When the New York Giants returned from their bye-week break on Monday, there was a noticeable difference at the start of practice.
There were a lot more bodies moving around on the field, while the stationary bike area, where injured players congregate, was strangely empty.
The Giants return from their bye rejuvenated and with reinforcements on the way: Justin Tuck, Brandon Jacobs, Chris Snee, Prince Amukamara and Ramses Barden were all on the field practicing in some capacity.
The Giants are getting healthy, and just at the right time. Even though the Giants face the winless Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the game might as well be a must-win, even if it is only Week 8.
At 4-2, the Giants hold a one-game lead over Dallas and Washington in the NFC East. A win would not only allow the Giants to stay at the top, it would put more distance between them and one of their chief rivals, as the Cowboys (3-3) and Philadelphia (2-4) match up on Sunday night.
And after already dropping a home game they should've won -- against the Seahawks on Oct. 9 -- the Giants simply can't afford to lose any more games they are supposed to win, especially one to an 0-6 team.
"You don't have to sell everyone," safety Antrel Rolle said about playing the Dolphins. "We understand that it's the NFL and anything can happen on any given week. We're preparing ourselves as if they're the best team in the NFL."
After this Sunday, the Giants' schedule turns downright nasty.
In a five-week span, they face four division leaders: New England (5-1), San Francisco (5-1) and New Orleans (5-2) on the road, and defending champion Green Bay (7-0) at home. Right in the middle of those matchups, the Eagles return to the Meadowlands for the first time since ruining the Giants' playoff hopes last December.
On Dec. 11, the Giants travel to Dallas with the NFC East lead potentially at stake. The Giants finish the season against the Redskins (3-3), Jets (4-3) and another game against the Cowboys.
Last season, the Giants won 10 games and missed the playoffs. This year, they have four victories and have to find six more wins somewhere in that schedule just to match last year's record and have a shot at winning the division.
A good sign is that Tom Coughlin's team has been good coming off the bye week. The Giants have won three straight and four of their last five games that have come after their bye.
"Hopefully it is because we come back and we are refocused and ready to go," Coughlin said. "If anything, the preparation should be better. Here we are after six games, so we actually have a 10-game schedule. Here we go."
Coughlin will have Pro Bowl right guard Chris Snee, who was cleared from a concussion. Tuck (neck/groin) and Jacobs (knee) could also suit up Sunday. Barden -- who remains on the PUP list but can be activated sometime in the next three weeks -- and Amukamara (foot) could return next week if they aren't ready by this Sunday.
Tuck's presence on the field after a month off to rest his injuries will have a big impact on a defense that needs to do better against the run and no-huddle. Teams will have to figure out how to handle a pass-rush rotation that can include Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka and Dave Tollefson.
"Huge," said Kiwanuka, who plays linebacker but often moves to the defensive line. "You look out on the field and you see the numbers lined up, you've got to pick your poison. Do you double 72 [Umenyiora]? Is it 91 [Tuck]? Whoever is out there on the field poses a big problem for the offense."
When asked if all the reinforcements coming back will give the Giants a major boost, Tuck replied, "We'll see on Sunday. Sure it can. Absolutely. We'll find out. I'm not a psychic."
The Giants won't need a psychic to find out what could happen if they lose to the Dolphins.
They already know what it feels like to wonder at the end of a postseason-less year what could have been if they had taken care of business earlier in the season.