THE GIANTS HAD REASON TO PANIC RIGHT FROM THE START OF this topsy-turvy season. By the time the opener arrived, tight end Kevin Boss and wideout Steve Smith had defected in free agency; cornerback and first-round pick Prince Amukamara, having emerged from the NFL's longest rookie holdout, was sidelined with a broken foot; and most daunting, six defensive players had been lost to season-ending injuries. Then there was All-Pro defensive end Osi Umenyiora, embroiled in a contract dispute, who appeared to be nursing a bruised ego when he rode a stationary bike instead of practicing with the team.
Like Umenyiora pedaling away, the Giants seemed to be going nowhere following a 28--14 loss to the lowly Redskins in Week 1. Three straight wins did little to lift the gloom. Team president John Mara got mail from fans complaining that his wait-and-see approach to the personnel crisis was settling for mediocrity.
That duct-taped roster, however, was doing just enough to stay in contention. The win over the Eagles in Week 3 marked the first of five fourth-quarter comeback victories orchestrated by Eli Manning, who expanded his list of favorite targets in 2011 by adding wideout Victor Cruz and tight end Jake Ballard—who combined for 120 receptions and 2,140 yards. The win at Arizona in Week 4 came on a late touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks.
But as if striving for mediocrity, New York committed five turnovers and blew two fourth-quarter leads in a 36--25 loss to Seattle in Week 5. "The most miserable feeling as we've had around here in a long time," coach Tom Coughlin said. Another three-game winning streak put the G-Men atop the NFC East at 6--2, but their margin of victory against the Bills, Dolphins and Patriots averaged just three points.
The Giants had struggled in the second half of seasons under Coughlin, and those troubles continued as they lost to the 49ers, Eagles, Saints and Packers in succession. Yet at 6--6 New York retained a glimmer of playoff hope, which brightened in Week 14 at Dallas. When the Cowboys tried a last-second field goal, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul rose and blocked it to secure a 37--34, come-from-behind win that put Big Blue back in first place.
Misery returned seven days later when the Redskins issued a 23--10 beatdown at MetLife Stadium. "You never see something like this coming," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said after the loss that would force a 7--7 team to win out in order to make the postseason. Win out they did, as the pendulum swung back and the Giants played their best football in a 29--14 blowout of the Jets and a 31--14 dismantling of the Cowboys. For the first time since September the league's worst ground attack rushed for more than 100 yards in consecutive games. The 27th-ranked defense totaled 11 sacks and finally allowed no more than two scores in a game. What appeared to be another second-half fold had transformed into a stretch-run surge.
With the playoffs awaiting, the Giants had momentum. And now they were really about to do something that no one saw coming.