sistaff
Wednesday November 9th, 2011

Jake Ballard has been the biggest surprise on a surprising Giants team. (AP)

Trailing the Patriots by three points Sunday with about a minute to go, the Giants faced a 3rd-and-10 from their own 39. Eli Manning needed to make a play.

Would he look for Mario Manningham? How about surging second-year receiver Victor Cruz? Maybe Brandon Jacobs or the speedy D.J. Ware out of the backfield?

Nope. Instead it was tight end Jake Ballard, an undrafted pickup out of Ohio State in 2010 and a virtual no-name heading into this season. Ballard managed to get behind Tracy White and leaped to haul in Manning's pass just before Patrick Chung intercepted it. The Giants gained 28 yard on the completion.

Five plays later, on 3rd-and-goal from the New England 1, Manning found Ballard again. And again, Ballard came through, hauling in the game-winning touchdown.

Last year, Ballard was relegated to the Giants' practice squad and his pro future seemed pretty uncertain -- Ballard, after all, caught just 34 passes over a four-year collegiate career at Ohio State. One of those grabs, however, showed his potential. It came on 4th-and-13 in the Rose Bowl, when Ballard went over the top of an Oregon defender to make a catch and set up a Terrelle Pryor touchdown pass.

But the emergence of Ballard -- not to mention Cruz, another undrafted find -- comes in stark contrast to some of the work done by the Giants' rivals in the NFC East.

While New York stayed relatively quiet this offseason, allowing, among others, former starting tight end Kevin Boss to walk in free agency, teams like the Eagles opened the checkbook. Between that inaction and a rash of injuries, a huge host of people was ready to declare 2011 a lost season for the Giants.

Turns out the Giants may have known something we all didn't. Boss, who inked a four-year contract with the Raiders, was benched last Sunday in a loss to Denver. Ballard, meanwhile, has 23 catches for 395 yards and three touchdowns this season, and has developed into one of Manning's most reliable targets.

"I always thought that I could be that guy," Ballard said Monday, according to the Associated Press. "I didn't have an opportunity in college and last year I just battled to get on the practice squad and just got better every week. I eventually moved up to active. I always had confidence in myself and all I needed was a shot or opportunity. I am trying to make the most of it right now."

The Giants' climb to the top of the NFC East has been one of those classic "Next Man Up" tales so far, and Ballard certainly qualifies as a lead character in that narrative. New York lost first-round pick Prince Amukamara before the season to injury and have seen, among others, Ahmad Bradshaw, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Hakeem Nicks, Michael Boley and David Baas hit the injury report as well, on top of losing valuable corner Terrell Thomas before the season even began.

Yet, at the midpoint of their season, the Giants sit 6-2 with a two-game lead over Dallas in the division. Can they maintain this unexpected pace for eight more weeks? The answer to that may depend on how well their under-the-radar stars like Ballard play.

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