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Giants, Rashad Jennings excited to play meaningful late-season games

New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings (23)

New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings (23) runs the ball against the New England Patriots in the second half of an NFL football game at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When last season ended without Rashad Jennings getting close to the playoffs yet again, he decided he wanted to know what it was like to be a professional football player in January. So for a few weeks after the 2014 Giants closed up shop, he kept coming into the facility. He'd get up early, do his workouts, do some tape study, and basically pretend the season was still alive.

"I want my body to know what it feels like to be in that position," he said.

This year, he's hoping he won't have to fake it.

After a career with the lowly Jaguars and Raiders and last season with the sub-.500 Giants, Jennings is getting ready for his first playoff push. Thanksgiving normally has been the end of the season for him in terms of meaningful games, but this year the postseason is like the bird in the oven: He can smell it.

"You can sense the opportunity," he said. "It's not lip service . . . Everybody can say one game at a time, and we understand that and that's how we're going to take it. But you bet your bottom dollar our eyes are on the prize."

Jennings wasn't the only player who spent a few weeks last January in the pantomime playoffs. Eli Manning, Andre Williams, Prince Amukamara and a few others also were going through a similar routine. And now?

The Giants are 5-5 and in first place in the NFC East by one full game. It's so shocking to what Jennings has experienced in the NFL thus far that he mistakenly said the Giants could "narrow" the gap in the standings with a win over Washington on Sunday. They're actually hoping to widen it.

"We're right here in the heart of it," Jennings said. "It's not every day that somebody can wake up saying they're in the NFL playing for something."

Last year, the Giants certainly couldn't. They were eliminated from postseason contention on Thanksgiving Day and played out the string knowing their schedule would end at 16 games. Most remarkably, their last five games last year also were against teams that had been eliminated, not even providing them a chance to be spoilers. In an NFL where parity is the stated goal, that's almost an impossible final month to fathom.

It's far different this year.

The Giants' play a series of playoff contenders in their last six games, adding to the intensity of the stretch run.

"It's big-time football now," linebacker Devon Kennard said, looking forward to his first drive toward the postseason.

Even those who have been through the process in their careers seem refreshed by having games that matter left on the schedule at this juncture for the first time since 2012.

"It's a lot of fun," Tom Coughlin said, "compared to where we've been."

"It feels good to be in these circumstances and feel like you are playing for opportunities to make the playoffs and win your division," Manning said. "This is fun. These are the things you prepare for and you hope for, these moments. To have a chance. Have a shot. Guys have to enjoy that."

Especially veterans such as Jennings who have been waiting their whole lives for this opportunity.

"I said early in the year one of the things we were training for is the playoffs," Jennings said. "That's where my mind is at."

With a few more wins, that's where his body will be at as well.

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