EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When people disappear for a few weeks, it can be easy to forget them. The New York Giants played long stretches of this season without defensive end Osi Umenyiora, but many Giants fans shrugged it off. Jason Pierre-Paul was playing so well on the side opposite Justin Tuck that it didn't much matter. Umenyiora had been effectively replaced.
But then Umenyiora shows up for the final game of the season, finally healthy enough to play in the same game as Pierre-Paul and Tuck, and we are reminded. He flashes his game-disrupting speed off the edge, sacks Tony Romo twice and reminds everybody about the way the Giants' defense was supposed to work all along. Is he better than Pierre-Paul? Debatable right now. But if Umenyiora is the third-best pass-rusher on his team, as Eagles running back LeSean McCoy famously tweeted last summer, then his team has one heck of a pass rush.
"To be able to put those combinations together and feature those guys and the outstanding pass rushers that they are, it's going to give us a real good shot in the arm," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "You can't double everybody. To have the defense play well, it gives us a chance to play some Giants football."
I think that's a really good way to put it: Gives them a chance. There's this rush today all of a sudden to compare these Giants to the 2007 version that finished the year hot, put together a run and knocked off the Patriots in the Super Bowl. And I understand. Comparisons like that are what we do. Plus, same quarterback, same coach, some of the same players we all know won't be affected by playoff pressure... and a defensive front capable of getting pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. That's what wrecked Tom Brady's undefeated season, and the Giants the last couple of weeks have played defense well enough to remind people of the way they played it that year.
"The way those guys rush, it's just like blitzing," Giants linebacker Michael Boley said. "For them to get up there and rush the way they rush, that takes a lot of pressure off of us in the back end."
Which is the plan, of course, but let's not get too crazy here. The Super Bowl champion Giants of four years ago were a much more complete team than this one is. They had the fourth-best rushing offense in the NFL that year, for example, averaging 134.3 yards per game on the ground. This year's Giants were the worst rushing offense in the league, at 89.2. That year's team had Antonio Pierce playing middle linebacker a spot currently manned by rookies when it's manned at all. And whatever you want to say about this year's great pass rushers, not one of them is at least to this point in his career Michael Strahan-great.
Four years ago, the play of the defensive line elevated the Giants from "good playoff team" to "world champion." This year's defensive line, if it can continue to play the way it played Sunday night, elevates the Giants from "mediocre, flawed team that got outscored by its opponents in the regular season" to "team that might be able to make some noise." The 2007-08 run was a once-in-a-lifetime treat. Even if the Giants do make another one this year, it will stand on its own in team history, built more on clutch performance by this year's stars than on a four-year-old formula for success. But they will need the defense to make it happen.
"We have a very good offense, an outstanding quarterback, and as long as we're able on defense to help keep the team in the game, we have a chance to do something special," Umenyiora said.
A chance, yes. Eli Manning and his receivers can put points on the board with anyone -- yes, even the Packers and the Saints. The question is whether the defense can keep the other team from scoring more. The Cowboys' receivers were consistently beating the Giants' defensive backs Sunday night, but the Giants' pass rush didn't give Romo enough time to find them. That's the formula. If they can't get to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan consistently and violently on Sunday afternoon, Ryan and his receivers will torch them. If they do that and can't get to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers the following week in Green Bay, Rodgers and his receivers will torch them.
Right now, though, it looks as though the Giants can get to the quarterback -- maybe as effectively as they have all season. And if they can do that, then yes, they will have a chance.