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Giants’ schedule gets a lot more difficult in final stretch: ‘It’s December football’

New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo works

New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo works the sidelines in the second half against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016, in Cleveland. Photo Credit: AP / Ron Schwane

Ben McAdoo typically fields questions during his Monday conference calls. This week, he asked one.

And it’s really the only one that matters at this point. The Giants (8-3) have won six games in a row, have the second-best record in the NFC and face five playoff-contending opponents to conclude the regular season.

“As a team,” he said, “where do we go from here?”

You might have expected him to answer his own question in some silly coach-speak way by saying “Pittsburgh,” which is literally where they go from here for Sunday’s game against the Steelers. Or he could have referred to tomorrow’s practice, taking things one day at a time, as he often stresses.

Nope.

“It’s December football,” he said instead. “This is where the real football begins. All our hard work to this point has set the table for December. It’s an exciting time, a lot of playoff teams, playoff environments, the margin for error is small. This is where our identity needs to take over.”

The identity — “Sound, smart and tough, committed to discipline and poise” — has been drilled into the players since the first day of offseason practice in April. Now comes the potential payoff.

McAdoo gave the same message to the players. Not that they were unaware of how the schedule shifts into high gear from here on out with games against Pittsburgh, Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington. Nor are their eyes closed to where they currently stand, two victories ahead of every other team chasing one of the two NFC wild-card spots.

“We’re going to have a week-to-week mentality,” McAdoo said of the way the Giants will approach their opponents, “but I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room, so to speak. Everything gets cranked up a notch in December, everyone jockeying for position. We just need to make sure we’re playing our best football.”

That elephant is the playoffs, and it was a pain in the pachyderm for the Giants the previous four seasons. They have not tasted postseason play since the 2011 season, which ended with a Super Bowl title.

This year already feels much different from those recent seasons, when the Giants were playing out the schedule, either virtually or mathematically eliminated from contention. Their win over the Browns secured their first non-losing season since 2012.

Now they have to finish it off.

Of the six teams the Giants have beaten during their winning streak, only the Ravens (6-5) have a winning record. The Bengals, Bears and Browns, the past three opponents, are a combined 5-28-1.

The Giants now face three straight teams that currently lead their divisions and have a combined record of 23-10 — including the Cowboys, who stand atop the NFC East at 10-1 — before closing out the slate with divisional road games at Philadelphia and Washington.

It’s a challenge, but after the last few seasons, it’s a welcome one.

“This is where you want to be,” Eli Manning said Monday during his weekly WFAN radio segment. “You want to be in this position going into December and be in the picture. We have to prove that we belong. If you’re going to be a good team, make a run in the playoffs, you have to beat good teams. That’s the stretch we’re going into.”

There’s no ducking it. So McAdoo didn’t.

“All of our hard work to this point has set the table for us to be playing meaningful football in December, which is what everybody in the league shoots for,” he said.

This year, it’s the Giants included.

After taking advantage of the easier part of their schedule during a six-game winning streak, the degree of difficulty increases for the Giants in their final five games.

Opponents during six-game winning streak

Baltimore 6-5

Los Angeles 4-7

Philadelphia 5-6

Cincinnati 3-7-1

Chicago 2-9

Cleveland 0-12

Upcoming five opponents

Pittsburgh 6-5

Dallas 10-1

Detroit 7-4

Philadelphia 5-6

Washington 6-4-1

New York Sports