EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- To see the New York Giants looking dominant again and running off the field Sunday after their first home playoff win in 12 years, it was easy to forget they were the only team ever to win the NFC East title with less than 10 wins, and they had to shrug off other embarrassments in their roller-coaster season like going 0-for-Rex Grossman and owning the worst rushing attack in the NFL.
That was then and this is now: Defensive end Osi Umenyiora actually said he felt "disrespected" Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons twice skipped field goal attempts to go for it on fourth-and-1 against the Giants' red-hot defense, and second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was even bolder. After the Giants finished steamrollering visiting Atlanta, 24-2, to set up their second meeting of the season with Super Bowl favorite Green Bay, Pierre-Paul predicted, "We gonna win."
For a Giants team that so often seemed unable to guarantee anything this season other than quarterback Eli Manning playing well, the Giants are still flattering themselves when they say they're "the" NFC team nobody wants to play right now.
But all that really matters is the Giants are on the sort of roll that makes them believe anything is possible.
New Orleans still has the scariest offense in the NFL. And Green Bay, which narrowly beat the Giants' 37-34 in November, has the league's best record at 15-1.
But the surest reason to believe Sunday that the Giants are on the sort of strange and magical run in which nothing can be ruled out wasn't the scoreboard. It was the sight of Giants coach Tom Coughlin, the team's most incurable curmudgeon, abandoning his nitpicking about how some penalties on the Giants' punt team "drove me nuts" to look ahead and actually volunteer a little prediction of his own, JPP-style: "If we can keep playing defense like this, we can make ourselves heard in this tournament."
Even after the first round, the 10-7 Giants already have.
After the way the Giants flicked aside the Falcons with their defense pitching a shutout and their entire team playing their best, most mistake-free, most complete game of the season, this three-game winning streak really is starting to make them look like the 2007 Giants' title run all over again. Especially since that tear included a stop at Lambeau Field, for what turned out to be the second coming of the Ice Bowl in brutal, below-zero conditions.
Asked what he remembers about the Giants' escape that day, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, one of only 14 holdovers from that '07 team, said, "Cold. I remember that. Coach Coughlin's [chapped red] face. I remember David Diehl's sweat had frozen on his hair, so he had icicles on his hair. What else? I remember us winning, and that's the most important thing. "
"We were just happy we got out of that game alive," Umenyiora said.
"Epic," defensive lineman Dave Tollefson agreed.
But when these Packers settle in to take a closer look at the way these Giants are playing right now, the Packers might come away thinking the Giants don't remind them of just the '07 Giants -- they remind them of the 2010 Packers, too, and the Super Bowl title run they went on last year.
Didn't Green Bay finish the 2010 regular season just a shade above .500, same as this season's Giants did? And didn't those Packers get healthy at just the right time, then ride some relatively unknown and inexperienced players to the title, same as the Giants hope to do now, behind the likes of second-year players Victor Cruz and Pierre-Paul?
"I think we've probably got more weaponry on offense [than in 2007]," Tuck said. "We might be a better team -- quote, unquote -- just by the numbers. But I think Green Bay is better than they were in '07 too."
It's highly doubtful anyone in Atlanta was talking about any of that just yet by Sunday night. The hot topic was Falcons coach Mike Smith's decision to go for a first down on fourth-and-1 for the second time in the game -- this time from the Giants' 21 with less than 4½ minutes left in the third quarter and the Giants leading by only eight points. Smith's bravado backfired badly when his quarterback, Matt Ryan, got stuffed on a keeper into the middle of the line and Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks stung the Falcons for a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception just three plays and 1:37 later.
Just like that, what might've been a 10-8 score had Smith taken both field goals on fourth-and-1 turned into a backbreaking touchdown and a 17-2 Giants lead. The steam seemed to hiss out of the Falcons after that. It was like they palpably deflated before your eyes.
The Giants' offense got the ball back and started ripping off yards in chunks on their very next possession. And when Manning passed up an easier throw in the left flat and sent a frozen rope of a pass down the left seam toward Mario Manningham instead -- clearly looking for a dagger to finish off the Falcons -- Manningham pulled it off, making a terrific fingertip catch just inside the end line for a 27-yard touchdown. And that was the ballgame.
The two big pass plays and the shutout the Giants' defense played (the Falcons' only points came on a safety Manning took in the first half) would've been enough to send the Giants winging into Green Bay this week.
But the Giants' oft-maligned secondary played well too, even after losing cornerback Aaron Ross to a concussion. And the Giants' running game picked up a season-high 172 yards, beating their previous season best by 50. The total included one 14-yard scramble by Manning that nearly matched his entire season total of 15 yards. So what if you could've timed it with a sun dial rather than a stop watch?
"I think E is a beast," Giants running back Brandon Jacobs laughed. "Peace out."
So let the rest of the league dwell on Green Bay's 15-1 record, Rodgers' MVP season, the atmosphere the Giants will encounter at Lambeau. The Giants are on the sort of roll that makes anything possible. They've won three straight win-or-go-home games, two of them just to get into the playoffs. And they're fearing nobody.
"I can't wait to go up there and play them," Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw said.
"We're battle-tested," Coughlin agreed.
Pierre-Paul was pressed about how sure he was about his win guarantee, and he started laughing as he made his way toward the door.
"We're sure," Pierre-Paul said.