PITTSBURGH - There is not a speck of doubt in Landon Collins’ mind that the Giants have what it takes to make a Super Bowl run.
“We have the talent, we have the guys and we have the determination,” the Giants’ second-year safety said. “We have the heart. We have the mindset to make it there. Everyone with us is a winner at heart and wants to be known as one of the best teams.”
It is a long way from here to Houston on Feb. 5 for Super Bowl LI, and Collins offers no guarantees about a championship run. But at 8-3 and riding the wave of a six-game winning streak, this is as confident a Giants team as the one that last made a championship run in 2011. Whether they get that far remains to be seen, and there is plenty of competition in the NFC — starting with the 11-1 Cowboys, who are in firm control of the NFC East — but optimism is in good supply inside the Giants’ locker room these days.
That starts with first-year coach Ben McAdoo, who took over for two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Coughlin and makes no apologies for setting the bar high. Super Bowl-high.
“Everything we’ve done to this point has made December important,” McAdoo said. “December is an opportunity to go out there and play good football against good football teams.”
But that’s only the beginning for McAdoo.
“You want your team to be defined in February, not in December,” he said.
There is as good a chance as any in the last five seasons for the Giants to play into January, and possibly for a chance to win it all in Houston. The Giants have missed the playoffs every year since Coughlin won his second Super Bowl after the 2011 regular season. Four straight years with no postseason berth meant the end for Coughlin, and McAdoo’s approach has yielded positive results.
But at this point, there is no in between: The Giants either continue winning enough games through what appears to be a perilous five-game stretch to end the regular season, or they play themselves out of contention and add another heaping dose of disappointment to a string of lost seasons.
“December is important, but it won’t define us by any stretch of the imagination,” McAdoo said. “What’s ahead of that will.”
Strong words from the rookie coach, who has Super Bowl-sized expectations for his team.
And now for the hard part: The degree of difficulty goes up exponentially starting with Sunday’s game against the Steelers at Heinz Field, and it continues the rest of the way with home games against Dallas and Detroit, both of which are leading their divisions, and then at Philadelphia and Washington to end the regular season.
Collins is right about this much: There’s no doubt the Giants have the talent and the determination to win enough to at least get into the tournament, if not play deep into January and perhaps even February. But there’s also no question that this team will have to play significantly better than it has through much of its current streak. Beating the Rams, Bengals and Browns is one thing, but beating the teams that await them will require a better effort.
It is particularly incumbent upon Eli Manning and his offense to do their part. After two years of a much-improved offense with McAdoo as offensive coordinator, the Giants have yet to score 30 points in a game this season. And while Manning’s numbers are solid — he has 20 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions — he needs to do better, particularly to make up for the Giants’ glaring inability to run the ball.
Of all the factors to consider heading into the stretch run, that’s the one that is most troubling. The Giants average only 79.5 rushing yards per game, which puts them next-to-last in the NFL. With no effective play-action passing game, opposing defenses are daring Manning to throw the ball. And while he has done a good job of limiting his turnovers, he hasn’t come close to tapping into the full potential of a receiving corps that is among the best in the NFL.
“We have to run the ball,” Manning said. “We just have to continue to get positive yards in the run game and stay with it. Eventually, we’ll break some big ones. Stay strong and keep running the ball well. That’ll help everything else from the play-action, and will slow down [opposing defenses’] pass rush.”
Manning acknowledges the problems the offense has had through most of the season, but armed with a relentlessly positive attitude, he will continue to seek answers and trusts that they eventually will come.
“We’ve clicked at times,” he said. “We’re just a few plays away. We’re just not getting down in the red zone enough. That’s the deal. It’s just a matter of it could be a play or two that’s a difference in whether you’re scoring enough points and getting down there in the red zone enough.”
With a defense that has shown genuine improvement throughout the course of the season — it’s a similar dynamic to when Steve Spagnuolo’s defense blossomed after early struggles in what turned into a championship season in 2007 — the onus is on the offense to break out of this rut and start delivering the way it’s capable.
Unless and until that happens, all this talk about January and February is meaningless.
Today at Steelers (6-5)
Dec. 11 vs. Cowboys (11-1)
Dec. 18 vs. Lions (7-4)
Dec. 22 at Eagles (5-6)
Jan. 1 at Redskins (6-4-1)