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Giants chasing history instead of imploding

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

While this factoid about the New York Giants seems more trivial than important, people within the game understand its relevance.

The Giants can become the first team ever to endure a four-game losing streak and rebound to win a title with a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5. In fact, they are only the second such team to make it this far, joining the 2002 Oakland Raiders.

While four consecutive losses may not seem so ominous, put it in this perspective: What do you think it's like in any sport to go a month without winning?

"Good teams don't lose three in a row," said Rich Gannon, the quarterback on that Raiders team. "Even two in a row, that's a pretty good stumble. You lose two and it's like, 'Hey, we gotta get this together.' But four, that can become a real problem, something you don't recover from. For us, it took good leadership and a good coach. Even though Bill [Callahan] was a rookie coach, he really kept it together.

"That could have easily gone the other direction. It did the next year when I got hurt. But you see that same kind of leadership in New York with Eli Manning, those defensive players and Tom Coughlin. They won't let doubt creep in. You have a strong-minded coach who isn't going to flinch under pressure."

From Gannon to safety Rod Woodson to wide receiver Jerry Rice to defensive end Trace Armstrong, Oakland was loaded with players who knew how to ride the wave of emotion. Or as Armstrong, a guy teammates often credited for knowing how to calm tense situations, put it many times during his career: "You have to find a way to get through that peak or valley, especially the valleys. When you're losing week after week, keeping everybody together is so hard."

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The Giants, who went 9-7 in the regular season, had plenty of people saying they were done after losing their fourth straight to fall to 6-6 in early December.

"I'm sticking a fork in the New York Giants," Fox analyst and two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson said on Dec. 4, before the Giants lost later in the day to the Green Bay Packers. "Not because of Eli Manning, but because of the Giants' defense, which is 28th in the league. They'll be lucky to finish 8-8."

By mid-December, after a loss to the Washington Redskins dropped New York to 7-7, speculation focused on a massive overhaul of the coaching staff and the roster. There was constant talk about whether coach Tom Coughlin would be fired if the Giants missed the playoffs. This was in the same season in which Coughlin was carried off the field after the Giants won at New England to improve to 6-2.

Of course, the problems for the Giants were obvious. Injuries to players such as running back Ahmad Bradshaw, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck were compounded by a brutal schedule. Starting with the win over New England, the Giants played four games against playoff teams over a five-week span. The fifth game was against division-rival and talent-laden Philadelphia Eagles, who handed New York the second of the four straight defeats.

"We went through a lot of stuff in that stretch," wide receiver Victor Cruz said after the Giants clinched the NFC East title and a playoff berth on the final game of the regular season against Dallas. "We had guys get hurt, we were losing. We had the media all over us. We had people thinking we were going to break, but we stayed together."

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The Giants managed to do so even when internal finger-pointing took place. After the loss to Washington, safety Antrel Rolle criticized his teammates' in-week preparation. Instead of crumbling like the cross-town rival New York Jets, the Giants reeled off five straight wins to reach the Super Bowl.

"When guys in this locker room got tested, we hung together," said Rolle, who had one of his two interceptions this season in the finale against the Cowboys. "You see plenty of times that it goes the other way. Not these guys, not once. We just knew that once we got healthy and got everybody rolling, we'd be fine."

The Giants pulled it together by eventually getting standout performances from their top players.

Quarterback Eli Manning has had a career year, including an NFL-record 15 touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of games in the regular season. Intercepted three times in the loss to the Redskins, Manning threw four touchdown passes and just one pick in the closing two victories against the Jets and Cowboys.

Also on offense, Bradshaw (four touchdowns in the final three regular-season games and 295 yards rushing and receiving in the playoffs), Cruz (nine catches for 342 yards and two touchdowns in the final two regular-season games and 10 catches for 142 yards against San Francisco in the NFC championship game) and Nicks (18 catches for 335 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs) have been stellar of late.

Defensively, Umenyiora has 5 ½ sacks in four games (including the playoffs), since returning after a four-game absence. Tuck, who missed five games overall this season, has 3 ½ sacks during New York's five-game winning streak.

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When former members of the Raiders reflect on their turnaround in 2002, they point to a Woodson interception return for a touchdown as the pivotal moment.

"We talk about that play all the time, that's the one that turned that season around," former Oakland defensive coach Chuck Bresnahan said. "You don't usually say that about a whole season, but that was the case and there was a veteran guy, one of the leaders, making that play."

For the Giants, whether that moment was a fourth-quarter comeback win in Dallas on Dec. 11 or Cruz's 99-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the Jets on Christmas Eve, they have managed to get through a brutal run and put themselves in position for not only a title, but an impressive bit of NFL history.

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