EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- More than a year ago, the New York Giants were 5-0 and on top of the NFC with a highly ranked defense that stifled opponents.
But Barry Cofield knew then that bad things were on the horizon. Deep down, the Giants realized they weren't as good as their record indicated. They ran through a cream-puff schedule early against the likes of the Buccaneers, Chiefs and Raiders. Injuries began to mount. And the defense had issues that soon would be exposed.
"Everything was going in the wrong direction," Cofield said of how he felt after the Giants' 5-0 start last season. "Last year we peaked early. We were first in defense early in the season, but you could just tell it wasn't the same defense that we are playing right now."
What happened after that blazing start was a collapse that saw the Giants win just three more games the rest of the season. And this came a year after the Giants started the 2008 season 11-1 only to lose four of their last five games, which included the playoffs.
This season, the Giants enter their bye week on a four-game winning streak and atop the NFC standings at 5-2. And the Giants know what some are thinking: Here comes the second-half stumble.
During the Tom Coughlin era, the Giants have started 5-2 or better in each of his seven seasons. But the Giants don't always finish so well. Since Coughlin took over as coach in 2004, the Giants are a combined 24-30 in the last nine games of a season during the past six years.
"We are a much better football team this year," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "We are a lot more confident. We have played better teams so far and beaten them. We like each other, and we are having fun and enjoying ourselves.
"I am not saying we are going to win the rest of our games, but I don't see a situation where we just collapse like the last couple of times."
It was more than a month ago that safety Antrel Rolle questioned the controlling atmosphere around the team and the leadership on the roster after a rocky 1-2 start. Now, those questions have been erased by a four-game winning streak. During the streak, the team has formed a strong bond. Most of the team shows up on its off day, and works out and watches film. An undeniable chemistry continues to build weekly.
Several Giants point to their 41-35 victory over the Cowboys on Monday as proof that this team is capable of accomplishing big things. The Giants fell behind 20-7 early but kept their composure on the road and beat a desperate rival playing to keep its season alive.
"No one panicked," said Rolle, who believes the Giants are the best team in the NFC. "For the last two weeks, we have been a team that doesn't flinch."
Critics can point to the fact that the Giants have beaten mediocre teams. Three of their wins have come against teams with 1-5 records (Carolina, Detroit and Dallas). The other two wins came over Houston and Chicago, teams with four victories each but that are still very much learning how to take the next step toward becoming a contender.
The Giants also have played some sloppy football. They have turned the ball over 21 times thus far. They practically gift wrapped their loss to the Titans with 11 penalties. Defensively, the Giants are ranked second overall, but they have allowed an average of 21.9 points per game.
Coughlin's team has yet to play a complete game with both offense and defense clicking on all cylinders at the same time. And let's not even get into special teams, which have been a nightmare.
But the Giants believe their flaws are fixable. And they point to how dominant they can be on both sides of the football. There are times when the offense can't be stopped. Ahmad Bradshaw leads the NFL in rushing with 708 yards in his first season as the starter. And Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith have toyed with secondaries at times.
Defensively, the Giants have knocked out five quarterbacks and shut down powerful running games with ease.
"We are still putting it together," safety Deon Grant said. "We still have to tie that knot. When we tie that knot, it's going to be ugly [for opponents]."
But what will keep things from getting unsightly for the Giants in the second half of a season yet again? The Giants say it will be a more talented roster filled with veteran leadership. A roster that is deep and capable of withstanding injuries like losing Mathias Kiwanuka for the season.
"This crew here that we have, we can do a lot more as far as a volume of defense versus the crew that we had last year," safeties coach Dave Merritt said. "Last year you had the young guys back there so there wasn't much you could give them. You tried to scale it back a little bit."
Cofield and Justin Tuck also say they see similarities between that 2007 Super Bowl team and this one. Like that championship squad that opened 0-2, this Giants team had a rocky start to the season when everything felt like it was falling apart. And they came together and rallied.
"We just know that no matter what happens, we can stick together and play," Umenyiora said. "Look at what happened [in Dallas]. We know our offense is going to play well, and they know we are going to stop people. It is just a feeling of a complete team."
A complete team that has yet to play a complete game. That is why the Giants truly believe they are on the verge of something special and not another collapse.
"Honestly, I don't see us going down," Rolle said. "I see us climbing and getting better as a unit. This is just the beginning."