By Steve Silverman
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The new NFL season is just a few heartbeats away.
The start of training camp means the Giants’ triumph Super Bowl XLVI is part of history and it’s on to the 2012 season.
One of the stories that may not get much play this summer throughout the league is the legitimate chance the defending champions have of repeating and building at least a mini-dynasty.
That would be a mistake. While the Eagles and Cowboys are viewed as legitimate challengers within the NFC East and the Packers, 49ers and Falcons are viewed as potential NFC champions from outside the division, the Giants appear to have all the weapons needed to make a great run at their second consecutive championship.
The 49ers actually appear to be the darlings of those who make predictions in preseason magazines. The magic of Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith certainly were a great story last year, but there’s good reason to think that there could be plenty of trouble in the Bay Area. For one, Smith has never had two good seasons in a row. The other factor is Harbaugh, who has a prickly personality and will rub his players the wrong way if things don’t go right from the start. Last year they did, but there’s no reason to think it will play out as smoothly this year.
The Packers fell short last year when they could not play defense and Aaron Rodgers picked the wrong time – the playoff loss to the Giants — to play average football. The Packers have tried to upgrade their defense by using their first four draft picks on defensive players, but it seems unlikely that they will make a big enough jump to turn that area into a true strength.
The Falcons have never shown any signs of being able to step up their game once they get to the postseason. Until they can play their best game when the money is on the table, there’s not real reason to worry about head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Giants are as strong as any defending champion has been at this point in the season. Offensively, they have the potential to be one of the most well-rounded teams in the league. They are not going to score like the Packers or Saints, but the quarterback/running back/wide receiver combination is explosive. Eli Manning’s greatest strength is his ability to come through when the game is on the line and that lifts up the rest of his team.
The receivers are superb. Victor Cruz was not much of a factor at this time last year and all he did was prove how good he was on an every-game basis. Team him with Hakeem Nicks and that gives the Giants an excellent 1-2 punch.
The running game was mostly disappointing last season. However, it should get better this year even though they let Brandon Jacobs (49ers) get away in free agency. Ahmad Bradshaw had a series of foot injuries last year but found a way to battle through them. A healthy Bradshaw is a dangerous runner who can get through the creases and punish opposing tacklers. Rookie David Wilson will give the running game the speed factor that the Giants have not had.
There are questions about the offensive line because the unit has been so steady and dependable for so long. Now there are changes that could see David Diehl take over at the right tackle spot. The other issue is Will Beatty returning at left tackle after seeing last season cut short by an eye injury. Back issues may prevent him from being at his best early on.
Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride know how to get the most out of an offensive line. This unit may not be perfect at the start but they will not fall apart.
The offense is clearly underrated, but the defense is not. The Giants have their best defensive line in football and they can claim that title by a wide margin. Defensive ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul will continue to dominate as long as they don’t get caught up in their own hype. That’s not likely to happen, especially with Pierre-Paul, who is still growing and improving. Osi Umenyiora is still a big factor and Linval Joseph can punish opponents in the middle.
The 49ers and the Bears also have solid defensive teams, but they don’t have the comparable strength up front to give the Giants a run for their money for 16 games.
The Giants will wear targets all season long, starting in Week One when they host the Cowboys in the opening game of the season. They will get everybody’s best effort every week. More than any other recent champion, they should be able to handle it.
The Giants may not be the preseason darlings of the national media, but they are very likely the best team in the league. They’ll start proving it when they arrive at training camp at University at Albany Thursday.