The New York Giants spent the 2011 regular season as imposters. They won their division by a sliver, but they weren't the real New York Giants. If one were to choose one word to explain what the Giant franchise has been all about through the decades, it would have to be "toughness." In the 1950s and '60s, Sam Huff and Andy Robustelli were tossing opponents around the field like rag dolls. The Giants spent the 1980s knocking Joe Montana out of games and breaking Joe Theismann's leg while Mark Bavaro, Joe Morris and Ottis Anderson were dragging defenders down field with them, knocking opponents over like bowling pins. In the 2007 NFC Championship Game, the Giants went into sub-zero, frozen Green Bay, and while Brett Favre shivered and looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but Lambeau Field whenever he stood on the sidelines, the Giants proved to be just a little tougher than the Packers, epitomized by the forever-frozen red face of coach Tom Coughlin. And in the Super Bowl that year, though Big Blue made clutch, miraculous plays, they defeated the Patriots mainly because they were a tougher, meaner team than New England.
During the regular season that just ended, though, the Giants were anything but tough -- their defense was often a sieve, they had no bruising running game (no running game of any kind actually) and they were often outmuscled and dominated physically. There were whispers of good things to come and positive signs the last four weeks of the season, but on Sunday, in the 24-2 playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Giants found their soul. Their true DNA showed up, and the essence of what the Giants stand for reappeared. Health played a big role in the team's resurgence, of course. How many times during the season did Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul play in the same game? Or Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw for that matter? David Baas was back, Jake Ballard was back, Michael Boley is healthy. With an almost full complement of players, the Giants finally fulfilled the promise of all they could be.
During the season, we wondered, "Why is Jacobs letting opponents tackle him so easily? Why can't he run downhill like years past?" Well, on Sunday, he was a punishing machine, he was the Jacobs of old. And when he wasn't steamrolling over Falcon defenders, Bradshaw was. And when the offensive line is dominating like they did (at least in the second half), and the running backs are chewing up yardage, Eli Manning's life is so much easier, and he, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham can take advantage of the defense that's now concerned with the rushing attack. During the season, Manning's arm had to carry the load, making up for the deficiencies around him, but in the win over Atlanta, the passing game was a complementary piece to the offense, not the main mode of attack.
On Sunday, the defense made two huge statements with the pair of fourth-down stops. Of course, positioning and technique come into play (and the Falcons didn't do a very good job when it came to the element of surprise on the second one, when they used an empty backfield), but don't discount hunger, desire and toughness while preventing the Falcons from gaining an inch on those game-changing plays. Throughout the afternoon, the Giants imposed their will on Michael Turner, hitting him hard, early and often, making sure he knew he was in for a long day, often stopping him before he got to the line of scrimmage. And they rattled Matt Ryan all day long, with Umenyiora putting the finishing touch on him with a sack of not only the Falcon quarterback, but he wrapped up, sandwiched and threw down an Atlanta linemen with him for good measure. Two for the price of one.
Any successful football team has to be tough, of course, as that's the nature of the sport. But many teams' identity is something other than bruising their opponent. What comes to mind when thinking of this year's New Orleans Saints? An aerial attack, of course. There were the Air Coryell 1980s San Diego Chargers. Even the Giants' next opponent, the Green Bay Packers, is an air-it-out team. The Giants have an impressive passing game themselves, but their true identity, their very soul, and the blueprint for ongoing success in this year's playoffs is old-fashioned Giant toughness -- a bruising rushing attack, a physical, intimidating defense, with Manning's football IQ and precise right arm used as the knockout punch. Their ancestors set the tone, and now the Giants just need to be who they truly are. They may not upset the Packers, but if they do, there's a pretty good chance it will be because the Giants were more ferocious, more unyielding and more Giant-like than Green Bay.