|Giants quarterback Eli Manning won his second Lombardi Trophy (and second Super Bowl MVP) in Indianapolis.|
Why is nobody out there making a case for the New York Giants to repeat?
If your answer is, That's not good enough, well, didn't this team beat the Packers, 49ers and Patriots in succession -- with none of those victories coming on home field? How about allowing the Falcons all of two points in the wild-card round, or hammering Dallas in a winner-take-all game in Week 17?
Yes, the Giants finished the regular season at 9-7. But if you count the playoffs, that record becomes 13-7 -- a little different story. While many will point out that New York got worse this offseason -- losing Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs -- in reality, they lost a third wideout and a guy who knocked heads with the media and fans as much as defenders (while being one of the most inconsistent players of the Y2K era).
The Giants are also confident enough in second-year tackle James Brewer to tell Kareem McKenzie to test the market. Losses like McKenzie, third corner Aaron Ross and defensive lineman Dave Tollefson are palatable and the cost of doing business in a salary cap world.
Now, here's what Big Blue gained: The confidence that it can beat any team in the league when it's healthy, particularly on the defensive line. Thirteen guys went on IR from preseason through the regular season in 2011, which means players like tackle Will Beatty and corner Terrell Thomas are back. Tight ends Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum both went down with knee injuries in the Super Bowl (that sucks), but Jerry Reese signed Martellus Bennett to provide depth at the position. So pump the brakes on saying the Giants got worse.
Fact is, New York's uneven regular season was a product of missing key guys for long spells, like Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. You can't just replace one of the best pass rushers of the past seven years or a guy who can play inside and outside at a high level. Seattle just signed Jason Jones to a guaranteed $4.5 million deal because he can do just that, and he's a '95 Escort compared to Tuck.
If that's not enough to convince the haters, then let's look at the competition, and try to decipher where Tom Coughlin's group falls short:
Green Bay Packers: Yes, they are a very good football team. They also couldn't protect Aaron Rodgers when they faced a healthy Giants pass rush in the playoffs. Oh, and they lost. By 17 points. At home. Green Bay let stud center Scott Wells walk this offseason, while the offense still lacks a rushing threat and the defense gave up the most yards in the NFL last year.
New England Patriots: The Patriots almost won it all, but they too could use a better running back, and lost to the Giants not once, but twice. New England still needs a pass rusher; the team's top two sack artists from last season, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, are gone.
New Orleans Saints: Do we need to go there?
Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore has a solid football team. Unfortunately, the Ravens just haven't been able to get over the hump. After a small step backward last season, Joe Flacco could bounce back in 2012, giving the Ravens a formidable offense. But three of Baltimore's top four defensive players are getting awfully old: Terrell Suggs will be entering his 10th year, Ed Reed his 11th and Ray Lewis his 17th.
San Francisco 49ers: San Francisco might very well be New York's biggest challenger. But just like the Giants could regress and slip into a Super Bowl hangover, so too could Alex Smith. Obviously not a Super Bowl hangover, but he could regress toward the Alex Smith who compiled a 72.1 passer rating from 2005 to 2010.
Houston Texans: Another up-and-coming team, but Houston has yet to reach a conference championship game, much less a Super Bowl. (After all, last season was the franchise's first ever playoff appearance.) The Texans also lost Eric Winston, DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams this month.
Chicago Bears: The Bears were 7-3 and had won five in a row before Jay Cutler went thumbs down. The acquisitions of Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush certainly make the Bears better. But age on defense and a suspect offensive line (one that might not be able to handle the Giants' imposing front) make Chicago a little bit more of a longshot than New York repeating.
And that's the point with Big Blue. With Jason Pierre-Paul's incredible development last season, as well as Umenyiora, Tuck and Chris Canty, the front four can keep Coughlin's team in any game. We saw that in the playoffs last year, when New York racked up 11 sacks and caused opposing quarterbacks to complete just 57 percent of their passes. It's not always about sacks -- hurries are often equally important.
Offensively, Eli Manning continues to evolve as one of the most clutch performers in the game, as evidenced by his 115.0 fourth-quarter passer rating in the postseason. Having a pass rush and a clutch quarterback is like possessing two dominant starters and a lineup that can get on base in baseball -- they're both formulas that deliver come playoff time.
Beyond those riches lie Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, who combined for more than 2,700 receiving yards. Both are back. Ahmad Bradshaw is healthy. Ditto the offensive line, which wasn't always the case last year.
What was the case last year, and is again this year: a fine coaching staff guiding the G-Men. Coughlin still gets his guys to play, like he did when they were 6-6 and reeling last December. Kevin Gilbride has been coaching Manning since he came into the league, and might be the most underrated member of the organization.
Ironically, the Super Bowl champs are just as underrated as their offensive coordinator. While they might not feel "dominant," and 2012 is a new season, they are as likely a candidate to get to Super Bowl XLVII as anybody else.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL