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N.Y. Giants' D making offseason bet pay off as playoffs near

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had been a piece of an extreme makeover before, the kind that the New York Giants undertook this offseason.

The Philadelphia Eagles had acquired Rodgers-Cromartie as part of a trade that sent Kevin Kolb to Arizona, one element of an Eagles personnel feeding frenzy that seized the 2011 offseason by the throat and made the Eagles popular picks to catapult to a championship. It did not work out that way. The Eagles were mediocre (8-8) in 2011, worse (4-12) in 2012. Andy Reid was gone shortly thereafter, but the Eagles have stood as an NFL cautionary tale ever since -- for the risks of free-agency spending, for the folly of thinking that players culled from others' rosters can be fit together as neatly as so many jigsaw puzzle pieces, for, in just one offseason, opening the checkbook wide and expecting to be rewarded by the riches of championships.

So consider the view from the corner locker occupied by Rodgers-Cromartie now, just months after he watched the Giants spend nearly $200 million to sign defensive tackle Damon Harrison, defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins -- and then use three of their first four draft picks on defense -- in a massive overhaul that defied the Giants' long history of dabbling cautiously in free agency to stunning effect.

"It hasn't surprised me," Rodgers-Cromartie said, after his end-zone interception sealed a 17-6 victory for the Giants over the Detroit Lions. "I know the guys that were brought in. They brought in guys that are known to make plays. I think we jelled better, everybody is coming together and being accountable. Any time you feel like your brother has your back, it makes you play harder for him."

Still, this Giants defense is almost unrecognizable from the one that frustrated the team last season and led, with its repeated failures, to the departure of coach Tom Coughlin. Last season, the Giants had the 30th-ranked scoring defense, one that surrendered one late lead after another. Since Week 7 of this season, their scoring defense has been the best in the league. And Giants opponents have yet to score a touchdown in seven drives with the chance to tie or take the lead in the final two minutes of a game or overtime.

That the new pieces have come together so quickly is certainly a testament to their talent, but also to how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has deployed them. Spagnuolo slipped out a side door after the game, but his handiwork has been obvious. The run defense, with Harrison's dominance, is fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. They have not allowed a 300-yard passing game since Week 9. Last week,, the Giants made Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott -- both considered MVP candidates before the game -- ordinary. This week, Matthew Stafford -- another MVP contender -- went 24-of-39 passing for 273 yards, one interception and no touchdowns.

"You always hope that you can get to a point like this, where you're holding division leaders to six and seven points," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "You can never predict it. Who knew we would be 10-4 at this point? The only real step back we had was Pittsburgh. I feel like we've been progressing. It's been a step forward, a step forward, a step forward every week. Right now, our defense is solid."

Perhaps most importantly, in the last two weeks, they have held two division leaders -- the Cowboys and Lions -- to a total of 13 points, giving the sporadic Giants offense sufficient breathing room to work out its own kinks. And those games have been without Jason Pierre-Paul and, for the second half Sunday, without Jenkins, too, after he took a knee to his back early in the second quarter and did not return. But these games have been replete with game-turning plays at critical moments: a fumble forced by cornerback Leon Hall to stop what appeared to be a certain Lions touchdown run that would have given the Lions the lead; a third-quarter sack at the Giants' 10 that forced the Lions to settle for a field goal; Rodgers-Cromartie's interception that smothered the Lions' penchant for fourth-quarter comebacks.

"For the most part, that's how it's been all season," Hall said. "We've been trying to focus on doing our job and a little bit more. So those little things come to account."

There are signs and murals everywhere at MetLife Stadium commemorating the Giants' two most recent Super Bowls -- following the 2007 and 2011 seasons -- and nobody here needs to be reminded that while Eli Manning caught fire during the playoff runs, those Lombardi Trophies were hoisted on the backs of the defense and a ferocious pass rush that laid Tom Brady low. Without a playoff appearance in the past five years, the Giants' struggles have seemed longer and more acute, lending an air of desperation -- real or just imagined to outside observers -- to general manager Jerry Reese's shopping spree.

But in recent weeks, whispers of championships have returned. Odell Beckham Jr. -- whose dynamic playmaking has provided all the offensive spark the Giants have needed -- has said the Giants have a Super Bowl defense. There are precious few players still on the roster from those teams -- Beckham is not one of them -- but for those who were there, the familiar signs are starting to appear. The Giants play the Eagles on Thursday night, and a victory secures at least a wild-card spot. The Eagles' brass might look at the Giants and remember their own failed attempt to rebuild in one offseason. But the Giants are thinking about 2011, too, especially the few who were there.

"I do," said Victor Cruz, when he was asked if this team is starting to feel like a championship one. "The energy around here is similar to 2011. Understanding we just need to win games and we're confident. We're not stepping into games, praying to win, figuring it out. We're coming in confident from the first drive."

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