When the New York Giants entered the critical two-week stretch of back-to-back road games against NFC East leaders the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys you understood that this was a litmus test for the Giants -- their measuring stick to see where they stood in relation to the league's big boys.
After losing both games, and being outscored 58-21 in doing so, the Giants are 3-4. and the answer is obvious. These Giants are not ready for prime time. Better than last season, without any doubt. Whether or not the overall record at the end of the season is better or worse than the 7-9 mark of 2013 it is pretty obvious this team is better, and that in many ways it is pointed in the right direction. It is, however, also painfully obvious that the 2014 Giants are not yet ready to sit at the big boy table.
The Giants' three-game winning streak showed that there is some reason to be optimistic that the Giants can eventually field a high-scoring, consistent offense. The defense showed that against teams that are one-dimensional or don't have top-tier quarterback play it can get the job done. The Giants three victories this season came against teams with a combined record of 7-13. Only the 3-3 Houston Texans could even remotely be considered contenders.
Against the big boys, though? The Giants' four losses this season have come against teams with a combined record of 21-5.
The weaknesses of a Giants' that is missing key players like Victor Cruz, Rashad Jennings, Geoff Schwartz, Walter Thurmond and the real Jon Beason and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, has inexperienced players at several key positions and still lacks big-time play-makers at a handful of spots are exposed when they step up in class.
The Giants don't run block well. Andre Williams carried 18 times for just 51 yards, 22 of those on one run. There aren't any holes for him to run through. Right guard John Jerry has never been a great run blocker. They miss Rashad Jennings who, while not an explosive players, is a quality all-around back who can help the Giants' offense in a variety of ways. They miss the road-grading blocking of Schwartz, their biggest offensive free-agent signing. Best guess here is that Schwartz winds up at right guard when he comes back off short-term IR.
They miss Cruz, of course. They simply don't get the number of explosive plays their opponents do. They had three plays, two in the passing game, over 20 yards Sunday. Dallas had six.
The roster on offense, even with all of those players, still probably isn't whole. Neither Jennings nor Williams is a home-run threat as a running back. They could use more youth on the offensive line. They could probably use another wide receiver who is a deep threat. Daniel Fells is a nice story, but long-term a second tight end to complement Larry Donnell would be helpful. Donnell himself has shown his inexperience in recent weeks after a phenomenal start.
Defensively, the Giants could still use an additional pass rusher along the line. And yes, that is even acknowledging that Damontre Moore needs to play. They need help at safety, where Quintin Demps and Stevie Brown are not measuring up. They need more linebackers.
They are a work, and a roster, in progress. The drafts over the past two seasons, and the free-agent splurge of the past off season, have upgraded a roster that was badly in need of a makeover. Reality is, though, there are still pieces missing.
Winning games and reaching the playoffs -- which is still, of course, possible -- was never going to be easy this season. With the massive amount of change the Giants underwent in personnel and with the offensive coaching staff and philosophy, it was always going to be a challenge for Tom Coughlin to put all of these pieces together.
"We've lost a couple of important games in a row," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. "We have a lot of games to play. We're gonna have to do something about it. We have nine games. We certainly have to get some Ws."
Cornerback Prince Amukamara seconded the "nine games left" rallying cry.
"There’s nine games left. Nobody wins the division in October. We just have to be great in November and December," Amukamara said.
"When we come back we want to be a great team. We've got a good football team and you see it. I see it," said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. "It's scary if we do everything right, what will happen."
Can they be great, though? Right now I don't think so. At least not quite yet.
The Giants face the Indianapolis Colts (home), Seattle Seahawks (away), San Francisco 49ers (home) and Cowboys (home) in their first four games after the bye. That's a rough stretch, one which won't see the Giants going into any of those games favored to win.
What is really scary is that the Giants don't seem able, as of yet, to do things right against the elite teams. Against the mediocre ones with obvious weaknesses to exploit, yes. Against the heavyweights? Not so much.
After the last two weeks you have to wonder. Even if the Giants do everything right, do they have enough to beat the league's best teams. They will have to in order to rescue this season, and right now it doesn't look like they can.
It is likely of little comfort to Giants fans that the team has made progress from a year ago. Another solid draft and a couple of solid free-agent moves and the Giants could be back among the league's true contenders.
Right now, though, this looks like a team that hasn't ascended to that level and might not yet have all the pieces it needs to get there.