EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As much fun as this playoff ride is, as thrilling as it may be to watch Eli Manning throw those long touchdown passes every week, as great as it would feel to play in another Super Bowl two weeks from Sunday, something still gnaws at the large men on the New York Giants' offensive line.
"Nobody in our offensive line room is satisfied with the way this has turned out," veteran Giants guard Chris Snee said earlier this week. "We could go on and win the whole thing, and we'd still spend the offseason upset about the running game."
Ah yes. The running game. The Giants' season-long bugaboo. The offensive deficiency that nearly kept them out of the playoffs entirely. The flaw they had to overcome to get to where they are now, preparing to face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. The Giants were the worst team in the NFL this year at running the ball. They ranked dead last with 89.2 rush yards per game, and yeah, it bugged the people responsible.
"It was definitely something you were disappointed in as an offensive lineman and as a group," said David Diehl, who played left guard for most of the season but has played left tackle since the end of November. "You understand how important it is as an offense to be able to run the ball. I think the one thing we've done throughout all of it is continue to work to make that a strength -- continue to fight and do whatever it takes to get the job done in the running game."
There is value to patience when trying to run the ball in the NFL, and that patience has paid off for the Giants at the right time. They averaged 82.3 yards per game for their first 11 games of this season. But over the seven they've played since, they're averaging 112.6 yards per game on the ground, including the 172 they rolled up on the sixth-ranked Atlanta Falcons' run defense in their first playoff game.
"I think the key is staying with it," running back Brandon Jacobs said. "I know we haven't been running the ball as great as we have in the past, but I think the best thing we're doing is saying with it -- keeping guys honest. They still come out pressuring us the same way, which helps the wide receivers get off. And lately we've been moving the ball pretty well on the ground, and we expect to keep doing that."
It won't be easy Sunday against a 49ers' defense that ranked first in the league against the run by a healthy margin and only allowed three rushing touchdowns all season. But the Giants' 93 rushing yards in their Week 10 loss in San Francisco was the fourth-highest single-game total the 49ers allowed this season. They were able to do that without Ahmad Bradshaw, who was injured for the game but expects to play Sunday, and behind an offensive line that wasn't opening any holes. The new line configuration that went into effect just after Thanksgiving, with Diehl at left tackle and Kevin Boothe at left guard, has been a more effective run-blocking unit, as the numbers have shown, and the Giants go into this rematch feeling much better about their chances to gain yards on the ground.
"I think there's a residual work ethic or character about that group," Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said of the veterans on his offensive line, naming Snee specifically. "That rubs off on everybody, and I think that becomes characteristic of the group that's in there. I think there's a work ethic that defines them, and I think it's rubbed off on a lot of the younger guys. I think if there's one quality that has been the catalyst for those guys, with all of the changing parts, it's probably that one."
Gilbride admits to being a pass-loving coach, and the Giants' strength on offense right now is unquestionably Manning and his brilliant receivers. But they need to keep the run alive as a legitimate threat. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning had a 52.5 completion percentage, 8.1 yards per attempt, five touchdowns and five interceptions when passing off of play-action during the regular season. In his two postseason games, he's got an 81.8 completion percentage, 15.6 yards per attempt, three touchdowns and no interceptions on play-action. And as everyone knows, play-action only works if the defense believes you will and can run. So especially against a team like San Francisco, it's important to establish that threat even if you're not having great success with it.
"It's a team where, if you're not getting 10-yard runs, let's at least get three- or four-year runs a pop and set up better third-down conditions," Manning said. "You don't want to be stuck in 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-11 all day. We just try to be consistent, to not have the negative runs. Last time we played them, we were pretty good about not losing yards on runs, getting three or four yards a pop, and at least that keeps you in a good rhythm."
That's the playoff formula for the Giants -- stick to the run, trust that things have gotten better and that they can have success where they weren't in September and October. It will always stick in the craw of the offensive line that this is a team that finished last in the league in rushing, but if they can patch it together enough to get to win the Super Bowl, those numbers might be a little bit easier to swallow.