The New York Giants are back to work this week, leading the NFC East despite the missed opportunities of their first 10 games and with a chance to end their three-year playoff drought. What do the Giants need to do in order to stave off challenges from the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys? Let's use this week's "Five things I think I think" to look at five things the Giants have to do in order to win the NFC East.
I think the Giants have got to "finish"
"Six-game season, that's exactly what it is. Every game is a critical game. We are relevant and now we've got to do something about it. "Finish," that word we keep using, you've got to finish. We've got to be playing at our best in all three phases with no lapses, and that's where I'd like to see us go."
That was Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin on Monday.
The Giants, of course, have been unable to finish games this season, having suffered four of their five losses in the final two minutes, including three in the closing seconds. The question is, can the Giants learn to finish close games, can they finish the season strong and get to at least nine victories -- which would take a 4-2 record the rest of the way -- or has their inability to finish in the first 10 games already finished them?
That's a whole lot of references to the word "finish," but that's really what the final stretch of the season is all about. Especially since co-owner John Mara has indicated that it's possible a whole of people -- players and coaches included -- could be finished as Giants if this season doesn't finish on a good note.
So, what kind of finish is it going to be?
I think they have to beat the Redskins and Eagles
Every win is a good win in the NFL. Best guess is that nine wins "should" be enough to win the division. It might take 10. It might only take eight. Who knows? What I do think I know is that two of those wins for the Giants in the next six weeks had better come over the Redskins and Eagles.
The division winner could well come down to the tie-breakers, which are fully explained here. Basically, the tie-breakders, in order, are head-to-head record, followed by division record, head-to-head record in common games, then conference record. There are more, but that's enough for now. Beating the Redskins this Sunday and the Eagles in Week 17 would be a really good idea for the Giants.
Remember, there was a Super Bowl-winning years under Coughlin when the Giants scratched their way into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. There was a 10-6 Super Bowl year. The 10-6 2010 season was particularly tough to take, but the Giants didn't win the "right" 10 games and went home early. There was also a playoff-less 9-7 season.
I think they have to get, and stay, healthy
Cornerback Prince Amukamara will return to action this week, so, too, will tight end Larry Donnell and linebacker Uani 'Unga. Unfortunately, the Giants' offensive line might be a jumbled mess as guard Justin Pugh (concussion) and center Weston Richburg (high ankle sprain) did not practice on Monday. Linebacker J.T. Thomas (ankle) and defensive end Damontre Moore (hamstring) are also on the injury list.
The Giants are already without Johnathan Hankins, Jon Beason, Daniel Fells and several others. They never had Victor Cruz this season. Injuries, of course, are always part of the equation. It would help the Giants immensely, however, if they can field a whole, healthy offensive line. Oh, and and avoid any other major injuries the rest of the way.
I think it's time to crank up the heat
It's late November and it's getting cold outside here in the Northeast, which means everyone is figuring out if their heating systems are still cooperating. That, though, isn't what we're talking about here. We are, of course, talking about the Giants' pass rush.
Anemic for most of the season, the pass rush has shown signs of life in the two games since Jason Pierre-Paul returned to action. Still, the Giants remain tied for last in the league with only 12 quarterback sacks. Three of those came against the Patriots, however, when defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo showed an expanded defensive playbook and a renewed willingness to blitz.
For much of the season Spagnuolo has admittedly been cautious in his approach. Against New England, though, he showed a willingness to be more aggressive. The Giants varied their fronts, often adding a 3-4 look to their standard 4-3. They also occasionally showed an "amoeba" type look, with most of the linemen and linebackers standing at the line of scrimmage. There also seemed to be an increased number of blitzes.
This is an approach that will have to continue over the final six weeks of the regular season. The Giants can't rely on Pierre-Paul to create pressure by himself, or simply wait for mistakes. It's time for them to put the conservative approach away and force the action.
I think they need to score more touchdowns
Perhaps this is one more thing we should add to the list of things the Giants need to finish. They need to finish more drives with touchdowns rather than field goals.
The Giants are fourth in the league in scoring with an average of 27.3 points per game. This despite being 25th in the league in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on just 16-of-34 red zone opportunities, 44.4 percent. That is well below the league average of 55.09 percent touchdowns in the red zone.
Placekicker Josh Brown is having a wonderful year, converting on all 23 of his field-goal attempts. The Giants, though went 1-for-4 in the red zone in last-minute losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons, and 1-for-5 in a one-point loss to the New England Patriots. How much different would their season be with perhaps two or three more touchdowns at critical points in those games?
How do they go about it? Well, they need to run the ball better than have, averaging 3.77 yards per carry (28th) and 95.0 yards per game (26th). That would perhaps open up the playbook and increase their options. The recommendation here has been for Orleans Darkwa to play more. In a small sample size, Darkwa has been their most effective runner. The Giants need to see if that translates when the second-year back from Tulane gets more work.
Perhaps the return of Larry Donnell, the development of Will Tye and the addition of Hakeem Nicks will also help the Giants in the red zone. If the Giants want to win the NFC East they need to stop leaving points on the table.