Wow! After thoroughly getting manhandled by the Cowboys twice during the regular season, the Giants were actually able to pull things together and pick up a big win today en route to the NFC championship game next week!
It has been quite a year to be a fan of the New York Giants. The ineptitude of the past several years has been enough to make fans of the team somewhat wary, and the start of this season wasn't helping much as the team rushed out to an 0-2 record. Little did I know at the time that their two early losses (to Dallas and Green Bay) would turn out to be losses to the NFC's two best teams this year. As my hope for the team began to turn south, they decided to go on a little six-game winning streak to improve their record to 6-2. Suddenly, I'm excited about this team and think they have a chance! Then they go and split their final games with a 4-4 record, stumbling into the playoffs with some impressive performances in games against teams like the New England Patriots, as well as some forgettable performances against teams like the Minnesota Vikings.
So what were the differences in today's game? What were some of the factors that worked in the Giants' favor that were lacking earlier in the season? Well for one, the defense stepped it up. Sure, they weren't dominating. They allowed Marion Barber to rush for nearly 130 yards, and allowing some decent stats from the Cowboys receivers, such as Jason Witten and Terrell Owens. But what did change was the fact that the Giants defense didn't give up any of the big plays...those long passes down the field that have sunk the Giants in earlier games.
Secondly, penalties in the game were a huge difference-maker. The Giants played under control, being penalized only 3 times for 25 yards, while the Cowboys were penalized 11 times for 84 yards. And many of these penalties late in the game seemed to really kill their momentum.
The third reason for the Giants success lies in the fact that they didn't have to rely on their big-name players. Their pro-bowl tight end, Jeremy Shockey, is out for the season with a broken leg, and their star wide receiver, Plaxico Burress, has been playing with a progressively deteriorating ligament in his leg that has been slowing him all year....and limiting him to only 1 reception and just 5 yards today. What did help is the supporting staff that picked up the slack. Running back Brandon Jacobs had a pretty good game, with 54 yards and a touchdown. But the threat of the run was increased by the play of Ahmad Bradshaw, who seemed to pick up a handful of big runs in his limited playing time and kept the Cowboys defense on their toes. The real threat, though, came through the air. This was led by veteran Amani Toomer, who had 80 yards and two touchdowns. What was even more exciting, however, was the play of rookie wide receiver Steve Smith, who had missed most of the season with an injury. I've been excited about this guy though because he had quite a collegiate career at USC and adds another receiving option to the Giants offense. In today's game, Smith didn't put up huge numbers (4 receptions for 48 yards), but each of those receptions seemed to come at a big time.
Next week's game will be the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers, played at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This will be a difficult game for me to watch. I've been a Giants fan all my life so naturally I want them to win. But at the same time, I've been following the Packers for the past few years since I've been living in Wisconsin and this year's team is a very exciting, talented team. The Packers have an outstanding offense, and Brett Favre has so many tools at his disposal with wide receivers Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Koren Robinson, not to mention tight ends Bubba Franks and Donald Lee. Plus, the running game of Green Bay has been vastly improved since the arrival of running back Ryan Grant. I'm sure that there will be a lot of analysis in the coming week about this game, with many questions being asked. How will Eli Manning perform? Will the Giants be able to handle the weather at Lambeau Field? But I imagine that perhaps the most common question will be in regards to Green Bay running back Ryan Grant. Earlier this year, Grant was on the Giants' practice squad, and was later traded to the Packers. I wouldn't be surprised if a big question will be about Grant's ability to show up his old team. I suppose I should look at next week's game as a win-win situation for myself. I am hoping that the Giants win but if not, the NFC will be represented by an excellent, and exciting, Green Bay Packers team that I have come to appreciate.