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Now hitting stride at right time, Giants could make surprise run in playoffs

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants waited until the last game of the last week of the season to make the playoffs ... and then they made it with the worst record of the six NFC teams left standing.

Big deal. This team is dangerous and should be handled with care.

They're hot, winning three of their last four. Their defense is coming together, with standout performances the past two weeks. Their quarterback is steady, particularly in the fourth quarter. And they're playing their best football of the season now -- closing out the Jets and Dallas in successive weeks to win the NFC East.

OK, so they're 9-7. I don't care. This team reminds me ... and running back Brandon Jacobs ... of that 10-6 club in 2007 that slipped into the playoffs as a wild card, then went to the top -- shocking then-unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII.

I know, it doesn't run as well, and its defense isn't as sound -- but they're playing with the same urgency that carried them then.

"I would not want to face the New York Giants in the playoffs now," Jacobs said Sunday night after a 31-14 defeat of Dallas. "It's the same kind of feeling I had [in 2007], and, basically the same road, as well.

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"I feel good about this football team. I think we're playing well right now, and it's going to be tough to beat us."

No need to remind Dallas. The Cowboys came here needing a victory to reach the playoffs but never recovered after falling behind 21-0 in the first half. Granted, they pushed back in the third quarter, but when someone absolutely, positively needed to make a play, it was the Giants -- not Dallas -- that made it.

Case in point: Victor Cruz's 44-yard catch early in the fourth quarter. The Giants had done nothing in four prior second-half series, and Dallas had crept within 21-14. On third-and-7 at the New York 28, Eli Manning dropped back, evaded a sack, circled to his left and threw a bomb down the middle of the field toward Cruz -- locked in single coverage with defensive back Orlando Scandrick.

Shielding Scandrick from the ball with his body, Cruz leaped to make the catch ... and save the season for New York. That reception not only set up an insurance field goal, it propelled the Giants into the playoffs for the first time in three years.

"Obviously, Eli's had an awesome year," defensive end Justin Tuck said, "but when we need a big play, it just seems like [Cruz] has stepped up and been that guy. I think those two are co-MVPs."

And they're two reasons the Giants should be taken seriously.

Look, they're getting healthy, with defensive end Osi Umenyiora -- a guy Tuck called "a game changer" -- back in the lineup after missing the previous four games and producing two of the team's six sacks. Umenyiora makes the Giants a dangerous pass-rushing unit again, joining Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Chris Canty and linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka in a group that can squeeze any pocket.

The proof is in the past two weeks, with the Giants producing 11 sacks -- six with Umenyiora, five without. Better yet, the defense allowed only 14 points in each of its last two starts -- or as many as it surrendered in a season-opening loss to Washington.

"It has been really great to see the way the defense has played the last couple of weeks," coach Tom Coughlin said, "and that has given everyone a nice boost and a nice way of confidence. The defense played well and gives us a chance to play some Giants football."

But the Giants offense is better, too, with the club rushing for 100 or more yards in four of their last five games. They had two in their previous eight.

Then there's Cruz and teammate Hakeem Nicks. They combined for 2,728 yards in catches and 16 touchdowns, with Cruz gaining an astounding 18.7 yards per reception.

Finally, there's Manning, who completed one of his best seasons ever, with an NFL-record 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes and six fourth-quarter or overtime comeback victories. He was sharp again Sunday, making few mistakes and producing his second-best passer rating (136.7) of the season.

In short, the Giants finally look the team they wanted to be all season -- which, of course, comes as no surprise to safety Antrel Rolle. He's the guy who a month ago guaranteed the team would reach the playoffs, and he's the guy who likes what he sees now.

"I feel certain things," he said. "I'm not a psychic. But I know the talent of this team. I know how hard we work, and I know once we jell, the sky's the limit for us. That's what I believe in, and thank God it came true today."

Granted, Atlanta will be a tough out. But the Falcons haven't won a playoff game with Matt Ryan at quarterback. Plus, they're a dome team going outdoors in January.

If the Giants can hold off the Falcons, they could meet Green Bay again, and this is what I know about them and the Packers: The Giants have a quarterback who won a playoff game in Lambeau Field, and they took the Packers to the mat this season, bowing 38-35 on a late field goal.

In case it escaped your attention, it was a 38-35 loss to New England in 2007 that convinced the Giants they could beat the Patriots if they met again -- and I'm not so sure that feeling isn't the same now regarding Green Bay.

I'm not saying the Giants go to the conference championship game or the Super Bowl. But I am saying I wouldn't undersell these guys. They seem to play their best when it matters most, and it matters most now.

"With us playing like we played tonight and the last two weeks," Tuck said, "it's going to be a tough road to beat us."

Consider that a warning.


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