By Ernie Palladino
So many times this year, the Giants failed to show up in big spots.
Not Sunday night.
With their entire 2011 campaign on the line, as well as the NFC East championship, they completed a season sweep of the Cowboys in commanding, 31-14 fashion.
And now you have to wonder. With Atlanta coming up for the Giants’ first postseason game since 2008, might this team that has struggled defensively and, early in games, offensively, be ready to make some noise in the playoffs?
Judging by their last two games, one might have to say absolutely.
The past two games tells us the Giants might be peaking at just the right time.
Eli Manning, who had his best statistical year of his career, turned the ball over just once against the Jets, and came away with zero INTs against the Cowboys as the offensive line kept Rob Ryan’s pressure package well away from him for most of the game.
The line, mostly intact now with the reentry of center David Baas, appears to be getting much feistier than it had been when they were constantly shifting personnel around to account for injuries. They didn’t run block particularly well, but certainly good enough to account for 106 tough yards against a Dallas front that included Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff. Remember, 29 of those yards came on an Ahmad Bradshaw run that set up the Giants’ third touchdown of the first half.
But the fact that the line allowed just two second-half sacks on Manning while generally allowing him all the time in the world to pick out his receivers showed the offensive front may finally be ready to work its will.
The result was a team-record sixth 100-yard receiving game by MetLife’s newest folk-hero, Victor Cruz, and a fine complementary performance by Hakeem Nicks. How does 254 yards and two touchdowns between the two of them (Cruz finished with 178 on six catches) grab you? Add Cruz’ 164 yards against the Jets, and he’s got 342 receiving yards over the past two games.
Defense? That shoddy, leaky secondary basically took Dez Bryant and Miles Austin out of the game. Antrel Rolle for once ran his legs as good as his mouth, and made a key interception in Dallas territory. And Michael Boley, apparently healed from his hamstring issues, leaped over a pile to stop Tony Romo short on fourth-and-inches from the 10 as the Cowboys tried to further shave the Giants’ 21-0 halftime lead to 21-14.
That, unfortunately, would happen on the Cowboys’ next possession as the secondary started giving up passes. But as soon as Lawrence Tynes hit a 28-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, the defense re-energized itself. A three-and-out series and a shanked punt allowed Manning to mount a short, game-sealing touchdown drive. And Justin Tuck’s strip-sack, recovered by Mathias Kiwanuka, allowed Manning to kneel out the final seconds of arguably the biggest regular-season game the Giants have played in their history.
It was certainly the biggest since 1943, the last time the Giants played a winner-take-all game on the final day of the season. They lost that one to the Redskins.
Now they’ve taken their last two games for the first time since 2002. One now has the right to wonder if Tom Coughlin’s injury-riddled squad has finally gotten over its bumps and bruises to peak at just the right time.
It certainly appears that way. If momentum means anything, the Giants have it.
They’ll get a chance to prove they can hang onto it next week at MetLife Stadium. Get past the Falcons, and things could get awful noisy in the postseason.