It seems like ages, but it was only just a couple months ago when the New York Giants were coming off what felt like the worst preseason of any team in the NFL.
They lost Kevin Boss and Steve Smith while opting not to make any major moves in free agency. Terrell Thomas, Jonathan Goff and Clint Sintim were among a host of players who had suffered season-ending injuries. Osi Umenyiora wanted a new contract and there was uncertainty surrounding the Giants when they dropped the season-opener to Washington and Rex Grossman.
But the Giants have won six of seven since, and storm into the second half of their schedule feeling as if they are inching closer toward being an elite team in the NFC after a stirring 24-20 win over the Patriots.
Eli Manning is playing his best football and the Giants have been clutch, pulling out one heart-pounding win after another. The defense appears to be rounding into shape and the special teams has improved since last year.
The Giants still have to do a better job of running the ball and stopping the run, but Coughlin has his team at 6-2 coming off a momentous road victory. Young players like Jason Pierre-Paul, Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard have emerged into big-time contributors. Coughlin has preached finishing to the team all year long and he'll find out what kind of finishers he has with a treacherous second-half of the schedule that could send the Giants into yet another tail spin.
Since 2004, the Giants have started every season under Coughlin 5-2 or better only to go a collective 29-34 in games from November on. The Giants hope their losses to Washington and Seattle won't come back to haunt them.
"We will have an opportunity to answer that," Justin Tuck said of whether the Giants are an elite team. "I think we are close. It doesn't matter what you do in November. Nobody will remember what we did in November and December. It is all about getting back to the Super Bowl. If you are not holding up that trophy at the end of the year, you are not elite, that's my opinion."
Giants' midseason awards
Offensive MVP: Manning. If he keeps this clutch play going, Giants will wind up in the playoffs.
Defensive MVP: Pierre-Paul. So much for being a raw project.
Special teams MVP: Weatherford. Ask New England how good his punting has been.
Most improved: Cruz. The salsa sensation is no longer just a preseason legend.
Least improved: Adam Koets. The backup center showed glimpses of being a valuable backup last year before tearing his ACL. He hasn't been able to get back on the practice field due to injuries and was released on Tuesday.
Biggest surprise: Ballard. Went from forgotten man on the practice squad last year to making people forget about Boss.
Biggest disappointment: Beckum. The former third-round pick was supposed to replace Boss but barely gets any targets.
Best rookie: Williams. Speedy but raw linebacker is supposed to be a project but has gotten significant snaps.
Best offseason acquisition: Weatherford. Coughlin doesn't have to sweat out punts anymore.
Worst offseason acquisition: Jimmy Kennedy. The defensive tackle was suspended for four games after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances.
Best-kept secret: Da'Rel Scott. Buried on the depth chart, the rookie has blazing speed.
Biggest concern: The Giants face San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, Dallas (twice) and the Jets. If they make the playoffs, the Giants will definitely have earned it.
Key to the second half: The Giants must survive a brutal schedule by keeping the turnovers down, finding a way to establish the run, stopping the run and continuing to finish games.
Best coaching move: Spending much of camp preparing Cruz for a bigger role and having him play the slot while they rested Domenik Hixon. It's now paying off.
Worst coaching move: Keeping Terrell Thomas and the starters on the field at the end of the first half of their preseason game against Chicago. The Giants' most productive cornerback tore his ACL with 22 seconds left in the second quarter.
Game to watch: Giants at Jets. Something tells us more than bragging rights will be on the line Christmas Eve.
Giants will win the division if: The Giants must stay healthy, keep up the fantastic fourth-quarter play and survive a treacherous schedule and the inevitable emotional highs and lows that will come. But most of all, they have to win their remaining division games and at least split their two games against Dallas.
Only way they miss the playoffs is: If the Giants suffer a significant injury or another second-half meltdown, they could end up with a third straight postseason-less finish.
Player ready to emerge: Amukamara. The first-round pick still has to ease his way back and may not see significant snaps for a while with Webster, Ross and the veteran safeties playing ahead of him. But the rookie can give the defense more flexibility if he can hold his own on passing downs as an extra DB.
Player least likely to return in 2012: Jacobs. The running back says he likely has to go elsewhere to show what he can do and the team has to decide whether to give him a $500,000 roster bonus in March.