Upon further review of their personnel and schedules, the New York Giants and New York Jets look like teams destined to deliver 8-8 records, give or take a Sunday. Neither appears to be great or awful or capable of rising high enough above their flaws to create something other than a formless and forgettable season.
But the beauty of any sport is its unpredictability, its capacity to surprise even the most seasoned observer. That's why watching an NFL game can be a lot more fun than following a playwright's script on Broadway.
In that spirit, either the Giants and/or Jets might break out Sunday afternoon in East Rutherford, N.J. (Jets-Raiders) or Monday night in Detroit (Giants-Lions) to begin a run that will capture the market's attention and imagination. And if you are a local looking to wager on one team over the other, here's a simple suggestion:
The NFL's two most critical positions are those of head coach and first-string quarterback, and the Giants have decided advantages in those two areas. In fact, the Giants trump the Jets in the owner's box, too, and that's without counting all those dollars Woody Johnson hasn't spent under the salary cap.
Rewind your memory banks to the final scenes of late December. The Giants finished 7-3 after an ungodly 0-6 start, and John Mara said that he was as disappointed as he'd ever been, that the offense was broken, that Manning needed more help around him, that the coaches should've played Jerrel Jernigan more and that the team should've won the NFC East. Oh yeah, and he eventually forced offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride into retirement.
Johnson? He treated a road victory over Miami and an 8-8 finish as a reason to extend Ryan's employment and turn the Jets' locker room into Times Square on New Year's Eve.
But back to Woody's quarterback and coach. Smith showed a spark at the end of 2013, and he has come across as an emerging talent this summer. There doesn't seem to be anything emerging about Ryan after following two trips to the AFC Championship Game with two .500 seasons sandwiched around a 6-10 one. Like his record, his coaching style has been all over the place.
Not that the Giants can claim to be a model of consistency -- they did miss the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, with a parade wedged in between the interceptions and blown coverages. Only the Giants have shown a remarkable knack for getting hot at the best possible times. They were a 10-6 wild card that had no business winning it all seven years ago over a New England Patriots team that walked into the Super Bowl with an 18-0 record -- and with Tom Brady mocking Plaxico Burress' prediction of a 23-17 victory.
Brady was right: The Giants won by only four points, not six. Four years later, the Giants were a 7-7 mess on Christmas Eve when they suddenly started another magical ride at Brady's eventual expense by beating an opponent that couldn't walk its talk.
Rex Ryan's Jets. Who else?
So even after everything that went down last year, including Manning's standing among the sport's elite passers, the Giants deserve the benefit of the doubt. Eli suffered through his 27 interceptions and his offseason ankle surgery and an entire training camp and preseason looking terribly confused by Ben McAdoo's playbook, and still he cannot be dismissed as a quarterback capable of carrying his team to an unlikely place.
"What I see is a very talented guy who certainly has unique abilities to move his team and score," said Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who had Eli's big brother Peyton in Indy. "No matter what the stats might say, this guy is dangerous, and I think he has proven that over time. You don't win two Super Bowls without having an unusual skill set."
Or without having a coach who fully believes in that unusual skill set. Coughlin and Manning might not share the same bond once shared by Joe Torre and Derek Jeter, but it's close enough. If the 68-year-old Coughlin is indeed done in this year by another failure to reach the playoffs, you could almost see him trying to extend his career at his alma mater, Syracuse, and then checking with the NCAA to see if Manning still had a year of eligibility left.
It's hard to see one going on without the other. In his Thursday news conference, Coughlin had the following exchanges with reporters:
Q: "Regardless of how the offense has gone this summer, have you sensed at all that Eli Manning is motivated by trying to prove himself a little bit after what happened last year?"
A: "I don't think there is any question about that. ... To come back and have a good, solid year is his goal and all of our goals."
Q: "I'd assume obviously he doesn't necessarily need to prove himself to you, correct?"
A: "No, and he doesn't have to verbalize it to me, either. I just look at his face."
Q: "What do you see in Eli's face?"
A: "He's focused, he's focused, he's focused. It's serious business for him."
Yes it is. Later at his locker, Manning admitted he is seeking redemption. When told of Coughlin's remarks that he appears especially focused, the quarterback said, "I think it is the same focus as ever, and definitely I'd hope he'd think I'd be focused right now. I'm glad he thinks that. So that's good news."
Someone mentioned Manning's struggles with the West Coast offense in the preseason, and the franchise player briefly opened a window on his competitive soul with an unsolicited reminder about his two Super Bowl MVP awards. "I don't remember how our preseason was in our championship years," Manning said. "After a couple of games, I don't think people will be talking about the preseason."
We'll see about that. The Giants have issues with the new system, the offensive line, the tight ends and the first-round draft pick who can't get out of the tub.
On the other side of the market, the Jets don't have any worthy or healthy cornerbacks to compete against some high-flying offenses across the first half of their schedule. But more than anything, they don't have a coach and a quarterback who have done it before, and more than once.
Geno Smith has a shot -- if not a great one -- to develop into a star, and maybe someday he can enjoy the kind of long-term marriage with Rex Ryan that Manning has with Coughlin. Crazier things have happened in sports, even if none immediately come to mind.
Either way, on paper the Jets and Giants shape up to be non-players in the 2014 season. If you were assured in advance that one of them will shock the world with an 11-5 record and a spirited run in the Super Bowl tournament, history and logic will show you where to put your money.
Coughlin and Manning have earned that benefit of the doubt.