The New York Giants are no longer in control of their playoff destiny, but they can still make the postseason. The Giants need to win next week against the Philadelphia Eagles and hope that both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears lose their games next week in order to get in.
Still, the Giants can only worry about doing what they can to make the playoffs. While any player has a chance to have a huge impact on the outcome, there are five players in particular who really control the team's playoff hopes.
And here are those five players that control the team's destiny.
Jason Pierre-Paul had a monstrous season last year, putting up 16.5 sacks and cementing his status as one of the most feared pass-rushers in football.
This season? Not so much.
For whatever reason, Pierre-Paul has just not had the same success as he did last year. Through 15 games, he has only 6.5 sacks and has decreased his production in just about every statistical category that is important for a defensive end.
Why is this? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, Pierre-Paul, after his breakout season, has become the focal point for opposing offensive lineman. Opposing teams will now shift a tight end or a running back to his side to ensure he doesn't wreck havoc on the quarterback.
Still great pass-rushers should be able to overcome this obstacle. The great ones adapt and develop new counter-moves. For example, instead of a straight speed rush, they might try a spin, etc.
Of course, part of this falls on the defensive coordinator. If Perry Fewell sees that Pierre-Paul is struggling, it is up to him to develop new schemes to put him in position to be successful.
Whatever the reason for his struggles, it is abundantly clear that the Giants need Pierre-Paul to step his game up.
The main reason for the Giants' two Super Bowl rings in recent years has been an incredibly explosive pass rush. In 2007, this was led by Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck. Last season, it was Pierre-Paul. In order for the Giants to get back on track, Pierre-Paul must find a way to get to the quarterback.
This doesn't mean just sacks, either. Sacks are great, but equally as important are quarterback pressures. Anytime a quarterback is flustered or anytime a quarterback is pushed out of the pocket, the chances for mistakes go up. This has long been key to the Giants success and it's been missing for most of the year.
Pierre-Paul has to find the mojo that made him nearly unstoppable last season. Whether it's incorporating new schemes or simply finding an extra gear, the Giants will struggle to make the playoffs without Pierre-Paul.
And even if they do make it to the postseason, an ineffective Pierre-Paul will lead to a hasty exit for Big Blue.
David Wilson hasn't had a smooth rookie season. After being put in the doghouse for most of the season after a fumble on one of his first NFL carries, Wilson broke out in a big way in Week 14 against the Saints.
Wilson set a team record for the most all-purpose yards in a single game with 327, including 100 yards rushing, two touchdowns on the ground and a 97-yard kickoff return for a score.
Not bad for the first-round pick with the explosive speed. It propelled the Giants to a huge win.
Now, more than ever, the Giants need those kind of performances from Wilson. While he doesn't need to move mountains every game, adding the explosive element—both on the ground and through kickoffs—will give the Giants a huge boost.
Quite simply, the Giants are a better team when Wilson plays up to his capability. It's no coincidence that the Giants scored a season-high in points when Wilson played at his best. Wilson's success takes pressure of Ahmad Bradshaw, who won't be forced to carry the load. Plus, Wilson's skill in returning kicks gives the Giants great field position, making it easier for the offense to score points.
Wilson isn't a savior, but his skill set is necessary if the Giants want to not only make the playoffs, but go far in them.
Eli Manning is the captain that steers the Giants' ship; as he goes, so does the team.
Consider the following:
In an impressive win against the Packers in Week 12, Manning threw for 249 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also threw for an average of 8.3 yards per pass.
In Week 15 against the Falcons, Manning threw for only 161 yards, three interceptions and zero touchdowns in an embarrassing 34-0 loss. During this contest, he threw for an average of 6.4 yards per pass.
While it's not quite so simple, the overarching truth remains: when Eli Manning plays well, the Giants, by and large, win. When Eli Manning doesn't play well, the Giants, by and large, do not win.
So then, of course, it all comes down to how well Eli performs his during the stretch run. He has always seemed to play pretty well in the clutch, and his two Super Bowl MVPs serve as good evidence.
But he still needs to perform this season. He still needs to rally his team from behind, still needs to prove the doubters wrong and still needs to live up to those ungodly expectations that come from being a younger brother to NFL royalty.
If Manning can play like he's fully capable of doing, then the Giants should have no problem. This means getting the ball to Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, finding Martellus Bennett in the seam and not making some of the stupid mistakes that Manning can often make.
It's a matter of coming to work each day and performing, and we know that he's capable of doing that. We know he's capable of greatness, and for Eli and the Giants right now, it's all about consistency.
Kenny Phillips has had a rough year. Due to injury, he's played in only six games. He hasn't played more than four games in a row and, thus, hasn't been able to get in the groove of the season. Then he missed Sunday's game against Baltimore.
That is a shame because Phillips is the key to the defense. As the free safety, he acts as the last line of defense, and his ball-hawking nature helps him.
In addition, his presence allows the Giants to deploy their favored three-safety scheme. This helped them win a Super Bowl last year and without Phillips, they do not have the personnel to do it. The three-safety scheme allows a versatile defender to cover the increasingly athletic tight ends featured in today's game, and it also assists in run support without losing the safeties in the back half of the field.
As a result of his prolonged absence, the Giants haven't been able to use this scheme and have struggled as a result. Fortunately, all signs point to Phillips being healthy for the remainder of the season. If he is, then the Giants defense should improve.
The Giants defense has been wildly inconsistent. Some games they have given up as few as seven points, and in other games, they have given up 34. Getting Phillips back will give some stability to the defense and will help the Giants in their quest to make the playoffs.
Hakeem Nicks has been battling with injuries all year, and has not been his healthy, dominant self. In 11 games, he has only 692 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Because of the injuries, Nicks has had to change his playing style. As he told the Newark Star-Ledger:
"I tried to change my style up a little bit, to more of a possession receiver," Nicks said. "Just moving the ball and moving the chains, because I really ain’t got my explosiveness, the way I have had it in the past. That changed a little bit, me just trying to keep the ball, keep us on the field, be consistent in my routes and be there for (quarterback) Eli (Manning) when he does look my way."
The style change has limited his effectiveness, of course, but he doesn't have much choice. With the injuries, he isn't explosive and isn't able to make the big downfield playes that he's accustomed to. That has hurt the Giants offense, because they've long relied on him stretching the defense while Victor Cruz finds holes in the middle. With Nicks and Cruz now both utilizing the middle, it's a bit more crowded and the Giants can't move the ball as well as they did last season.
While it's not fair to assume that Nicks can resume his previous play, it is possible for Nicks to be as effective. It involves a bit of changing of the roles, where Cruz goes deep a bit more, and Nicks works the middle.
Nicks is so vitally important to the Giants. When at his best, he commands double-teams and constant attention. He hasn't had that all year, and because of injury, he hasn't been able to take advantage of it.
If Nicks can find a way to be effective across the middle, the Giants will see success, and, perhaps as a result, reach the playoffs. If not, then the Giants will find it hard to reach the second season.