EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There was much hand-wringing in these parts the past several weeks about the way the New York Giants were slogging their way through another November. There was fresh enthusiasm in Dallas and Washington about the idea of the defending champions slipping back toward the pack. The Giants had made all of this happen by losing their last two games prior to their Week 11 bye, then emerging from it this week and into a remaining schedule that looked as though it could well be a meat-grinder.
And then, Sunday night, the Giants beat the red-hot Green Bay Packers 38-10, and the old reality reclaimed its place in the consciousness of those who'd been imagining a different ending this year. When the Giants are fired up, focused, physical on the offensive and defensive lines and driven by some sort of powerful external motivation well, they're just about impossible to beat.
"All week, the message was that this game is on us, this game is about us and our execution," said linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, who had two of the Giants' five sacks of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "If we do what we know we can do, we're going to be OK."
That message can be taken right out of this one game and applied to the remainder of the season. Sure, the rest of the schedule still looks tough. The Washington Redskins are on fire, two games behind and awaiting the Giants at FedEx Field next Monday night. The Dallas Cowboys are right there with Washington, and with what looks to be the easiest of all the division's schedules left to play. But the Giants are the ones with the two-game lead. The Giants are the ones who know they can win in places like Green Bay and San Francisco in the biggest of games. The Giants are the team in the NFC East with the championship pedigree, and Sunday night's alarming message to the rest of the league was that they appear to remember that now.
"There was a different enthusiasm in practice this week, and it showed up in the game," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw three touchdown passes in the game after three straight games without throwing any and passed Phil Simms for the all-time franchise lead in that category.
Everything about the Giants looked different this week. They were nastier on the offensive line, opening huge holes for running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown (before Brown left in the fourth quarter with what turned out to be a broken leg). They were more fearsome and determined on the defensive line, bringing pressure with the defensive ends and tackles as well as Kiwanuka up from linebacker and Chase Blackburn pressuring Rodgers from his middle linebacker spot. They were spry and nimble with their offensive formations, rotating receivers around to different positions, faking an end-around handoff to Hakeem Nicks before hitting Bradshaw with a 59-yard screen pass and working rookie Rueben Randle into the mix.
They were fresh, focused and emotionally fired up, in part because of a speech by 15-year-old Make-A-Wish recipient Adam Merchant, who'd cashed in his wish to be a part of the Giants' team this weekend and told the players on Friday night to "play like world champions."
"It would have been hard not to match that kind of intensity," Kiwanuka said of the effect Merchant had on the team.
The mission for the Giants now is to maintain that intensity over the next five weeks, and to do it they'll need to play as big up front as they did on both sides of the ball Sunday. Manning is going to be Manning, the receivers are going to be the receivers, and those reliable aspects of the passing game will continue to carry the Giants when they can. But when the Giants play like one of the very best teams in the entire league, it's because they're pushing people around on the offensive and defensive lines the way they were Sunday. Guys like left tackle Will Beatty and left guard Kevin Boothe were dominant against the Packers' defensive front, paving the way for 64 rushing yards from Brown and another 58 from Bradshaw.
"It just makes everybody on this team more comfortable if we can get that running game going," Bradshaw said.
It loosens things up in the passing game and gives the defense time to rest and refresh so it can go out and inflict pain on opposing quarterbacks. That's something the Giants haven't done with enough consistency this year, but they were determined to do it Sunday against Rodgers. They remembered sacking him four times in their playoff victory in Green Bay in January, and they knew they had to repeat that performance.
"Defensively, up front, we know we have the ability to affect every aspect of the game," Kiwanuka said. "We know we have to get it done up front for the rest of the team to feed off of us."
And that's what happened. After a shaky start in which Jordy Nelson got behind Corey Webster for a 61-yard touchdown, the defense locked in the rest of the way once the pass rush got going. Webster came back with a big interception later in the first half, and the Giants rolled in a way that reminded you of that whole January run. This is the way they look when they're at their best and most driven, and it reminds the rest of the league that, if there really does turn out to be a race this year in the NFC East, it'll only be because the Giants allowed that to happen.
"It reminds us what we're capable of, and that's all that matters," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Yeah, we slipped a little bit, but we're refocused now, and hopefully we're done with the roller coaster and we can just excel."
They're the only team in the NFC East capable of doing that at this complete a level, and Sunday brought that reality back home for anyone who'd been wondering.