|What a difference a year makes for Tom Coughlin, who is no longer on the hot seat in New York.|
They are the defending champions, the first NFC wild-card team to win the Super Bowl and the only team to win the title in each of the last three decades.
Under normal circumstances, the New York Giants should be one of the real glamour-team stories going into the 2008 season.
Instead, they are overshadowed in their own division, the NFC East, by defending division champion Dallas, a team generally considered the conference favorite, and they are overshadowed in their own city by the publicity surrounding the Jets' acquisition of Brett Favre.
All of which is just fine with the Giants, who had an unusually quiet training camp after the tumult of the last few years, now that Tiki Barber and Michael Strahan are only memories and coach Tom Coughlin is secure.
The Giants have a chip on their shoulders because they felt they were overlooked both before and after the Super Bowl, with most of the conversation centering around what turned out to be the Patriots' not-quite-perfect season.
But, how good, really, is New York?
Quarterback Eli Manning was superlative in the playoffs, but in three seasons as the full-time starter, he has ranked 23rd, 18th and 25th in the league in passing.
His best receiver, Plaxico Burress, was hobbled by an ankle injury in training camp, although he is expected to be ready when the season begins. The passing game may get a boost from second-year wideout Steve Smith, whose rookie year was pretty much a washout due to injuries -- at least, it was a washout until the playoffs, when Smith caught 14 passes including some key third-down conversion catches. One of them came one play before the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
There's inexperience at tight end, where Kevin Boss, a 2007 rookie, has taken over full-time for Jeremy Shockey, but plenty of experience on the offensive line, a veteran group that returns intact. The running game is a committee job led by Brandon Jacobs, a 264-pound pounder, and Derrick Ward.
Strahan and three starters who left in free agency are gone from the defense. The d-line rotation appeared deep enough to overcome Strahan's retirement, but a season-ending knee injury suffered in the preseason by Pro Bowl end Osi Umenyiora is a tough blow. Justin Tuck, who ranked second on the team in sacks, slides into Strahan's spot, while Mathias Kiwanuka is being moved from linebacker back to his natural position of defensive end to fill in for Umenyiora.
All the other defensive replacements look solid, too, with first-round draft choice Kenny Phillips likely to break into the lineup at free safety quite soon. Phillips has great anticipation on the field and handles himself like a veteran.
On the hot seat
Quarterback Eli Manning. Despite his playoff heroics, Manning's four seasons have been marked by relatively ordinary regular-season performances. He is yet to establish himself among the top rank of NFL quarterbacks.
Rookie safety Kenny Phillips looks like more than just an adequate replacement for Gibril Wilson. Phillips handles himself like a pro and plays the position with good understanding and anticipation; he could become a significant playmaker.
Hard road to hoe
After their bye week in late September, the Giants face a six-week stretch that includes four games against teams that finished 10-6 or better last year plus division rival Philadelphia. It includes road games against the Browns, Steelers and Eagles and home games against the Seahawks and Cowboys.
Giants will be better than you think if ...
Justin Tuck plays as well as a starter, replacing Strahan, as he did as a situational pass rusher, and if Manning can make that jump to what so often is referred to as the "next level."
Giants will be worse than you think if ...
Their pass rush can't duplicate last season's 53 sacks and/or Burress' troublesome ankle bothers him enough that it leads to reduced effectiveness in the passing game.