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Season Preview: Giants can't fall victim to old habits

Eli Manning

Eli Manning Credit: Eli Manning and the Giants have won three straight games. (Lee S. Weissman)

While eight seasons have come and gone since the last time the Giants finished below .500 — back when Eli Manning was just a rookie — the team has been on the outside looking in come playoff time during four of the past five campaigns. Sure, that other year ended with another Super Bowl victory against the Patriots, but fans have short memories. For the Giants to find themselves back in the postseason and eventually reach the Super Bowl in their home stadium, they’ll need a few things to break right. Here’s a look at three of them.

STAY HEALTHY

The Giants enter the season with their fair share of injuries to starters, plus a few more who already have been hobbled this summer. Starting free safety Stevie Brown is lost for the season, and versatile offensive lineman David Diehl’s injury has forced changes across the board. Stud defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul could be ready to return on Sunday against the Cowboys after missing time this summer following back surgery, but if he were to miss extended time it would be a crippling blow to the team’s front four. Keeping the rest of the team on the field is crucial but has proved to be a tall order in recent years.

CONTAIN THE PASS

Many of the Giants’ injuries over the past few seasons have left the team’s secondary in disarray. In past years, it had been Terrell Thomas, once the team’s top cornerback, who twice went down before the season began. In 2013, it’s Brown. Regardless, the Giants need better play from 2011 first-round corner Prince Amukamara. Elevating the team’s success against quarterbacks starts with the pass rush, once vaunted as this defense’s biggest threat, but the Giants managed a league-low 20 sacks a year ago. Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka must get to quarterbacks, or even a fully healed Giants secondary won’t save the defense.

FINISH STRONG

Under Tom Coughlin, the Giants are 83-61 over nine seasons. All of his teams began the year at 5-3 or better in the first half (53-19 overall), and none of them has ever been better over the last eight games of the season than they were over the first (30-42 overall). Beginning each season like a lion and ending like a lamb has done the team no favors, especially during the past two seasons. With two matchups against the Redskins and home games against the Packers, Cowboys and Seahawks over the final eight weeks, it won’t be easy to break the old habit, but it could be vital.

Giant to watch

Giants fans surely are relieved to know that both Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are expected to be in the lineup this Sunday for the season opener in Dallas. But if Cruz’s heel injury nags him again or Nicks’ groin injury returns, count on Rueben Randle to make the most of it.

The second-year wide receiver believes he has made strides since his first professional campaign.

“Just getting on the same page with Eli [Manning] has been the major difference for me coming in last year and over to the summer,” Randle said last month.

Randle was used sparingly on offense last season. He tallied 19 receptions for 298 yards and three touchdowns, but a good chunk of those numbers came in two games: Oct. 7 against the Browns (six catches for 82 yards) and the Dec. 30 season finale against the Eagles (four catches for 58 yards and two scores).

Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told Newsday last month that the Giants’ second-round selection in the 2012 draft is “light years” ahead of where he was as a rookie, which could mean Randle is in for a breakout year as Manning’s No. 3 option in the passing attack.

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