Eleven games in to the 2016 season, the New York Giants are 8-3, riding their longest winning streak in eight years.
The 2008 Giants — the last Giants team to win six straight — are looked at as one of the best teams the franchise has ever fielded (at least until a certain nightclub incident and key injuries depleted their defensive depth). That Giants’ team featured one of the league’s top defenses and the offense featured the NFL’s top running game and the third-ranked scoring offense.
My college roommate — who is NOT a football fan -- described the team that took the field for the first three quarters of the season perfectly: A meat grinder.
The 2016 Giants on the other hand?
Well, heading into Week 13 nobody seems to have a clue who the Giants are as a team ... Or if they even are a “real” 8-3 team.
Some rate the Giants as one of the hottest teams in the league, while others contend that they’re the beneficiaries of a weak schedule and a remarkable six-straight game run of luck.
It seems as though every week somebody offers the observation that “This week we’ll finally learn who the Giants are!”
Going strictly by the numbers, the Giants don’t look like a team bound for the playoffs. Their offense is middling at best, and under-performs relative to their talent level, often hurting themselves with frustrating execution failures. The defense has been stout, but the box score uneven. They’re sixth in scoring defense and fifth in rush defense, but 16th in total yards and 24th in passing yards allowed.
The Giants look for all the world like a team treading water, waiting for next year. But yet they have the third-best record in the NFC. As Ben McAdoo put it, they’ve set the table for themselves.
“As a team, where do we go from here? It’s December football. This is where the real football begins. All our hard work to this point has set the table for December. It’s an exciting time against a lot of playoff teams and playoff environments. The margin for error is small. This is where our identity needs to take over,” McAdoo said Monday.
But what identity? Do the Giants even really have one?
In the conventional sense ... probably not, at least not yet. Looking at the Giants, there is nothing they consistently do well on the surface besides stopping the run. They do a good job of keeping teams from scoring, but they can’t seem to get out of their own way offensively.
According to the folks at Numberfire the Giants aren’t what their record says they are. Numberfire says the Giants have been playing more like a 6-5 team than an 8-3 team. Based on the strength of the Giants’ defensive line and secondary, Numberfire says that the team’s performance has more to do with its offense than itsdefense.
But I think the Giants DO have an identity, it just isn’t one that can be seen in a box score or highlight reel.
If I had to put it to one word, it would be “Resiliency.”
The Giant have squeaked past teams all season, starting with a one-point win over the Dallas Cowboys on the road followed by a three-point win over the New Orleans Saints. It might be “luck” for something like that to happen once or twice in a season — even good teams need lucky breaks and close wins — but to do it seven times?
At a certain point it’s not luck or bad teams. By this point in the season, its fair to say that the Giants are mentally tough. Sure, a lot of their problems are self-inflicted, but they also don’t let them snowball.
When the offense screws up, the defense saves their bacon. When the defense does give up a score, the offense comes through with a scoring drive.
"Whatever the situation is guys don't get nervous, they get excited about the opportunity." - Eli Manning #CHIvsNYG— New York Giants (@Giants) November 20, 2016
You can even see the resiliency looking deeper in the box score.
Over the last three games the Giants have the third-best red zone defense in the league, only allowing offenses to score touchdowns on 44.44 percent of red zone trips this year. So while other teams may make plays to move the ball down toward the end zone, the defense is forcing them to settle for field goals.
They also have the third-best red zone offense on the road in the NFL, ending 72.73 percent of red zone trips in opposing stadiums in touchdowns.
The 2016 Giants are frustrating. They only flash glimpses of what they could be capable of if they played up to their potential. As often as not the Giants seem to be playing against themselves and the opposing team at the same time.
They’ve had to come from behind in almost every game, having to win the game in the closing seconds.
The Giants have gotten by on mental toughness, doing enough to win when it matters most.
But they’re showing signs of improving.
Over the last three weeks, the Giants have by far the best red zone offense in the league, converting all of their red zone trips into touchdowns. They are tops in the league in sack percentage, hitting quarterbacks 11.93 percent of their drop backs. And when it comes to fourth quarter defense, the Giants have had the sixth-best fourth quarter defense in the league on the season, but over the last three weeks they’ve given up an average of only 2.3 points per game in the fourth quarter. Only a late touchdown by the Browns has kept them from perfection.
Rather than playing worse when the stakes are the highest, the Giants are playing better.
That shows resilience and mental toughness, two things that playoff teams need. It’s easy to win when everything is going well. It’s just a bit harder to stop a skid and claw your way back.
The Giants just need to keep it up.