- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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A month before stunning the Green Bay Packers and moving one step closer to the Super Bowl, the New York Giants were 7-7 and coming off a dismal loss to the Washington Redskins that forced Tom Coughlin's team to do some serious soul searching.
It was somewhere, sometime during the six days between that 23-10 loss on Dec. 18 and the Christmas Eve game against the New York Jets when the Giants started to figure things out.
If there was some sort of secret potion the Giants took, it would have been green since they turned their season and fortunes around by beating Rex Ryan's Jets 29-14 on Dec. 24.
"We found our identity against the Jets," safety Antrel Rolle said. "And we are going to keep that identity."
The Giants haven't lost since, and now head to San Francisco for a rematch with the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
Coughlin's team has gotten better with each week since that game against the Jets. Eli Manning and the offense have hit on huge plays, starting with Victor Cruz's 99-yard touchdown. Defensively, Perry Fewell's group has morphed from a mistake-prone squad into a stingy, confident bunch that no longer suffers communication breakdowns and secondary lapses.
Several factors contributed to the Giants' surge. Among the major ones were Rolle's plea for teammates to put aside minor injuries, the defense coming together and Cruz's season-saving touchdown that impacted two franchises.
"I think that we started to believe and trust in each other," Coughlin said. "Our defensive people got together and decided we were better than the way we had been playing, and we got some guys back."
Not long after training camp opened, the Giants were hit hard by injuries. The defense took the biggest hit, losing key starters like cornerback Terrell Thomas and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff and the team's first two draft picks, cornerback Prince Amukamara and defensive tackle Marvin Austin.
The Giants kept adjusting to the injuries with new players in new roles and veterans trying to overcompensate for the losses. Throughout the course of the season, injuries also had key players shuffling in and out.
After losing to the Redskins, a frustrated Rolle told reporters that the Giants had to put aside everything and anything, including injuries that were not significant, and concentrate on the final two games.
At 7-7, the Giants had to win out to claim the NFC East and make the playoffs. Rolle said he wasn't calling any specific teammates out, but his comments reverberated positively throughout the locker room. Tuck, the defensive captain, said Rolle's words "struck a chord."
On the Wednesday prior to the Jets game, several hobbled Giants practiced, even if on a limited basis, including running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who typically sits out the first two days of practice each week to rest his injured foot. And Tuck practiced fully.
Tuck -- who also credited a sitdown with Coughlin that inspired him to mentally put the pain aside -- played one of his best games of the season against the Jets, collecting a sack and knocking down two passes. Umenyiora returned the following game against Dallas and has had five sacks in three games.
The Giants' defense also cleaned up the mistakes that led to breakdowns in the secondary and receivers scoring on open touchdowns. The unit's communication improved greatly and players trusted one another, forming a bond that has gotten stronger with each week.
The Giants have forced nine turnovers and allowed a total of 48 points in their four consecutive wins.
"I can't take the credit for that," Rolle said on his weekly radio show on WFAN on Tuesday, in reference to turning the Giants around with his plea. "These guys have turned things around on their own. We turned things around for the betterment of this team. We have one goal in mind, which is to compete and win a championship."
In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, Ryan may have given a huge assist to Coughlin by motivating the Giants with his talk of the Jets being the better team in New York. And then the Jets covered up the mural of the Giants' Super Bowl wins in front of their locker room, since the Giants were the road team.
But on the field, the Giants were trailing 7-3 with 2:27 remaining in the first half and were unable to do much against Ryan's defense.
On a third-and-10 at their own 1, the Giants were staring at the possibility of having to punt out of their end zone and going into the half down.
But Manning hit Cruz on a short pass to the right and the wide receiver broke a tackle by Antonio Cromartie before avoiding another tackle and racing 99 yards into the end zone, putting the Giants up 10-7. That sparked a 29-14 win and what may be a run all the way to the Super Bowl.
"It was huge," Cruz said. "Anytime you can make a big play in the big game to kind of change the complexion of that game and the way we felt as a team is always huge."
The play took 15 seconds from start to finish. It was 15 seconds that altered the fortunes of both franchises.
The Jets never recovered and that play sent that organization toward an offseason of controversy and disarray. There have been changes to the coaching staff -- with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer leaving and Tony Sparano replacing him -- and drama surrounding Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez.
If the Jets had been able to hold on to the lead, the game might've turned out differently. Sanchez might not have had to throw 59 times. If the Jets had won, they probably would be in the playoffs and the Giants could be the ones mired an offseason of uncertainty.
There would be no telling what would have become of Coughlin or Fewell. Giants ownership made it no secret that they wanted that game.
"It was kind of like a mini-Super Bowl and it was a very important game," Steve Tisch, Giants chairman and co-owner, told reporters last week. "There was a lot more at stake than just a regular-season game against the Jets."
"It was their home game so it added just an extra level of 'We did it, we're good, we're moving on, let's go.'"
The Giants haven't stopped since as they now head to San Francisco for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
"Ever since the [Jets] game, we've been all on deck," Rolle said. "Guys have been in tune with what's going on here, what's at stake.
"We've had fun each and every game since then," Rolle added. "I think that's where it all started."
The Giants are one win from the Super Bowl. The journey started on Dec. 24.