Posted: Monday February 6, 2012 2:13PM ; Updated: Monday February 6, 2012 2:50PM
Don Banks

What's next for Giants, Patriots

Story Highlights

Both teams have key WRs to re-sign: Mario Manningham (NYG), Wes Welker (NE)

The Giants face a much tougher schedule than the Patriots will have to deal with

With four picks in first two rounds, Patriots are in a good position for the draft

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The New York Giants just became the first NFC team to earn at least two Super Bowl rings in a five-season span since the Dallas Cowboys held three parades in four years in the first half of the '90s, and they are by no means a team that looks to be nearing the end of their window when it comes to punching in the NFL's heavyweight division.

That said, the Giants followed up their previous Super Bowl-winning year of 2007 with a one-and-down playoff appearance in 2008 and then by missing the postseason the next two years, and the unpredictable nature of recent life in the NFC makes it foolish to project anything resembling a true run of dynastic proportions.

Consider the past five seasons of playoff results in the NFC:

In four of those five years, the conference has been claimed by teams that won only nine or 10 games in the regular season: the 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers went 10-6 and were seeded fifth and sixth, respectively in the playoffs; while the 2008 Cardinals and 2011 Giants were 9-7 postseason qualifiers. Yet three of those longshot teams won Super Bowl championships, and the fourth (Arizona) narrowly missed earning a ring. Only the 2009 New Orleans Saints broke the pattern, going 13-3, and riding a No. 1 seed to a Super Bowl title.

In the NFC, the teams with the best regular-season records have mostly faded in the playoffs in recent seasons, while the club that enters the postseason with momentum and on a hot streak has flourished and often celebrated. Such is not the case in the AFC, where no conference champ has had fewer than 11 wins in a non-strike-year regular season since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

But in a league where quality quarterbacking and coaching have become even more vitally critical to anyone's formula for success, how can you not like New York's chances to vie for another title again in the 2012 season? Eli Manning just turned 31 last month, and is at the peak of his quarterbacking powers. With a second Super Bowl MVP trophy, Peyton's little brother has put to rest all questions of his worthiness to be called one of the game's elite passers, and become the greatest quarterback in Giants franchise history.

And then there's the ultimate survivor, New York head coach Tom Coughlin, the man who was on everyone's hot seat list less than two months ago, but now has a Super Bowl ring for each hand. Coughlin is a spry and young-ish 65, and he said Monday morning he intends to return for another season if the Giants will have him. They'll have him all right. He's officially the oldest coach in NFL history to capture a Super Bowl, but winning is the fountain of youth in this league, and he just matched the feat of Giants coaching legend Bill Parcells by earning a pair of championships in a five-year span.

With a nucleus of players who won't be impacted much in this year's free agency season, and a Jerry Reese-led front office that has done a nice job of keeping the roster supplied with talent, the Giants figure to be in Super Bowl contention for the foreseeable future. In the NFC of late, that means hanging around, getting hot in December and January, and taking your best shot when the opportunity presents itself.

New York is two for two following that blueprint, and that means Giants blue is again the most fashionable color of the year.

With the long NFL season finally over for all 32 teams -- a season that some thought might be shortened or not take place at all -- here's a snapshot look at how the two Super Bowl teams stand as they head into the personnel acquisition phase of the league's calendar.

New York Giants

Salary cap

The NFL's salary cap will be essentially flat in 2012, staying in the range of $120 million. Current cap figures include a couple variables that make pinpointing New York's exact offseason budget difficult -- like teams having the option to carry over available cap room into next season -- but the Giants are believed to face just a slight overage at this point, with about $123 committed to the 2012 cap. They have some savings available to be gleaned from that number with the expected release of a few veterans (see Brandon Jacobs, Kareem McKenzie, etc), so their flexibility will increase before the March free agency period opens.

Free agency

Making the Super Bowl's most memorable play on that 38-yard final-drive reception didn't just help the Giants win a Lombardi Trophy, it might just help potential free-agent receiver Mario Manningham stick around in New York.

Winning puts a happy sheen on everything and often convinces teams to try and keep their roster intact as much as possible, and that could mean Manningham just improved the size of the offer he'll receive from the defending champions. New York won't break the bank to keep a receiver who slipped to its No. 3 slot this season, and someone could throw stupid money at him in an effort to make a headline splash in the market.

But with not much behind the big three of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Manningham on the New York receiving depth chart, you could see the Giants stretching a little to retain one of Eli Manning's favorite targets. Even if his playoff performance was far stronger than his regular season.

On other fronts, the Giants will have to figure out how to deal with a pair of defensive starters who missed the season with injuries but are now eligible for free agency: cornerback Terrell Thomas and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff. New York wants to retain both players, but they're coming off ACL surgeries and their contract offers will have to reflect the uncertainty of their status for next year. Long-term deals will be out of the question, but maybe modest two-year offers will be forthcoming.

Veterans such as cornerback Aaron Ross, right offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie and safety Deon Grant are players the Giants won't put up a fight to keep. Rookie first-round cornerback Prince Amukamara struggled with injuries this season but is the heir apparent for Ross' job if Thomas can't return strong in 2012. Look for New York to try and get help in the draft at offensive tackle, but another option if McKenzie leaves is moving left tackle David Diehl to the right side, and giving Will Beatty the first shot at winning the left tackle slot once he returns from a detached retina issue that cut short his season.

Stay tuned, of course, for developments in Osi Umenyiora's situation, but it's the Giants who hold all the cards in terms of their veteran defensive end, who unsuccessfully sought a big-money contract extension in 2011. The emergence of Jason-Pierre Paul as a pass-rushing force could mean New York dangles Umenyiora in trade, or they might just invite him back for the final year of his deal and get whatever production they can get out of him in his last go-round as a Giant.

Lastly, running back Brandon Jacobs has looked like a goner for a while now, even if he did hold open a slight chance of returning during Super Bowl week. But the Giants aren't likely to match his interest. Jacobs is 30, he runs softer than Coughlin would like at times, and he's scheduled to make almost $5 million this year. He's a situational back at best, and that salary certainly makes no sense for one of those.

Coaching staff

Wasn't it just the other day that everyone had Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell potentially being sacrificed as a scapegoat if New York collapsed and missed the playoffs? Some had ex-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo all but measuring the drapes in Fewell's office. But Coughlin can relate. The man has been fired in the New York-area media so many times we've lost count.

The Giants ownership never really wavered on Fewell, knowing that once New York's defense got healthy again, the production would increase. With another championship under their belt, the Giants coaching staff will be status quo in 2012, with coordinators Kevin Gilbride and Fewell doing strong work down the stretch, and the underrated Coughlin signaling he has no intention of going out on top and heading into retirement.

Draft position

New York now owns that coveted No. 32 slot in the first round, and who can complain about that? The Giants will consider giving first-round attention to offensive tackle, and could even look for a play-making linebacker or another cornerback, depending on how Thomas' rehab goes, and how much confidence the team has in Amukamara as he returns for his second season.

Another position that just became a possibility is tight end, because the Giants lost two players to injuries in the Super Bowl: Travis Beckum tore his ACL and Jake Ballard suffered a miniscus tear. Their status puts tight end on the draft radar screen more than ever.

2012 schedule

With the Super Bowl title comes the honor of hosting the NFL's season-opening Thursday night game next September, and there are several appealing possibilities for that matchup. It almost certainly won't be against a division opponent, so that makes the most likely candidates either Green Bay or New Orleans to come to MetLife Stadium in Week 1.

The Saints have twice already had the "privilege'' of being the road team in the Thursday night kickoff opener (in 2007 at Indy, and in 2011 at Green Bay), so I can't see the NFL asking them to play that role once again. That probably spells the Packers drawing the assignment, in a matchup of the most recent two Super Bowl champions. It's a grudge match as well, because twice in the past five seasons, New York has knocked Green Bay out of the playoffs at Lambeau Field.

New York will have tough sledding with its schedule in 2012. There are the usual six NFC East games to deal with, in a division where everyone takes turns beating each other, as well as games against teams from the strong NFC South and AFC North. Those two divisions produced five playoff clubs in 2011, and the improving Carolina Panthers are no picnic either.
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