Less than a month ago, after a loss to the expansion Houston Texans and a fourth-quarter collapse at home against Tennessee, the Giants were a banged-up, beaten team. They were consumed by injuries, depressed by their fate and overwhelmed by the number of things that had to happen just to get them back into the playoff race.
At that point they would have done anything just to get one playoff game.
Now they have a feeling one game won't be enough.
"We're happy to be there," linebacker Brandon Short. "But we're not just happy to be there."
Yes, the Giants are aware of the wild events that had to take place just to get them into playoff position. They will send thank you cards to the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals for their dramatic, late-season victories over New Orleans. And they will have a soft spot for Philadelphia kicker David Akers for his missed 35-yarder Saturday afternoon.
But the Giants don't believe they got into the playoffs by accident. They've won four straight games, including victories over two playoff-bound opponents. They are playing their best football in two seasons at the absolute perfect time. "We're dangerous," cornerback Will Peterson said. "We have the ability to win games. For any team that goes to sleep on us we're definitely dangerous. But I don't think anybody is going to go to sleep on us now."
Anyone who was sleeping since November won't recognize these Giants. They have averaged 29.4 points per game the last five weeks. In the last two weeks the defense has given up a total of 115 rushing yards. Saturday against the NFC's No.1 rushing defense, Tiki Barber gained 203 yards.
How did this happen? How did the once 6-6 Giants finish 10-6? How did the offense explode for 26 touchdowns in the last nine games after scoring seven in their first seven?
"Four weeks ago we were dead and buried five feet under," Barber said. "But we didn't let them throw that extra foot of dirt on us and we came back." Here's how the resurrection was done:
The first Philadelphia game was the last straw for Jim Fassel. He was tired of watching an inept offense and he had seen enough of confused players making costly mistakes. He also came out of that game believing offensive coordinator Sean Payton was not executing the game plans the way he told Fassel he would.
So on Oct. 30, Fassel pulled the plug on Payton and took over the offense himself. Then he made three key changes: He removed all the pre-snap motion that gave his players too much to think about; he reduced the playbook considerably, allowing the Giants to focus on what they do best; and he increased the tempo, giving his players less time to think and the defense less time to adjust.
The changes worked quickly as the Giants scored three touchdowns in Fassel's first game calling the plays. But more than that, they got aggressive — even more so as the season went on. Remember the flea flicker to open the second half in Indianapolis? That was a big difference from the meek way they opened the second half in Arizona in September after that killer interception before halftime.
The players noticed and it energized them, and before long the Giants were on a roll. Even Saturday the offense racked up 461 yards against the NFL's second-best defense, even if it did score only 10 points.
"Offensively they've put up numbers and yards like no other year I've been here," cornerback Jason Sehorn said. "The 30s and 40s I've seen ... I remember losing games 17-10, 14-10. And that was this year."
SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM
What's the biggest difference in the Giants offense? That question was answered in April when Fassel was glowing about his dynamic rookie tight end even before he drafted him. And when Fassel started calling the plays, he really made Jeremy Shockey a weapon in his attack.
In the first seven games, Shockey was battling painful toe injuries and a strange inability to get open. But in the last seven games his numbers have been incredible — 47 catches for 573 yards.
Defenses can't stop him. They can't even figure out who — or how many — should cover him. Shockey knows it, Kerry Collins knows it, and the whole offense has taken on his cocky persona on the field.
Even better, his huge presence over the middle has opened up a whole new world outside for receiver Amani Toomer, who had an incredible 48 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns in the second half of the season. Those used to be great numbers for a Giants receiver for a whole year.
As amazing as Shockey, Toomer and Collins were in the second half when the Giants went 6-2, the real key was the emergence of the offensive line and the resurgence of Tiki Barber. In the terrible first seven games Barber ran for 444 yards, just 3.8 per carry. After the play-calling switch, Barber ran for 942 yards in nine games and his per-carry average skyrocketed to 4.9.
Why? For one thing, the offensive linemen benefited from the smaller playbook and simpler plays. They missed fewer assignments, they got more blocking help from other players, and as they became more sure of what they were doing their confidence grew.
But the biggest difference was the philosophy Fassel displayed Saturday when Barber was fumbling three times and his assistant coaches wondered if they should get Ron Dayne ready to play: Fassel was going to ride Barber all the way.
"I said, 'Nope,' " Fassel said. "He's the guy who got us here. He's the guy who's going to stay in and win it with us."With a couple more Giants wins, Barber would have drawn consideration for NFL MVP.
DEFENSE TAKES OFFENSE
The Giants defense was embarrassed on Oct. 28 when it allowed the Eagles to rush for 295 yards, but that was nothing compared to how it felt on Dec.1 when it blew a 12-point lead to the Titans with eight minutes remaining and lost at home.Never mind that the defense was missing Keith Hamilton, Cornelius Griffin, Mike Barrow and Will Peterson. The players were still stunned.But in the next four games, the Giants were outstanding on defense. After picking off five passes in the first 12 games, they intercepted six in the last four.They picked up six fumbles in those games and had 13 sacks, too. And their best came Saturday when they held the Eagles to 209 yards and had a huge Kenny Holmes sack and Shaun Williams interception in overtime that turned the game around.What happened? The defense credited the offense, saying it was easier to take chances knowing the offense could put points on the board. For much of the season, Fassel was critical of his defense for not being aggressive enough — especially in pass coverage. In the last four games that dramatically changed.
YOU GOTTA BELIEVE
Do not underestimate the power of Fassel's December magic in explaining why the Giants are rolling into the playoffs. His December record in six seasons is 19-5. And each year he's found some some way to make his players believe.
This year his rallying cry was right out of "Animal House": "It's not over until we say it's over." And as ridiculous as that sounded after the Giants beat the Redskins on Dec. 8 to improve to 7-6, his players bought into it from the start.
"When everybody is against us, I think that's when we play our best," Holmes said. "This team's character and heart you can't even measure. We came out and believed in each other when nobody else gave us a chance to make it."
If the Giants are right, it won't be over for quite a while.
"We're on a winning streak here," tight end Dan Campbell said. "We're gaining momentum at the right time of the year. There's a lot of teams that hit that streak early in the year, middle of the year and then they start losing and their confidence is lost a little bit. Us? We're on the way up."