- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As NFL Sundays are wildly unpredictable events, no easier to forecast than a gathering storm at sea, the New York Giants could very easily lose at home to the Atlanta Falcons and go into the books as one-and-done postseason busts.
But at least the Giants will enter the Super Bowl tournament with a reasonable shot to win it all the way they did four years back. One week after they regained control of their market from the village idiot, Rex Ryan, the Giants didn't just take the NFC East from Dallas and leave the Same Old Cowboys looking like the Same Old Jets.
They resembled a legitimate contender for the first time since Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in a Manhattan nightclub in 2008, blowing a hole through his leg and the Giants' two-peat aims.
No, a 9-7 team that went 3-5 in the second half doesn't often amount to a credible contender. The Giants were not the Green Bay Packers in the regular season, nor were they the San Francisco 49ers or the New Orleans Saints. Not even close.
But sometimes the hottest team, not the best team, wins the Super Bowl, and the Cowboys and Jets have allowed the Giants to get healthy and hot. Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck have finally overcome their injuries, conspiring with Jason Pierre-Paul to give the Giants the one thing they absolutely needed to topple the 18-0 Patriots in a different life:
A relentless pass rush. In the NFL, there is no substitute.
"It's going to be a tough road to beat us," Tuck said.
As maddeningly inconsistent as they've been, the Giants do have some of the requisite ingredients of a potential champ.
1. They have a head coach who can win the big one.
2. They have a star quarterback who can win the big one.
3. They have a defensive front that can prevent the other guy's star quarterback from winning the big one.
"What that means," Giants owner John Mara said as he exited MetLife Stadium, "is that we have a chance."
A chance to beat Atlanta, and then go through Lambeau Field like they did when Aaron Rodgers was waiting impatiently on Brett Favre's bench.
"We've got a long way to go before we start comparing ourselves to that," Mara said. "But you know what? We're playing well at the right time of year. It's been a pretty good eight days."
So good, in fact, that the Giants can claim one of the most exciting offensive players in the sport. (And when's the last time this blood-and-guts franchise had one of those?) Undrafted and unwanted, Victor Cruz shredded the team he rooted for in his Paterson, N.J., youth, finishing with 178 receiving yards, a 74-yard catch-and-run that opened the scoring, and a game-preserving 44-yard reception that came on the kind of desperate Eli Manning heave that once landed on David Tyree's head.
Cruz might appear to be half of Burress' size, but his 1,536 receiving yards made him far more prolific than Plax (1,025) was in 2007. Cruz made a mockery of the fear that the Giants would be in trouble without Steve Smith, and showed why teams hoping to be special occasionally need special things to come out of left field.
"I'm doing cartwheels on the sideline when he's running by," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, a man not inclined to do cartwheels with two good legs, never mind one.
Hours after the Jets came undone in the South Florida sun, their house further divided by Ryan's practical joke of a captain, Santonio Holmes, the Giants looked and sounded as galvanized by their two-game winning streak as they were by that famous Week 17 loss to the Patriots in '07.
"We're going to try to not compare right now," Manning said after his 346-yard, three-touchdown night. "We have a lot of guys on this team who weren't here in '07, so this is a whole new year, a whole new situation."
But soon enough, Manning was rattling off a long list of qualities he adores about his team. The defense. The running game. The receivers. The offensive line.
"We're playing smart football," he said. "We're not making many mistakes. We have big-play potential."
In November, the Giants won at New England and were right there with the 49ers at Candlestick Park. In December, the Giants were right there with the then-unbeaten Packers in the Meadowlands.
In between, the Giants weren't right there with the Saints in the Superdome. A rematch with Drew Brees indoors is one that Coughlin, Eli and the rest would prefer to dodge.
"We still have some things we need to fix," Umenyiora said.
But if the Giants remain vulnerable in the secondary when matched against otherworldly quarterbacks, the revitalized pass rush can ease the pain. Coughlin coached Tuck out of the grave during Jets week, and Umenyiora unearthed himself during Cowboys week, and suddenly there was the once-embattled head coach wearing an NFC East championship cap and talking up all of his "weapons" on the front line.
"It's going to give us a real good shot in the arm going forward," Coughlin said. "You can't double everybody."
Tuck and Coughlin's son-in-law, Chris Snee, doubled the hobbling coach by dumping a bucket of ice water on him after the game. Coughlin had just watched his defense batter Tony Romo the way it had battered Mark Sanchez, sacking the Dallas quarterback and his bum hand half a dozen times.
But it wasn't just the pass rushers flying about the field. On offense, the spare-part likes of Bear Pascoe and Henry Hynoski were catching passes and high-jumping over Dallas defenders for important gains. Ahmad Bradshaw was making would-be Dallas tacklers whiff, Cruz was being Cruz, and Hakeem Nicks was hardly a slouch on the other side.
"Everything is starting to click at the right time," Tuck said.
That truth inspired Brandon Jacobs to say he had "the same feeling" he had in '07. Jacobs talked about a likely stop in Lambeau Field, where the Giants ended Favre's Green Bay career on an overtime interception and field goal in the NFC title game.
"I would not want to face the New York Giants in the playoffs now," Jacobs said. "It's going to be tough to beat us in the playoffs."
Maybe, maybe not. This could be the year Atlanta and Matt Ryan make their own breathless run through the tournament. In the NFL, you just never know.
But if nothing else, the Giants have earned the right to be taken seriously as a contender. Yes, they have a chance to get knocked out in the first round.
It just seems like they have a better shot at a reunion with the Belichicks and Bradys in the biggest game of all.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
Don't look now, but the Giants have a legitimate chance to win it all.