With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
They've paid their dues, time after time. They've done their sentence, but committed no crime. And bad mistakes? Sure, they've made a few. They've had their share of sand kick in their face, but they've come through.
And now, the New York Giants are the champions, my friends.
After sneaking into the playoffs on the last week of the 2011 regular season by beating Dallas to take the NFC East, the Giants embarked on a magical postseason run that culminated with a dramatic Super Bowl win over the favored New England Patriots (again). Three straight seasons without a playoff win and two straight without a postseason appearance had turned up the heat on Eli Manning and coach Tom Coughlin. Last season's title march ought to silence the critics, at least for the upcoming season.
But do the Giants have what it takes to be the first repeat champions since the 2004-05 Patriots?
2011 Record: 9-7 (first in NFC East; beat Patriots in Super Bowl)
Team Strengths: QB, RB, WR, DE, OLB
Team Weaknesses: G, OT, FS
Three Things to Watch:
1. How will the linebackers line up?: After re-signing with the Giants in late November of last year, Chase Blackburn jumped right into the starting lineup at middle linebacker and played -- surprisingly, almost inexplicably well. While Blackburn is again penciled in as the starter inside, New York appears set to explore all options there, including sliding Michael Boley or new acquisition Keith Rivers inside, or getting some playing time for Mark Herzlich.
Rivers is the wild card here. He missed the entire 2011 season with a wrist injury, then the Bengals dumped him in New York's lap for a fifth-round pick. During his first three seasons in the league, Rivers showed some serious potential.
The Giants might decide in the near future that their best three-man linebacking group includes Mathias Kiwanuka on the strongside, with Boley and Rivers taking the middle and weakside duties.
Even though it all worked out in the end, there's no doubt that the Giants would like a little more stability in the center of their defense.
2. What will David Wilson's role be?: Brandon Jacobs took his moody, inconsistent show to San Francisco, enticing the Giants to nab Wilson in Round 1 of this year's draft. While Ahmad Bradshaw figures to handle the bulk of the running back duties when he's healthy (so, like, 70 percent of the time), the expectations for Wilson's rookie campaign are extremely high. That's especially true given the rag-tag group of backups behind him: D.J. Ware, Da'Rel Scott and Andre Brown.
The Giants are already singing the praises of Wilson's athletic ability -- he brings an explosiveness to the backfield that neither Bradshaw nor Jacobs provided in the past. But can he run between the tackles in the NFL? Can he pass-protect enough to get himself on the field in third-down situations? Those are questions that Wilson will try to answer in the affirmative between now and Week 1.
If he is as good as the Giants believe he will be, the run game should be even better in 2012.
3. Can the Giants find the necessary motivation?: After their last Super Bowl win, the Giants' next three seasons ended like this: divisional-round loss to the Eagles in 2008, missed the playoffs in 2009, missed the playoffs in 2010.
It goes without saying, but it is extremely difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Just four teams have accomplished that feat in the past three decades -- the 1988-89 49ers, '92-93 Cowboys, '98-99 Broncos and the Patriots in 2003 and '04.
Step one for the Giants simply will be qualifying for the postseason again. Remember, it took a 3-1 close to the year with a Week 17 win over the Cowboys (who finished 1-4 down the stretch) just to get into the postseason last time around. Getting back to the NFL's dance won't be any easier in 2012, given that the Giants now have a gigantic target on their backs, and the Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins all appear to have improved their rosters.
The schedule-makers didn't do the champs any favors, either. In addition to the tough NFC East slate, the Giants also travel to Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore, plus host the Steelers, Packers and Saints.
Outlook: Even Manning's harshest critics have to tip their caps at this point -- he has proven himself to be an elite quarterback in this league. Will his presence and a loaded front four on defense be enough to carry the Giants again this season?
Manning has to find at least one new target, with Mario Manningham joining Jacobs in San Francisco (rookie Reuben Randle is the odds-on favorite to jump into the lineup), and he probably wouldn't complain if his offensive line continued to improve.
The defense can be flat-out scary with Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck forming arguably the league's best rush tandem. Add Chris Canty, Linval Joseph and Shaun Rogers in at DT, and every offensive line the Giants face will have its hands full. Last year's team got hot at the perfect time, with a six-game win streak allowing them to end the year with a title. It will be difficult to repeat, even as NFC East champs. Anyone expecting the Giants to cruise to another division crown will be sorely disappointed, as just qualifying for the playoffs will be a tall task.