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Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Giants' schedule as tough as it gets

By Ohm Youngmisuk
ESPNNewYork.com

Few things are ever constant in the NFL.

But if there seems to be one certainty for the New York Giants from year to year, it's the fact that they often have to deal with a brutal second half of their schedule.

Once again, the Giants face a daunting November and December slate in 2012. And if the Super Bowl champs are going to repeat, they will have to survive the most difficult schedule in the NFL.

It's a good thing Tom Coughlin's job security is no longer an issue after his second Super Bowl victory. The Giants' final 11 games come against either divisional rivals or 2011 playoff participants. They will face all three NFC playoff opponents (Falcons, Packers and 49ers) from this past Super Bowl run.

Throw in the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, all in the last two months, and the Giants clearly are paying the price for those Tiffany Super Bowl rings they will receive sometime next month.

"As always, we face a very challenging schedule," Coughlin said in a news release. "To get where we want to go, you have to play the best teams in football and we certainly are playing the best teams."

The Giants won nine regular-season games and barely survived a challenging schedule in 2011. But a 9-7 record was good enough to win the NFC East, and they got hot at exactly the right time.

It remains to be seen whether nine wins will be enough for the Giants to make the playoffs or win the NFC East again this season. But winning the division is probably their best path to the postseason, with a schedule consisting of opponents with a combined winning percentage of .547 in 2011.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the teams that entered the season with the hardest regular-season schedule the past three years finished 6-10 or 7-9. Carolina (2011), Tennessee (2010) and Houston (2010) all finished 6-10. Entering 2009, Miami had the toughest schedule based on its opponents' results in the previous year and finished 7-9. However, in 2008, Pittsburgh went into the season with the most difficult schedule and finished 12-4 before winning Super Bowl XLIII.

The Giants are hoping to become the ninth defending champion to repeat and the first since the Patriots did it in 2004. As is always the case with Super Bowl champs, the Giants will have Chris Canty-sized targets on their backs this season, as everybody will be gunning for them.

The Giants play five prime-time games -- three in the first month alone -- and will play games on a Wednesday (the season opener against Dallas was moved due to President Barack Obama's scheduled speech at the Democratic National Convention), Thursday, Sunday and Monday this season.

Eli Manning
If Eli Manning wants to earn another trip to Disney World, he'll have to be on top of his game.

"We will have a week-in and week-out challenge, not only in who we play, but with the different elements of our schedule," Coughlin said. "We play on four different days and we have five night games. Our first three games are Wednesday-Sunday-Thursday."

"We play two road night games early, come home for a week and then go to San Francisco," Coughlin added. "Our people are going to have to be really good about it."

Like they have in past years, the Giants will have to get off to a quick start. They start with Dallas and Tampa Bay at home before paying Cam Newton and the Panthers a visit in Carolina for a Thursday night game. The next game will be at Philadelphia, against Michael Vick on a Sunday night.

The Giants return home to face Cleveland in a game they cannot afford to overlook or come out flat in. They then head out to San Francisco for an NFC Championship Game rematch against the Niners and former Giants Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham.

That is followed by two divisional games against Washington -- which swept the Giants last season -- and Dallas. A home game against Big Ben and the Steelers and a road game at Cincinnati, where the Giants are 0-5 all-time, come before the bye in Week 11.

"I like the bye where it is, because it's closer to the middle of the season," Coughlin said.

Ideally, the Giants could be in decent shape if they are 6-4 or 7-3 by that point. But remember, the defending champs will have a slightly different look this season -- Eli Manning has to develop a new third wide receiver with Manningham gone, while also playing with a new right tackle with free agent Kareem McKenzie not expected to return.

There will be a new backup to running back Ahmad Bradshaw with Jacobs gone, and Manning will have to find a new tight end target, with Martellus Bennett the likely choice.

Health will be a concern, with cornerback Terrell Thomas returning from a torn ACL, and Bradshaw and cornerback Prince Amukamara bouncing back from foot injuries.

And who knows what will transpire with defensive end Osi Umenyiora and his contract situation?

The Giants will need to give themselves a cushion, with games against Green Bay, at Washington (on a Monday night), against New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore and against Philadelphia coming after the bye.

The divisional games will be huge, especially the two games against the Redskins. Washington swept the Giants last season with Rex Grossman at QB, and if that were to happen again, the Giants likely wouldn't be able to advance to the postseason given their schedule. Last season, their two games against Dallas in the final month decided the NFC East. This season, the division could be on the line again in the season finale against Philadelphia, a team the Giants have not beaten at home since 2007.

Coughlin's team often has gotten off to quick starts with rough spells in the second half. The Giants sometimes lose games that most expected them to win (see: Seattle at home last season), but they also steal some wins others might not have predicted (remember New England last year?).

The Giants have a veteran championship core to help them navigate through a tough season, and they know what it takes to win a championship. Their formula for success will remain the same. Manning must continue to be elite, with one of the best receiving tandems in the league in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. The QB certainly will be hoping for some help from his running game this season.

Defensively, the Giants' pass rush, led by Jason Pierre-Paul, will have to contain the likes of Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Vick -- all in the final nine games. And they'll face Washington and potentially Robert Griffin III during that stretch as well.

Last season, the Giants raised their level of play in the final month to win three of their last four and win the NFC East. They made magical big plays, such as Pierre-Paul's field goal block and Cruz's 99-yard touchdown, and came together as a team when their season was on the line.

Repeating will be tough, and the NFL schedule-makers made sure of it. But if the Giants can stay healthy, and survive the ups and downs they will go through and get into the playoffs, anything is possible with Manning in his prime and Pierre-Paul and Cruz ready to take another step forward.