The New York Giants are the reigning Super Bowl champions, and no one can take that away from them. But this is the National Football League, where nothing matters but what you're doing right now, and with training camp approaching, all eyes turn towards a clean slate this fall as 2011 fades into memory.
The NFC East is as tough as ever, and Eli Manning can only cover up so many weaknesses. If the NFL has shown us anything over the past few years, it's that nothing is guaranteed, so here are five potential pitfalls as the G-Men try to climb the mountain again.
When I first read the Giants' 2012 schedule, I kept waiting for a breather: alright, this has to let up eventually. Except it never did, and New York will have to deal with what is on paper the toughest schedule in the NFL this season.
New York (and the entire NFC East) had the misfortune of drawing the AFC North, the toughest division in football, this season. That means squaring off with three playoff teams last year in the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. Combine that with games against New Orleans, San Francisco and Green Bay, and the Giants will face just about every Super Bowl contender outside of New England.
All told, the G-Men will play 11 teams that were .500 or better last year—and that doesn't even include a trip to face Cam Newton and the improved Carolina Panthers and two matchups with a Washington Redskins team that swept Big Blue in 2011.
Just take a look at the quarterbacks the Giants will have to try and stop this season: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Michael Vick and Tony Romo. Those are six of the top ten passing offenses in the league last year, bad news for a secondary that was near the bottom of the barrel in 2011 and has major question marks in Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara.
New York's schedule does them no favors, and it'll be critical for them to be able to shake off a tough loss one week—chances are, another great team will be up next.
Just typing out their name makes me cringe a little bit. Ever since I was a little kid, they've represented pure evil, and I can't believe I'm about to speak positively about them, but it has to be said that the Eagles will pose a serious threat the the Giants in the NFC East this year.
The offense had to deal with injuries to several key players, and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo struggled to make the most of all of the new additions on the "Dream Team" defense. But with a full offseason for the first time in the Michael Vick era and a downright silly amount of talent, Philly is primed to knock New York off its perch.
The departure of Asante Samuel may actually have been addition by subtraction for the Eagles, allowing Nnamdi Asomugha to move from safety back to his natural position of cornerback. Castillo can now simplify things on defense and let Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie do what they do best—use their big, rangy frames to lock people up in man coverage on the outside.
The Eagles certainly don't lack for firepower on offense, the only question is can Andy Reid finally realize how to best use it.
If LeSean McCoy gets a consistent workload and Vick cuts down on his turnovers (and the two are definitely connected), this team has a chance to realize its potential and make a whole lot of noise.
In 2007, the Giants rode the game's best offensive line to a shocking Super Bowl win. What a difference five years makes.
That beloved core is a thing of the past, with all but Chris Snee and David Diehl having moved on. David Baas was arguably the worst center in the league last year, and 2011 draft pick James Brewer hasn't been able to even earn consistent playing time yet.
Jerry Reese took Auburn tackle Brandon Mosley in the fourth round this year, but he's expected to join the growing cast of multi-year projects the Giants have stocked up at tackle over the past few years.
New York relied on a heroic performance from reserve Kevin Boothe in the postseason, but that can't be a recipe for success this year.
New York was dead last in the NFL in yards per carry and total rushing yards last season, and that puts a heck of a burden on the right arm of Eli Manning.
The NFC Championship Game against San Francisco showed just what a lack of a running game will do. Eli's head is probably still ringing from some of the shots he took, as the Giants' tackles looked slow trying to stay in front of Aldon Smith and company. The G-Men will face some great pass rushes this season, and without a shred of consistency on the ground, Manning will be running for his life.
New York will need Eli to be the engine offensively, and he can't do that on his back or with defenses selling out to defend the pass.
It sounds crazy to say, but just a year after Eli Manning took the postseason by storm, there are some serious question marks surrounding New York's playmakers in 2012.
Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham are gone to San Francisco, and while neither of them lived up to expectations last season, they're each a lot more valuable than the stat sheet suggests.
Super Mario came up small for much of 2011, but his presence was still key to this team. He provides another weapon to account for on the outside, allowing Victor Cruz to shift in to the slot where he does his best damage.
Rueben Randle will be counted on to play that role and stretch defenses enough to open seams for Cruz to work in. And while initial reports have been positive, he's still a rookie who played in a primitive offense at LSU last season.
I don't think anyone's comfortable relying on Ramses Barden or Domenik Hixon, and with the health of Hakeem Nicks up in the air (despite encouraging news regarding his broken foot), all of a sudden, it's a very muddled picture at wideout for the Giants—especially for a team that will need to win games with their weapons on the outside.
With Jacobs gone, that leaves Ahmad Bradshaw as the only proven workhorse in the Giants backfield. True, Eli's arm will be much more critical to New York's success, but they need to at least have defenses thinking about the ground game. Bradshaw's health and durability have always been an issue, and again the G-Men will be relying on a rookie—explosive Virginia Tech product David Wilson—to fill the void.
It's no secret that New York will go as far as their offense takes them, and hoping that two rookies develop and the injury bug stays away isn't the safest way to go.
If the weapons don't emerge, this team could be in trouble.
Injuries can derail a season before it even begins (just ask the Bears), and already the Giants have health concerns at critical positions heading into 2012.
Hakeem Nicks broke his foot in a late May workout, and his recovery will be monitored by a very nervous tri-state area. With the departure of Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham (and the injury concerns surrounding Ahmad Bradshaw), all of a sudden the Giants have a lot of unknowns at the skill positions.
Nicks is expected to be the rock in the middle of it all, the consistent presence for Eli Manning to go to. He's expected to be ready by September, but if there are any complications in his recovery, the Giants season could nosedive in a hurry.
On the other side of the ball, injuries have left New York's secondary wide open and full of question marks. Five cornerbacks landed on injured reserve in 2011, and that must change for the Giants to succeed this year.
Terrell Thomas was recently cleared for training camp after tearing his ACL last year, but it remains to be see how effective he can be coming back from that injury at a position that requires sudden and unpredictable cuts. Both he and Prince Amukamara—who never looked comfortable after coming back mid-season from a broken foot—need to enter the season healthy to fill the void opposite Corey Webster and allow Antrel Rolle to move from slot corner back to his natural position of safety.
New York's success this season will live and die by the pass and their ability to defend it, and both of those things are up in the air thanks to the injury bug. If everything progresses as it has been and the Giants stay healthy, they have a chance to be as explosive as ever. If not, things could spiral out of control in a hurry.