Sure, the New York Giants offense has slightly curtailed its turnover rate during the last few weeks, and rediscovering balance with the return of Andre Brown has helped, too, but the Giants wouldn't be alive right now and on a three-game winning streak if not for the surprisingly strong play they've received from the defense.
The Giants have surrendered just 34 total points during their three-game streak, which is impressive in its own right. But the defense itself has been responsible for only 13 of those 34 points. Three of the four touchdowns this team has given up since Week 7 have come on either offense (a Manning pick-six) or special teams (a blocked punt recovered in the end zone and a punt-return score).
Thus, without taking the strength of its opponents into account, this is the hottest defense in the league.
|Points per game allowed on defense, last three games|
|1. New York Giants||4.3||3-0|
|2. Carolina Panthers||10.7||3-0|
|3. San Francisco 49ers||12.3||2-1|
|4. Seattle Seahawks||14.3||3-0|
|Pro Football Reference|
Has luck (finally) been on the Giants' side? Absolutely.
Against Minnesota in Week 7, the Vikings started Josh Freeman at quarterback despite the fact Freeman, who was struggling mightily in the first place, had only been on the roster two weeks. He and the offense were completely ineffective.
All three of those teams had losing records at the time. Their average offensive ranking is 17th in terms of yardage and 18th in terms of points allowed. All have a turnover total that ranks above the league median.
So the schedule has helped. After dealing with strong offenses from Denver, Carolina, Kansas City and Chicago early, they've been able to feast on mediocre offenses with messy quarterback situations since.
And that might again be the case Sunday when they draw the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers at home. Playing primarily without Rodgers the last two weeks, Green Bay has averaged just 16.5 points per game.
Still, when you go from being crazy bad to crazy good as quickly as this, it can't only be about the competition.
|Giants defense, 2013|
|PPG (rank)||YPG (rank)||Sacks/gm||Opp. record||Opp. PPG|
|First 6 gms||34.9 (32nd)||391.3 (27th)||0.8||38-18||8th|
|Last 3 gms||11.3 (2nd)||206.3 (1st)||3.0||10-18||18th|
|Pro Football Reference|
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell certainly deserves credit. It's not as though this unit has been rocked by injuries, but when you consider that its top weapon, Jason Pierre-Paul, has been far from 100 percent due to back problems and that they ranked 31st in the league in total defense with a healthy JPP last season, this turnaround has been pretty phenomenal.
Pierre-Paul or not, it's not surprising that the recent defensive surge has been led by the defensive front. Based on grades assigned by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the four best defensive players on the roster are defensive linemen Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph, Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins, in that order.
Give credit to general manager Jerry Reese, too, because bringing in Patterson and Jenkins now looks brilliant, while keeping the aging Tuck around despite the fact he had been struggling was also the right move.
The bread and butter for the Giants defense has for years been the pass rush. When it's been clicking, they've been successful. When it hasn't, not so much.
Manning was Superman during those two Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011, but you'd be foolish to believe that this team would have come close to winning either of those championships without Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and—in the second case—Pierre-Paul wreaking havoc.
After recording only six sacks during the first seven weeks of the season, the Giants have recorded eight of them in the last two games. Five have come from the line, but three have come from the secondary. They're getting a little more creative, especially with Antrel Role and Terrell Thomas, and it's paying off. Those two have three sacks and four pressures on 26 blitzes this season,
|Giants pass rush, 2012-2013|
|Previous 22 games||1.7||15.2||8-14|
|Last three games||3.0||23.6||3-0|
|Pro Football Reference/Focus|
The idea, it seems, is to become less reliant on Pierre-Paul, who has already stated he doesn't expect to be back to full strength until 2014 and might miss Sunday's game against Green Bay due to a shoulder injury.
After averaging only 16.1 pressures per game during the first six weeks, New York has increased that total to 23.6 during the last three, but Pierre-Paul has accounted for only 13 percent of that heat. Last year, he was responsible for 23 percent of Big Blue's pressure.
Again, though, Philly and Oakland have subpar offensive lines when it comes to pass blocking, at least according to PFF's efficiency grades in that area. Barkley and Pryor are both young and vulnerable and lack smoothness under pressure.
That's why I'm certain the current pace isn't sustainable. They've clearly made some real progress, and that D should do more good than harm the rest of the way, but this isn't a unit that can keep carrying Manning and the offense on a consistent basis, especially with San Diego, Seattle and Detroit scheduled for the home stretch.
If you include a pair of matchups with the Redskins, six of the final seven teams New York faces rank in the top nine in the league in terms of points per game. On average, they'll be facing the NFL's eighth-ranked offense from here on out.
It's not as though this D doesn't have its moments, even in down years. Last season, it had six sacks and three picks while holding the eventual NFC champion San Francisco 49ers to a mere three points in October, and they held the Pittsburgh Steelers to only 182 total yards in a November meeting. But that wasn't enough to make them good. To be good, you've gotta do it consistently.
Thomas, Rolle and Will Hill have played extremely good football, and the resultant confidence boost alone could be a game-changer for a much-maligned group.
But don't expect it to be enough for this miracle comeback attempt to continue when the schedule toughens up, especially if Manning and Co. can't offer more support.
Mathias Kiwanuka believes things will change for Manning. He believes he'll eventually don the necessary cape.
I have no doubt in my mind he's going to get it turned around and start putting up the numbers that we're used to seeing. ... But until that happens, we have to be able to take it upon ourselves as a defense and say, "You know what, he's carried our butts when we weren't getting it done for a number of games, a number of seasons even, so we have to make sure we can do the same for him while he's going through it."
That's the right attitude, and it's certainly possible. Hell, when you consider the odds this team defied in '07 and '11, anything's possible. We're just not holding our breath.