September 03, 2014

A winless six-game start cost the New York Giants any real chance at making the playoffs last season. A collapse over their final seven contests kept the Detroit Lions out of the postseason as well.

The Giants have made big changes and the Lions return their offensive weapons, but few are predicting big things for either team in 2014 as they open their seasons at Ford Field on Monday night.

New York (7-9) started last season with the lofty goal of becoming the first team to play in the Super Bowl in its own stadium, but that quickly became a punchline as the Giants stumbled to 0-6 on a wave of turnovers, mistakes and poor offensive play. New York's 294 points ranked 28th in the league and the club easily topped the NFL with 44 giveaways.

The 7-3 recovery came too late as coach Tom Coughlin's team missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

The changes that followed were sweeping. Longtime offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride retired and the team hired first-time offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo away from Green Bay to install his West Coast system. The team also went on a free-agency binge that was designed to fortify the offensive line, which performed miserably in 2013, and upgrade the defense.

McAdoo's quick-release offense is a big departure from Gilbride's downfield-heavy passing scheme, and the results haven't been good so far. Eli Manning, who led the NFL last year with a career-high 27 interceptions, looked out of sync with top receivers Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle throughout the preseason as he struggled to adapt to the first change in offenses of his career.

Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., New York's top draft pick, has barely been on the field due to injury and won't play Monday.

''Don't get me wrong, we're ready for Week 1,'' Manning said. ''But I think as a season goes on, you're always looking to improve, whether you've been in a system for 10 years or whether you have young guys and need guys to step up or you have new players, there's always room for improvement."

Getting the passing game going will be critical, but a rebuilt rushing attack could help buy Manning and his receivers time to improve over the first few weeks. Free-agent signee Rashad Jennings was impressive in the preseason, as was fourth-round draft pick Andre Williams, a 230-pound bruiser.

The O-line, though, still appears to be an area of concern. Free-agent pickup Geoff Schwartz, expected to start at guard, will be out for at least the first seven games with a dislocated toe and the rest of the starters form a major question mark.

If there's an area the Giants are excited about, it's the defense. Better play on that side of the ball keyed the turnaround last season, and free agency allowed them to upgrade the secondary. Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond along with improving holdover Prince Amukamara and veteran safety Antrel Rolle could make it difficult to throw on New York, which did bid goodbye to 2013 sack leader Justin Tuck and tackle Linval Joseph.

Linebacker Jon Beason, whose acquisition from Carolina on Oct. 4 gave the Giants a desperately needed defensive leader, has recovered from an offseason foot injury and might be ready for Week 1. New York, though, needs end Jason Pierre-Paul to regain his 16 1/2-sack form of 2011 after two injury-marred seasons.

''I think we have the potential to be a Super Bowl championship team,'' said end Mathias Kiwanuka, a part of the Giants' title teams after the 2007 and '11 seasons. ''l am not just saying that. We have all the talent. We have the desire. It's just about putting it together."

The Lions (7-9) should give that revamped defense an immediate test. Matthew Stafford posted his third straight season of more then 4,500 yards passing, throwing for 4,650 with 29 touchdowns, though he also tossed 19 interceptions.

Calvin Johnson caught 110 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 scores to pace the league's third-ranked passing offense (280.1 ypg), while Reggie Bush ran for 1,006 yards.

Despite its impressive array of offensive talent, Detroit dropped its last four games and six of the final seven to miss the postseason for the 13th time in 14 seasons. The club has posted two winning records in that span.

That led to the firing of coach Jim Schwartz and hiring of Jim Caldwell, an offensive-minded coach who's focused on helping Stafford take another step forward.

''We're incredibly motivated after what happened last year,'' said Johnson, who was limited to 14 games by a nagging knee injury. ''We know what we had in our grasp, but there were so many games down the stretch that we couldn't finish. We learned from that, and we're in a position now that we can win those games and get into the playoffs. Once you get in, anything can happen.''

Detroit's front four could give the Giants' offensive line major problems. Ziggy Ansah (eight sacks), Ndamukong Suh (5 1/2) and Nick Fairley (six) might end up creating flashbacks for Manning, who was sacked a career-high 39 times last year.

One of the Lions' late losses in 2013 was a 23-20 home defeat to the Giants on Dec. 22, New York's third straight win in the series. Stafford was picked off twice, while Johnson had only three catches for 43 yards.

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