The Giants' season comes down to the next six games, a daunting final stretch that includes rematches against teams eager to avenge playoff losses, a game against the surging Saints who are fighting to make the playoffs, two division games, and a trip to Baltimore to face a final AFC North opponent (they are 1-2 against that division so far).
The players go back to work Sunday, assured of remaining in first place in the NFC East, but trying to put a two-game losing streak behind them while bracing for the final half-dozen games. If this is to be a successful season, here are six keys -- one for each game remaining -- that need to be taken care of:
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BE BETTER IN THE RED
If there is one area of the offense that has been troublesome all season, it's inefficiency in the red zone. From the first game against the Cowboys to the last game against the Bengals, nearly every loss was punctuated with an inability to score a touchdown from close range and settle for a field goal. In 41 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, the Giants have scored 18 touchdowns and settled for 21 field goals. More alarmingly, the Giants have had 23 possessions with goal-to-go and had to have Lawrence Tynes kick a chip shot eight times. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said he and the staff would look around the league to try and generate ideas. "We'll try to look at some of the other teams that are doing well, particularly against the people that we're playing against, see if we can come up with some ideas to help galvanize (that part of the game)."
PRESSURE THE QUARTERBACK
It was supposed to be the hallmark of this defense, but teams quickly figured out how to avoid the Giants' pass rush with a mix of quick passes, max protects, and moving targets in athletic quarterbacks. "We expect our guys to get home," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said after registering just one quarterback hit against the Bengals last week. The Giants have 25 sacks, which is tied for the ninth most in the NFL. But more and more they are relying on players other than their big-name defensive ends to get those sacks. (Linval Joseph has four, for example, and Chase Blackburn has two.) "I'm always looking to tinker," Fewell said of sending extra pass rushers from the linebacker position. "As more guys get healthier and start coming to the fold, we'll do different things to be successful." Which brings us to . . .
GET PHILLIPS AND WILLIAMS ON THE FIELD
Kenny Phillips and Jacquian Williams are two of the best athletes on the team, and for more than a month the defense has been trying to get by without either of them. Yes, Stevie Brown filled in admirably for Phillips and has become a solid player. But he's not as much of a playmaker as Phillips. Williams may not be a starter, but his ability to both cover receivers and rush the passer gives the unit tremendous flexibility. "Some of the key guys that we count on to contribute to our football team have been on the sideline," Fewell said. Williams and Phillips will also give the Giants a better defense against tight ends, a critical component with Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez all looming.
SHORTEN THE FIELD ON SPECIALS
It's been over a month since David Wilson had a kickoff return of more than 33 yards, and the long fields are one of the reasons why the Giants' offense has struggled in the last few games. In the last four games, the Giants have had just two touchdown drives of less than 70 yards. The punt return game is not helping much either. Rueben Randle has more fair catches (13) than returns (12) and his longest return this season was for 18 yards. That was in September. It's not just the two rookies, it's the whole unit that is breaking down and costing the team field position. The best way to cure the offensive woes is to give them half as much distance to travel.
REMEMBER LAST YEAR
The Giants are 6-4, the same record they had in 2011 when they won the Super Bowl. Of course, they had to bottom out at 7-7 before turning things around to make that championship run. Maybe the loss to the Bengals in which everything went wrong was the low point for this season. Maybe things will get lower. Maybe the Giants will lose their grip on first place in the division before it's all over with. The lesson from last year is that as long as there is a chance, the Giants can cling to it. All it takes is an opportunity to get into the playoffs and magical things can happen.
FORGET ABOUT LAST YEAR
One of the worst aspects of the Giants' 2011 Super Bowl run was the feeling of invincibility no matter the obstacles that it brought. The Giants were three quarters away from losing to their crosstown rivals (what a pivot point that game turned out to be for both franchises!) and missing the playoffs altogether. Coming back from that trench only fostered the idea that they could climb out of others. That rarely happens in the NFL. It certainly won't happen in back-to-back years to the same team. The Giants need to stop waiting for their backs to hit the wall behind them before they come out and play their best.