The catch in Big Blue's playoff plans? Consistency

If the Giants could get a grip on their offense the way Hakeem Nicks wraps his size 4XL gloved hands around a football, there might not be so many questions swirling around a team that won the Super Bowl just four years ago. The 6'1", 210-pound receiver had a breakout season in 2010, catching 79 passes for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns (all team highs), despite missing three games with leg, ankle and toe injuries. Nicks ranked fifth in the NFL with 20 receptions of 20 yards or more and tied for 11th with 55 catches for first downs.

Taken with the 29th overall pick out of North Carolina in '09, Nicks was the fifth receiver drafted—after Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin. He has more career receiving yards (1,842) and touchdowns (17) than any of those players.

"I want to be one of the greatest," he says. "I don't want it to be a secret—that's what I'm shooting for. I expected to have that kind of season last year, and I expect this one to be even better." But as the No. 1 receiver he'll be a marked man, drawing double coverage and getting jammed at the line nearly every play—especially if the rest of the passing game struggles, which is likely. Quarterback Eli Manning threw the most interceptions in the league last season (25), and his receiving corps dropped 32 passes, which tied for seventh worst in the NFL.

"We kind of had a makeshift group of receivers," general manager Jerry Reese says. "We expect them to develop."

They'll need to develop quickly, now that Manning has lost two of his most trusted targets to free agency. Tight end Kevin Boss signed with the Raiders on Aug. 5, and five days later Steve Smith, who set a franchise record with 107 receptions in 2009, joined the rival Eagles.

Mario Manningham could become a solid No. 2—he gave fans a glimmer of hope, with 346 yards and four TDs in the final three games, after Smith suffered a knee injury in Week 14. The trio of Domenik Hixon, Devin Thomas and Michael Clayton combined for two receptions in 2010. Victor Cruz, a second-year wideout who hasn't caught a pass in the regular season, and rookie Jerrel Jernigan were also in the No. 3 receiver mix.

"Shame on us in a sense for not being more aggressive [about signing Smith]," Giants owner John Mara told ESPN 1050 Radio after Smith's departure, a development that also forced Reese to address the media because, he said, "it seems like people are in a little bit of a panic."

Manning has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, and he set career highs in touchdowns (31) and completion percentage (62.9) last year. But it's telling that the Giants went out of their way to restructure Brandon Jacobs's contract in order to re-sign fellow running back Ahmad Bradshaw to a four-year, $18 million deal.

New York was knocked out of the '08 postseason in the first round and hasn't returned to the playoffs since, fading down the stretch in each of the past two years. The Giants won 10 games last season, despite the fact that they spent a lot of time spinning their wheels, leading the league in both takeaways and turnovers.

While the receiving corps tries to overcome its defections, disgruntled defensive end Osi Umenyiora's contract dispute threatens to be an ongoing distraction when he returns from knee surgery in early September. Injuries have affected the secondary as well. Cornerback Prince Amukamara, the longest holdout of this year's first-round picks, broke his left foot in just his second practice and may not return until late September. And Terrell Thomas, who started every game at cornerback the last two seasons, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee in a preseason game. Plus, the offensive line, which gave up just 16 sacks last season, must replace center Shaun O'Hara and guard Rich Seubert, veteran leaders who were cut.

Nicks, however, seems oblivious to all the doom-and-gloom predictions. He remains intent on keeping a promise he made to himself when he was drafted. "Wherever I went, I was going to go make a name for myself," he says. "Wherever I ended up, I was going to make that team very happy."

These days, making Giants fans smile would be no small accomplishment.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 5

QB ELI MANNING

ATT 539

COMP 339

PCT 62.9

YARDS 4,002

YD/ATT 7.42

TD 31

INT 25

RATING 85.3

RB AHMAD BRADSHAW

ATT 276

YARDS 1,235

REC 47

TTD 8

FB BEAR PASCOE

ATT 0

YARDS 0

REC 9

TTD 0

WR HAKEEM NICKS

REC 79

YARDS 1,052

AVG 13.3

TTD 11

WR MARIO MANNINGHAM

REC 60

YARDS 944

AVG 15.7

TTD 9

TE TRAVIS BECKUM

REC 13

YARDS 116

AVG 8.9

TTD 2

LT WILL BEATTY

G 8

SACKS 0

HOLD 3

FALSE 2

LG DAVID DIEHL

G 12

SACKS 7½

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

C DAVID BAAS

G 16

SACKS 2¼

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

RG CHRIS SNEE

G 16

SACKS 2

HOLD 3

FALSE 4

RT KAREEM MCKENZIE

G 16

SACKS 2

HOLD 1

FALSE 0

RB BRANDON JACOBS

ATT 147

YARDS 823

REC 7

TTD 9

WR DOMENIK HIXON*

REC 15

YARDS 187

AVG 12.5

TTD 1

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 7

DE JUSTIN TUCK

TACKLES 76

SACKS 11½

INT 0

DT LINVAL JOSEPH

TACKLES 8

SACKS 0

INT 0

DT CHRIS CANTY

TACKLES 39

SACKS 1½

INT 0

DE OSI UMENYIORA

TACKLES 48

SACKS 11½

INT 0

LB MICHAEL BOLEY

TACKLES 81

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB JONATHAN GOFF

TACKLES 75

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB MATHIAS KIWANUKA

TACKLES 11

SACKS 4

INT 0

CB COREY WEBSTER

TACKLES 52

SACKS 0

INT 4

SS KENNY PHILLIPS

TACKLES 77

SACKS 0

INT 1

FS ANTREL ROLLE

TACKLES 87

SACKS ½

INT 1

CB AARON ROSS

TACKLES 36

SACKS 1

INT 0

DB DEON GRANT

TACKLES 59

SACKS 1

INT 3

SPECIALISTS

K LAWRENCE TYNES

FG 19

FGA 23

XP 43

PTS 100

P STEVE WEATHERFORD

PUNTS 84

GROSS 42.6

NET 38.1

*2009 statistics

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 10--6

September

11 at Washington

19 St. Louis (Mon)

25 at Philadelphia

October

2 at Arizona

9 Seattle

16 Buffalo

23 BYE

30 Miami

November

6 at New England

13 at San Francisco

20 Philadelphia

28 at New Orleans (Mon)

December

4 Green Bay

11 at Dallas

18 Washington

24 at N.Y. Jets (Sat)

January

1 Dallas

COACH: TOM COUGHLIN

AGE: 65

EIGHTH SEASON WITH THE GIANTS (65--47)

Coughlin's grandfatherly appearance matches his old-school approach to the game: It's possible that no other coach was more disappointed to see that two-a-days have gone the way of leather helmets. Coughlin has had only one losing season with the Giants—his first, in '04—but the team has missed the playoffs for two straight years. Still, he signed a contract extension in July that takes him through the 2012 season.

SPOTLIGHT

JONATHAN GOFF, Linebacker

When he was made a starter last season, his third in the NFL, Goff struggled with his new responsibilities. Replacing captain Antonio Pierce at middle linebacker, he had to make calls in the huddle—and audibles before the snap—for a defense that was breaking in its third coordinator in as many years. "It was a huge step," G.M. Jerry Reese says. "He did a good job, but he can do better. He has to see things a bit quicker."

The Giants finished seventh in total defense and forced the most turnovers in 2010, but they ranked 17th in points allowed. Over a four-game stretch last December they gave up seven and three points in wins over the Redskins and the Vikings but 38 and 45 in losses to the Eagles and the Packers. "One of the biggest factors of our inconsistency was the communication," veteran linebacker Michael Boley says.

The 6'2", 238-pound Goff averaged fewer than 40 snaps per game last year, but defensive coordinator Perry Fewell hopes Goff will get closer to 60 as he becomes more experienced with pass coverages. He needs to make more plays—his 75 tackles tied for 48th among linebackers—and put his teammates in position to do so as well. The Giants gave up 183 plays of 10 yards or more last year, which tied for the fifth-worst total in the NFL.

"We need to make sure everyone is on the same page," Goff says. "That's something that I have to take on."

PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (NICKS)SHOW OF HANDS Nicks will be counted on to hold together New York's untested receiving corps now that two proven playmakers have left the team. PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (COUGHLIN) PHOTOCHRIS SZAGOLA/CAL SPORT MEDIA (GOFF)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)