Many felt the New York Giants started the 2011 season as a team of destiny. Destined to miss the playoffs. Injuries were the primary reason for Big Blue’s poor prognosis.
A slew of players did not make it out of the preseason with their health intact, including cornerback Terrell Thomas, defensive signal-caller Jonathan Goff as well as
multiple backups that were poised to play big roles for Big Blue. The Giants also played a considerable part of the season sans many of their stars. All told, 16 starters were forced to sit out at one point or another.
But in spite of all the bumps and bruises sustained, the Giants managed to eke out the NFC East division crown when they beat the Dallas Cowboys, 31-14, during the
regular-season finale on New Year’s Day. There was nothing pretty about Big Blue’s journey back to the postseason for the first time in three years: they trailed in
every one of their 16 regular-season games, earning two-thirds of their victories with fourth-quarter comebacks. Now, they get to host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday
afternoon in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and down, but when our team needed it most we responded,” said Big Blue’s breakout wideout Victor Cruz, who recorded six catches for 178 yards
vs. Dallas. “We were able to keep level-headed when we were on the four-game skid.”
Cruz’s biggest contribution during the win-or-else game came when he took a pass from Giants quarterback Eli Manning 74 yards for an early score. On the night, Manning
threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
“I knew we were going to fight and keep playing until the end. I feel good about the way we’re handling the ups and downs, and it comes down to finishing,” Manning
said after the game.
Plain and simple: The Giants do not make the playoffs this season without Manning’s and Cruz’s elevated play. Let’s take a look at their remarkable seasons.
Eli Manning: The eight-year veteran enjoyed by far the best campaign of his career, setting new Giants records for passing yards (4,933) and completions (359).
He also tossed 15 of his 29 touchdown passes in the fourth quarter — breaking an NFL record that had previously been held by Johnny Unitas and Eli’s older brother,
“I think it’s one of those stats that you didn’t even know existed until all of a sudden it came up this year,” Manning said Wednesday. “Unfortunately we’ve been down
some in the fourth quarter where we’ve had to score points and score touchdowns. So that’s what has led to having so many touchdowns in the fourth quarter.”
For his 2011 success, Manning was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team for the second time in his career.
Cruuuuzzzz: Manning’s success was helped by the emergence of Cruz, one of the NFL’s most remarkable stories this season. Growing up approximately 15 minutes from Giants Stadium, the 6-foot wideout salsa-danced his way from undrafted free agent out of the University of Massachusetts to pass-catching extraordinaire. In 2011, the 25-year-old completed his second NFL season with 82 catches for a franchise-record 1,536 receiving yards, a total that only trails Calvin Johnson (1,681) and Wes Welker (1,569) for the league lead.
Cruz was one of the game’s most electrifying players in 2011, evidenced by the fact that five of his nine touchdown receptions went for at least 65 yards.
“It’s still pretty surreal,” Cruz said of his sophomore season. “I wake up every day and just pinch myself and kind of think about how far I have come and all the
stuff I have done. I didn’t anticipate having this kind of season, I just wanted to come in and hopefully do some things well and find my place, and to now have my
place in history, it’s just been crazy.” The wideout missed most of his rookie season after he injured his hamstring during sprints in October 2010. He did not have a
single catch before going on the injured reserve.
Looking ahead: One of the best signs for the Giants is that their entire defensive front, finally healthy, began to hit its stride just in time for the
playoffs. During Big Blue’s Week 17 win over the Cowboys, Osi Umenyiora, Big Blue’s best pass rusher before Jason Pierre-Paul burst onto the scene this season with
16.5 sacks, returned from a four-game absence with an ankle sprain and recorded two sacks of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. Justin Tuck, who also missed game action
with injuries, ended Dallas’ final drive by sacking and forcing Romo to fumble.
“We can be the best defense in the league,” Pierre-Paul said Wednesday. “We’ve had nicks and bruises, but we’re getting better.”
Playoff success is often predicated on being the hottest — not necessarily the best — club come January. And although Big Blue surrendered 400 points over their 16-
game slate (the eighth-most points in the NFL), they began to coalesce just in the nick of time.
The Giants’ defense, which allowed 26.6 points through the first 14 weeks of the season, surrendered only 14 points during both of Big Blue’s Week 16 and 17 wins over
the Jets and Cowboys, respectively.
Zach Finkelstein is a contributing writer for YESNetwork.com and SNY.tv.