’08 Preview: Giant expectations

Last season, there did not seem to be any way the Giants could knock off the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Packers in the playoffs and then complete their highly improbable march to glory by upsetting the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl 42. But they did, and the Giants of 2008 can no longer dress themselves in underdog clothing.

Led by Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and a ferocious pass rush, the Giants showed how an adequate regular season could blossom into something special in the playoffs.

With virtually the entire offensive unit returning intact and the vast majority of the key defensive players back on the scene, the Giants have the goods to be a contender once again, especially if Manning has finally turned the corner after a brilliant closing run.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

Coach Tom Coughlin’s job security is no longer an issue, as he’s signed through the 2011 season, and the return of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo – an emerging NFL head-coaching prospect – is a huge plus.

The Giants are well stocked at almost every position, but it remains to be seen if the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude they used to their advantage last year can be cultivated once again now that they have been fitted for championship rings.

One player who finally got his ring after 15 seasons was defensive end Michael Strahan. At 36, that was good enough for Strahan to announce his retirement on June 9. The Giants happen to have good depth at pass-rushing end – Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka – so Strahan’s presence is likely to be missed more than his production.

Offense

The stunning improvement and remarkable consistency shown by Manning during the postseason run has the Giants believing their franchise quarterback finally has arrived. If that’s the case, the offense should truly flourish.

This is a balanced attack, with coordinator and play-caller Kevin Gilbride unafraid to rely on a pounding running game to set up the play-action passes favored in his system. Time of possession is usually high for the Giants, but Gilbride doesn’t mind Manning taking chances downfield, especially with wide receiver Plaxico Burress.

Defense

In his first season as a coordinator, Spagnuolo put his stamp on the Giants defense and the results, after a slow start, were impressive. Spagnuolo is a strong communicator who wants to apply intense pressure up front and is unafraid to bring heat from anywhere.

The scheme is predicated on stopping the run and getting to the quarterback, which at times places stress on the cornerbacks. Unlike most NFL teams, there is a plethora of defensive ends with pass-rush skills, which sets everything in motion.

Breakout candidate

Running back Ahmad Bradshaw: As a seventh-round draft pick, Bradshaw was having a typical rookie season – watching and learning more than playing – until the late stages and into the playoffs when he emerged as perhaps the most complete ball carrier on the roster.

Bradshaw’s talent and elusiveness could allow him to challenge for a starting spot in his second season and, at the very least, he will share much of the rushing load with Brandon Jacobs.

Bottom line

The Giants of 2007 thrived amid low expectations and embraced the underdog role every step of the way. Their shocking run to victory in the Super Bowl was a classic case of a good – but not great – team coming together at the right time.

Things figure to be quite different in 2008, with the Giants suddenly being the hunted instead of the hunter. If the Manning that was so captivating last postseason is the real deal, this franchise is in fine shape; but if he does not take a quantum leap forward, things could get sticky.

There is the desired blend of age and youth on the roster, plus plenty of pass rushers, even without Strahan. On offense, though, there isn’t a game breaker, unless Burress fully recovers from ankle and knee problems.

This team and coaching staff operated with an edge all of last season, but now Coughlin has job security and the players have been fitted for championship rings.

There’s enough ability on hand for another playoff appearance, but attitude more than anything else should tell the tale.

Prediction: 13-3, second in NFC East.

Paul Schwartz covers the Giants for the New York Post and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008