Difference-makers: Bradshaw and Jacobs

The New York Giants you see before you — a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs — are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost 5-of-6 games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Today: Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs

Bradshaw cracked a bone in his foot in a Week 8 victory over the Miami Dolphins and missed the next four games. The Giants, who spent the year at the bottom of the league in rush yardage, went 1-3 in those games, and at the end of Week 12 their rush yards per game average for the season stood at 82.3. Their average yards per carry was a miserable 3.18.

Bradshaw returned for the 38-35 Week 13 loss to the Packers, and he hasn't topped 60 rush yards in a game since. But his return, coupled with the injury-prompted changes the Giants have made on the offensive line, coincided with the takeoff of the Giants' run game. In the six games since, they are averaging 115.7 yards per game and 4.42 yards per carry. They rushed for 172 yards in Sunday's playoff victory over Atlanta — their highest single-game total this season by 50.

As is often the case, more goes into this than the healthy return of one player. David Diehl moving out to left tackle and playing it as well as he has, plus the way Kevin Boothe has played as a starting left guard and (for a couple of games) center have been factors as well. So has the rejuvenation of Bradshaw's friend and fellow running back, Brandon Jacobs.

"We feel as tough as any team in the league," Bradshaw said after Sunday's win.

Jacobs averaged 48.5 yards on 15.3 carries per game in the four games Bradshaw missed. Again, not eye-popping numbers, but the line was still having major problems opening holes at that time and the point here is that Jacobs, during that time, got to play and feel like part of the team again. He'd been marginalized somewhat over the past two seasons as Bradshaw had emerged as a feature back, and Jacobs is the sort of guy who can mope about that sort of thing.

Since Bradshaw's return, Jacobs is averaging 57.2 yards on 10.5 carries per game. His big 34-yard run and his spin move on the fourth-and-one conversion that set up Sunday's first touchdown were two of the key plays of the Giants' season. Jacobs looks energized and focused. He's running with power, and at 265 pounds, when he gets in the open field he's an uninviting guy to try and tackle. He said his own defense was telling him that during Sunday's game.

"'Keep it running, big back, because there's nothing they can do to you,'" Jacobs said the Giants' defensive players were telling him. "Trust me. We play defense, and they don't want to hit you. They're done and they don't want to hit you."

Jacobs and Bradshaw are very close — Jacobs took a pay cut this past offseason so the Giants could sign Bradshaw to a new contract — and the way the two friends are running behind an improved offensive line is one of the keys to the Giants' late-season success.

Bradshaw's not having any kind of stellar statistical season. And it's possible he's not as healthy as he was earlier in the year due to his foot. But his Week 13 return has helped spark a Giants run game that was dormant for much of the season, and the idea that they could have run for 172 yards in a playoff game would have seemed inconceivable just a few short weeks ago.