- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin was still savoring a 41-27 victory over the Cleveland Browns when a question came about the New York Giants' next opponent.
"Let's enjoy this one," Coughlin pleaded. "San Francisco is a very good team and we will have to be at our best."
Forgive Coughlin if he wanted to soak this one in before peeking ahead. The Cleveland Browns are the only cupcake on the Giants' schedule this season. And the toughest schedule in the NFL is about to get nasty.
The Giants (3-2) now start the hardest stretch of their season with their remaining 11 opponents being either a division foe or a playoff team from last year.
They'll take a major step up in competition next Sunday when they go from the hapless Browns to an NFC Championship Game rematch in San Francisco and a reunion with former Giants Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham.
After that, the Giants face the improved Washington Redskins, head to Big D seeking to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys, face the Pittsburgh Steelers and then the Cincinnati Bengals before taking a much-needed bye.
It's no wonder Victor Cruz called this game against a winless team "a must-win." Not only would a loss to the Browns had been devastating but it would have put the Giants at 2-3 heading to San Francisco. The Giants are already in an 0-2 hole in the division -- their best path to a playoff spot.
It had to be encouraging for Coughlin to see his team respond after a disastrous start. Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled on the first play of the game and Cleveland eventually turned that into a touchdown.
All of the sudden, this game had the making of another one of those sleepy 1 o'clock home games for the Giants. One where they get off to a slow start and find themselves in a dogfight with an inferior opponent -- just like last year's home games against Seattle, Washington and Miami.
But the Giants snapped out of it, outscored the Browns 27-3 the rest of the first half and went into halftime up 27-17. They never looked back.
"We should start games at a deficit because it seems to get us woken up and starting to play," Justin Tuck said.
Eli Manning picked apart the Browns' secondary and second-round pick Rueben Randle looked a bit like Manningham, catching several intermediate passes. The Browns kept losing Cruz in the end zone. Bradshaw flexed his muscles and trampled the Browns' run defense for a career-high 200 yards after that fumble.
But there are definitely areas the Giants need to work on. Defensively, the Giants gave up 27 points to a Browns team that had scored a combined 30 in its previous two games.
Until the Browns had to start passing, Trent Richardson looked like he was going to have a big day, rushing for 67 of his 81 yards in the first half -- this after the Giants were gashed by LeSean McCoy the week before. And there was the 62-yard bomb that came way too easily and made Weeden and Gordon look like Brady to Moss a few years ago.
And perhaps the most disturbing statistic for the Giants had to be this: Coughlin's defense failed to collect a sack against a Browns team that had surrendered nine sacks this season already.
Coughlin is going to need more from his defensive ends in San Francisco. Are the Giants worried about the lack of bite from the pass rush?
"Yes, I am," Tuck said of whether he is concerned. "It don't think it's about effort or anything like that. I feel as though it just isn't going our way right now. But we don't make any excuses."
It could have been easy for the Giants to struggle on Sunday against Cleveland. They tend to play up or down to the level of their competition and let rebuilding teams like the Browns drag them into a cage match instead of a cake walk.
But the Giants resisted the urge to make things difficult on themselves and they handled the Browns without key players such as Hakeem Nicks, Rocky Bernard, Kenny Phillips, Ramses Barden, Jayron Hosley, David Diehl and Keith Rivers. They also lost Andre Brown to a head injury early in the game.
This week, Coughlin is hoping that his team follows its usual form of playing some of its best football when on the road as an underdog and rises to the challenge of playing an elite team.
He did allow himself to think about one thing pertaining to the Niners game.
"I'd like to get some folks on the field," Coughlin said.
The Giants didn't need to be at full strength to handle Cleveland. But they will need all the healthy bodies they can get for the upcoming schedule.
5mDianna Russini and Adam Schefter
9hEric D. Williams
23hBy Dan Graziano
2dMatt Walks, ESPN.com