INDIANAPOLIS -- The New York Giants just became the first NFC team to earn at least two Super Bowl rings in a five-season span since the Dallas Cowboys held three parades in four years in the first half of the '90s, and they are by no means a team that looks to be nearing the end of their window when it comes to punching in the NFL's heavyweight division.
That said, the Giants followed up their previous Super Bowl-winning year of 2007 with a one-and-down playoff appearance in 2008 and then by missing the postseason the next two years, and the unpredictable nature of recent life in the NFC makes it foolish to project anything resembling a true run of dynastic proportions.
Consider the past five seasons of playoff results in the NFC:
In four of those five years, the conference has been claimed by teams that won only nine or 10 games in the regular season: the 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers went 10-6 and were seeded fifth and sixth, respectively in the playoffs; while the 2008 Cardinals and 2011 Giants were 9-7 postseason qualifiers. Yet three of those longshot teams won Super Bowl championships, and the fourth (Arizona) narrowly missed earning a ring. Only the 2009 New Orleans Saints broke the pattern, going 13-3, and riding a No. 1 seed to a Super Bowl title.
In the NFC, the teams with the best regular-season records have mostly faded in the playoffs in recent seasons, while the club that enters the postseason with momentum and on a hot streak has flourished and often celebrated. Such is not the case in the AFC, where no conference champ has had fewer than 11 wins in a non-strike-year regular season since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
But in a league where quality quarterbacking and coaching have become even more vitally critical to anyone's formula for success, how can you not like New York's chances to vie for another title again in the 2012 season? Eli Manning just turned 31 last month, and is at the peak of his quarterbacking powers. With a second Super Bowl MVP trophy, Peyton's little brother has put to rest all questions of his worthiness to be called one of the game's elite passers, and become the greatest quarterback in Giants franchise history.
And then there's the ultimate survivor, New York head coach Tom Coughlin, the man who was on everyone's hot seat list less than two months ago, but now has a Super Bowl ring for each hand. Coughlin is a spry and young-ish 65, and he said Monday morning he intends to return for another season if the Giants will have him. They'll have him all right. He's officially the oldest coach in NFL history to capture a Super Bowl, but winning is the fountain of youth in this league, and he just matched the feat of Giants coaching legend Bill Parcells by earning a pair of championships in a five-year span.
With a nucleus of players who won't be impacted much in this year's free agency season, and a Jerry Reese-led front office that has done a nice job of keeping the roster supplied with talent, the Giants figure to be in Super Bowl contention for the foreseeable future. In the NFC of late, that means hanging around, getting hot in December and January, and taking your best shot when the opportunity presents itself.
New York is two for two following that blueprint, and that means Giants blue is again the most fashionable color of the year.
With the long NFL season finally over for all 32 teams -- a season that some thought might be shortened or not take place at all -- here's a snapshot look at how the two Super Bowl teams stand as they head into the personnel acquisition phase of the league's calendar.
The NFL's salary cap will be essentially flat in 2012, staying in the range of $120 million. Current cap figures include a couple variables that make pinpointing New York's exact offseason budget difficult -- like teams having the option to carry over available cap room into next season -- but the Giants are believed to face just a slight overage at this point, with about $123 committed to the 2012 cap. They have some savings available to be gleaned from that number with the expected release of a few veterans (see Brandon Jacobs, Kareem McKenzie, etc), so their flexibility will increase before the March free agency period opens.
Making the Super Bowl's most memorable play on that 38-yard final-drive reception didn't just help the Giants win a Lombardi Trophy, it might just help potential free-agent receiver Mario Manningham stick around in New York.
Winning puts a happy sheen on everything and often convinces teams to try and keep their roster intact as much as possible, and that could mean Manningham just improved the size of the offer he'll receive from the defending champions. New York won't break the bank to keep a receiver who slipped to its No. 3 slot this season, and someone could throw stupid money at him in an effort to make a headline splash in the market.
But with not much behind the big three of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Manningham on the New York receiving depth chart, you could see the Giants stretching a little to retain one of Eli Manning's favorite targets. Even if his playoff performance was far stronger than his regular season.
On other fronts, the Giants will have to figure out how to deal with a pair of defensive starters who missed the season with injuries but are now eligible for free agency: cornerback Terrell Thomas and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff. New York wants to retain both players, but they're coming off ACL surgeries and their contract offers will have to reflect the uncertainty of their status for next year. Long-term deals will be out of the question, but maybe modest two-year offers will be forthcoming.
Veterans such as cornerback Aaron Ross, right offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie and safety Deon Grant are players the Giants won't put up a fight to keep. Rookie first-round cornerback Prince Amukamara struggled with injuries this season but is the heir apparent for Ross' job if Thomas can't return strong in 2012. Look for New York to try and get help in the draft at offensive tackle, but another option if McKenzie leaves is moving left tackle David Diehl to the right side, and giving Will Beatty the first shot at winning the left tackle slot once he returns from a detached retina issue that cut short his season.
Stay tuned, of course, for developments in Osi Umenyiora's situation, but it's the Giants who hold all the cards in terms of their veteran defensive end, who unsuccessfully sought a big-money contract extension in 2011. The emergence of Jason-Pierre Paul as a pass-rushing force could mean New York dangles Umenyiora in trade, or they might just invite him back for the final year of his deal and get whatever production they can get out of him in his last go-round as a Giant.
Lastly, running back Brandon Jacobs has looked like a goner for a while now, even if he did hold open a slight chance of returning during Super Bowl week. But the Giants aren't likely to match his interest. Jacobs is 30, he runs softer than Coughlin would like at times, and he's scheduled to make almost $5 million this year. He's a situational back at best, and that salary certainly makes no sense for one of those.
Wasn't it just the other day that everyone had Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell potentially being sacrificed as a scapegoat if New York collapsed and missed the playoffs? Some had ex-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo all but measuring the drapes in Fewell's office. But Coughlin can relate. The man has been fired in the New York-area media so many times we've lost count.
The Giants ownership never really wavered on Fewell, knowing that once New York's defense got healthy again, the production would increase. With another championship under their belt, the Giants coaching staff will be status quo in 2012, with coordinators Kevin Gilbride and Fewell doing strong work down the stretch, and the underrated Coughlin signaling he has no intention of going out on top and heading into retirement.
New York now owns that coveted No. 32 slot in the first round, and who can complain about that? The Giants will consider giving first-round attention to offensive tackle, and could even look for a play-making linebacker or another cornerback, depending on how Thomas' rehab goes, and how much confidence the team has in Amukamara as he returns for his second season.
Another position that just became a possibility is tight end, because the Giants lost two players to injuries in the Super Bowl: Travis Beckum tore his ACL and Jake Ballard suffered a miniscus tear. Their status puts tight end on the draft radar screen more than ever.
With the Super Bowl title comes the honor of hosting the NFL's season-opening Thursday night game next September, and there are several appealing possibilities for that matchup. It almost certainly won't be against a division opponent, so that makes the most likely candidates either Green Bay or New Orleans to come to MetLife Stadium in Week 1.
The Saints have twice already had the "privilege'' of being the road team in the Thursday night kickoff opener (in 2007 at Indy, and in 2011 at Green Bay), so I can't see the NFL asking them to play that role once again. That probably spells the Packers drawing the assignment, in a matchup of the most recent two Super Bowl champions. It's a grudge match as well, because twice in the past five seasons, New York has knocked Green Bay out of the playoffs at Lambeau Field.
New York will have tough sledding with its schedule in 2012. There are the usual six NFC East games to deal with, in a division where everyone takes turns beating each other, as well as games against teams from the strong NFC South and AFC North. Those two divisions produced five playoff clubs in 2011, and the improving Carolina Panthers are no picnic either.
Again, cap specifics are tough to come by at the moment, and New England is never too forthcoming when it comes to any piece of internal information. But in general, the Patriots are thought to be in very good shape on the cap front, with an estimated $20 million or so of room under the $120 million cap. That should allow New England to do some needed offseason shopping from a position of strength.
The big issue in Foxboro is the fate of ultra-productive receiver Wes Welker, who is headed for unrestricted free agency, even though he'll likely never get there because of New England's option to slap the franchise tag on him. Welker would like a long-term deal instead of the tag, and is said to be a bit frustrated that his contract situation has yet to be addressed. But that's the New England way. The Patriots rarely get pro-active on that front unless they have to, and in this case they have way more leverage than Welker does.
The franchise salary figure for receivers is $9.4 million and New England could live with that number while still trying to negotiate a long-term deal with Welker. If the two sides are too far apart, the Patriots will simply go year-to-year with Welker and hope he does not grow disgruntled with that approach. It's possible Welker could try to skip a mini-camp or otherwise show his displeasure with the state of negotiations, but those moves don't often work in New England. At least until the Patriots start really paying the price for that absence, such as in the case of hold-out All-Pro guard Logan Mankins in 2010.
There are other potential unrestricted free agents who played significant roles for New England, but none that they look determined not to lose. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a nice player and the Patriots like his skill set. But if another team is willing to overpay him, New England will let him walk and thank him for his service. The Pats don't see him as special enough to stretch for.
Defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson both were productive acquisitions who produced more than was expected this season in the pass rush department. But Carter will be coming off the serious knee injury he suffered late in the season, and the tricky reality is they're both 4-3 ends. While New England played a bunch of 4-3 defense this season, it did so mostly because head coach Bill Belichick thought the lockout cost his team any chance to learn the more intricate 3-4 formation. The thought being that the Patriots could switch back to a more 3-4 centric approach in 2012, and maybe make it difficult for the club to measure Carter's and Anderson's value in that system.
Though the club wants to get a younger, more explosive downfield receiving threat in either free agency or the draft, there's likely a roster spot for veteran Deion Branch to return to next season, providing he's willing to take a deal that makes sense for where he's at in his career. Such is not the case for Chad Ochocinco, who is likely looking at a one-and-done New England experience. The Patriots aren't going to pay a guy who contributed just 15 receptions a base salary of $3 million next year, so Ochocinco will presumably now be more careful about what he wishes for, knowing that dreams don't always come true in the fashion we imagine.
Guard/center Dan Connolly is a player the Patriots will likely try to retain. With veteran center Dan Koppen spending this season on IR with an ankle injury, you could see a scenario where the club re-signs both players, with Koppen being the short-term answer at center and Connolly representing the future at the position.
In one of the more seamless transitions in NFL coaching history, the Patriots don't have an opening with the loss of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien to Penn State's heading coaching job, because they hired Josh McDaniels for that gig last month. McDaniels, the former Rams OC and Denver head coach, slides right back into his old office in Foxboro as if he never left after the 2008 season.
The only other defection the Patriots will suffer is offensive assistant George Godsey, who is the lone member of Belichick's staff who will be accompanying O'Brien to Happy Valley.
Once again, New England is in position to be a major player (or trader) in April's draft. The Patriots have both the No. 27 pick they earned via last April's first-round trade with New Orleans (which took Alabama running back Mark Ingram with New England's second first-rounder in 2011, No. 28 overall), and their own No. 31 pick that comes with losing the Super Bowl.
In addition, the Patriots own a pair of second-round picks, at No. 48 (obtained from Oakland) and No. 63. Belichick loves to wheel and deal with that much draft capital stored up, but this could be the rare year where he sits tight and picks off four players to help upgrade a defense that was near bottom-of-the-barrel status statistically in 2010. New England's defense was 31st overall this season in yards allowed, surrendering more than 400 per game. The Patriots need help in the front seven, or at cornerback, so all options appear on the table.
If there's one instant impact defensive star the Patriots have a conviction on in the top half of the first round, having two first-rounders might allow New England to go up and get him. If there's anything this season illustrated, it's that the Patriots lack a Von Miller or Aldon Smith-like young playmaker in their front seven.
The Patriots' list of 2012 opponents looks anything but daunting from this vantage point. New England has just four games against teams that made the playoffs this season, and only one of those, at Baltimore, is on the road. That rematch of the AFC title game will be an obvious highlight of next season, as will home games against NFC title game loser San Francisco, and a Broncos-at-Patriots rematch of this year's AFC divisional-round playoff showdown in Foxboro.
New England draws the NFC West and AFC South in 2012, and only the 49ers and Texans made this season's playoffs from among those eight teams. In addition, the Patriots will be heading back across the pond to face the Rams in London, and that late October matchup ensures New England a nice early November bye, exactly midway through the regular season.