the stretch.
The Giants are taking care of the ball. They have only one turnover in two postseason games and haven't lost a fumble in six consecutive games, their longest such streak since they played the last seven regular season games in 2008 without a lost fumble. Last week, they had four takeaways against a Packers team that had 14 turnovers in 16 regular season games.
The team has run the ball better. Manning and wide receivers Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham have been in perfect sync (Hakeem Nicks has 280 yards and four touchdowns in two games and is the only player in NFL history with a touchdown reception of at least 66 yards in consecutive games in same postseason).
"Everybody has been healthy for the last few weeks and all three are playing at a high level," said Manning, who has benefitted from outstanding protection from his offensive line. "It makes my job a lot easier. I'm not having to try to force it into certain situations. I'm just going through my reads and trusting those guys to get open."
The defensive line has consistently harassed opposing quarterbacks and the coverage has improved. In the last two weeks, the defense held the Packers and Falcons to 247 and 388 yards, 129 and 17 yards under their season averages, respectively, and a total of two offensive touchdowns. Not bad for a unit that ranked 27th in yards allowed and 25th in scoring defense in the regular season.
"We had a lot of interchangeable parts and I spoke throughout the season that we were not able to play together as a front, as a secondary, and as a linebacking corps," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "So over the last four or five weeks we've been able to play together. Our coverage is based on feel and knowing where people are and trust. We've been able to feel and trust each other now, because we've played together as a unit - defensive line, linebackers, and secondary. The parts have all come together and now I don't have to substitute a guy in and change the coverage and say this guy has a weakness so I have to do something different. We've come together and we've been able to play together, so everyone is a lot more comfortable in their roles."
In the 49ers, the Giants face an opponent capable of bringing their momentum to a grinding halt. The Giants have no illusions about the difficulty of their challenge. They lost in Candlestick Park, 27-20, on Nov. 13. And the Niners have impressive numbers that are impossible to ignore: 10 regular season turnovers, tying an NFL record; and a defense that was second in the NFL in points allowed (14.3), first in rushing yards allowed (77.3) and fourth in total yards given up (308.2). San Francisco also had the NFL's eighth-ranked rushing attack (127.8 yards a game).
"(That is) a very, very good San Francisco 49ers team which did accomplish some outstanding things outside of the 13-3 record," Coughlin said. "They are plus-28 (turnover differential), which is amazing, and they only turned the ball over 10 times over the course of the regular season."
"They do a good job of stopping the run," Manning said. "They do a good job of getting turnovers, getting sacks. They make a lot of big plays on defense. Their offense builds off that, off short field position and scoring points. From an offensive standpoint we have to be very sound. Everybody's mechanics have to be perfect. We can't afford to make mistakes. That's what you see with their defense – a mistake on offense turned into a turnover for them, into a big play for them. So you have to eliminate their big plays on defense."
When the Giants last played in a championship game, four years ago in Green Bay, the story was the minus-23 degree wind chill at kickoff. Sunday, it could be the rain, which has fallen most of the week in San Francisco and could resume during the game. The Giants have stoically said all week the conditions will not alter their game plan. Manning has proven he can throw in adverse conditions.
But the elements could make the running attacks more important on the notoriously sloppy Candlestick field. Ironically, neither team's leading rusher gained a yard in the first meeting. Bradshaw was inactive with a foot injury (Brandon Jacobs and D.J. Ware combined for 89 yards) and San Francisco's Frank Gore ran six times for a net of zero yards before leaving with an ankle injury. Despite that, he rushed for 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
"He is a good running back," Jason Pierre-Paul said. "We've got to respect him and he is a power runner. He gets up the creases and the gaps very well. He is a low runner. He is going to be healthy and everybody (on defense) is going to be healthy, so it is a good thing."
Both backs are now healthy.
"That's the plan in every game - to run the ball," Bradshaw said. "Especially with us, as good as we have been these last couple of games running the ball. We don't pay attention to the conditions. If it is a raining game, hopefully we run the ball more. Just stick your cleats in and keep on digging."
That's been the Giants attitude ever since they dug themselves out of the disappointment of the Redskins. Now they have to dig for one more game to get to the Super Bowl.
*Tight end Jake Ballard, who yesterday underwent a procedure on his knee that was "not surgery," according to Coughlin, did not practice today and is listed as questionable on the injury report.
"I'm not concerned," Ballard said. "I just saw a doctor for a little bit last night, performed a procedure, and I'll be ready to go. They just pulled me out just to rest me for the day."
The other eight players on the injury list are listed as probable, including center David Baas, who missed practice with the same sort of stomach bug that sidelined Manning on Wednesday. The most notable inclusion on the list was Nicks, who was limited with a sore ankle that doesn't appear to be serious.
"It's the same one I rolled earlier in the season – same one I always roll," Nicks said. "I was running the in-cut and it just kind of gave out on me a little bit. It should be alright, though.
"I have no reason to be concerned about it. It is an important game. Put it out of my mind and I am not going to think about it."
"Hakeem is going to be fine," Manning said. "He'll be ready to go."
Also on the injury report are Manning (because of his illness Wednesday), who practiced fully, and Bradshaw (foot), Tuck (shoulder), Umenyiora (ankle/knee), cornerback Corey Webster (hamstring) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle) who were all limited.
*Coughlin and Manning both had kind words for Rich Seubert, a Giants lineman from 2001-10 who will join Mark Bavaro and Michael Strahan as honorary captains for the game.
"He was feisty," Coughlin said. "He loves to play, he loves to be a part of this team and the New York Giants. He plays with every ounce of fiber that he has. He gives it all and shares it all. He is not afraid to get on teammates and he is not afraid to be the rambunctious one in the locker room. He stirs it up better than anyone I have been around. Sometimes it is to the point where you have to step in between. We love this guy and we miss him. Last year he took a picture of him and me – him up there (holds his hand up) and me down here - and he wrote ‘Happy Holidays' to me and gave it to me. I put it in my locker and forgot about it and I find the picture over the holidays and now I have it sitting right in front of me for a month and a half so I can look at Richie and happy holidays."
Seubert was the Giants' left guard who was filling in at center when he dislocated his knee in the 2010 season finale in Washington. He has not closed the door to attempting a comeback.
"(I'm) excited to see Richie out on the field again with us," Manning said. "He was a great teammate. A guy when I first came in my rookie year he was around, he was injured, I thought he was 35 years old when I first got here (Seubert was actually 25 at the time). I thought he was a guy who had been here forever. He had only been here for a couple of years. An honor to have played with him – he was a great leader, great teammate, great guy to have in the locker room – excited that he'll be a part of the game on Sunday."
*This is the Giants' 19th appearance in a championship game, an NFL record. Dallas is second with 16 title games. The Giants are 7-11 in title games – 3-11 in NFL Championship Games prior to the 1970 merger and 4-0 in NFC Championship Games after it (1986, 1990, 2000 and 2007). They are 2-0 in conference title games on the road, winning in San Francisco in 1990 and in Green Bay four years ago.
The 49ers are 5-7 in championship games, including 4-4 in Candlestick Park. This is their first appearance in the NFC Championship Game since 1997, when the Niners lost at home to Green Bay, 23-10.
*The Giants and 49ers were each responsible for inflicting a franchise-worst playoff loss on the other. In 1986, the Giants routed San Francisco, 49-3, in a divisional playoff game in Giants Stadium. The 49ers enjoyed payback in 1993, when they routed the Giants in the same round in Candlestick, 44-3.
*The Giants have won four consecutive road playoff games, which ties a record set by Dallas (1975, 1978 and 1980 seasons) and matched by Carolina (2003 and 2005 seasons).
*Coughlin is 1-2 in conference championship games, losing twice in Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game and winning with the Giants in 2007.
*This is the fourth time – and the first time in the NFC - a fourth seed and a second seed will meet for a conference championship since 1990, when a sixth playoff team was added in each conference. The No. 4 seeds are 3-0 in such games (Buffalo over Miami in 1992, Denver over Pittsburgh in 1997 and Baltimore over Oakland in 2000). The Bills lost the Super Bowl, the Broncos and Ravens won it.
*This is the sixth conference championship game since 1990 matching up teams that were not in the playoffs the previous season. It last happened in 2008, when Arizona beat Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.
*The Giants are the 10th team to reach a conference championship game with a record no better than 9-7 (in on a non-strike year) since the introduction of the 16-game schedule in 1978 – and the fourth in the NFC. All six AFC teams to reach the title game with a 9-7 record lost, including Coughlin's 1996 Jaguars. Two 9-7 NFC teams advanced to the Super Bowl: The 1979 Los Angeles Rams and the 2009 Arizona Cardinals (who beat the 9-6-1 Eagles in the NFC Championship Game). The Rams and Cardinals both lost the Super Bowl.
*Since 1981 – their first post-merger playoff season – the Giants are 11-5 in postseason games against teams they faced in the regular season (including last week in Green Bay). They are 2-2 against the 49ers in such games.
*The Giants have 15 players on their current roster who played in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay four years ago.
Kicker Lawrence Tynes and long snapper Zak DeOssie (who then handled only the punt snaps because Jay Alford did the placekicks) are still in their respective positions.
Five Giants have championship game experience with other teams: Rocky Bernard with Seattle in 2005, Deon Grant with Carolina in 2003, Antrel Rolle with Arizona in 2008, Tony Ugoh with Indianapolis in 2009 and Steve Weatherford with New Orleans in 2006 and the Jets in 2009 and 2010.All of those players but Weatherford won conference title games and advanced to the Super Bowl.
*Twenty-one years ago today, the Giants defeated the 49ers, 15-13, in an NFC Championship Game in Candlestick Park. A week later, they defeated Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV.