New York Giants GM Jerry Reese will have a lot of explaining to do if he can't get this team to the playoffs next season.
Contending may be hard to imagine coming off yet another disappointing season finishing 7-9, but this team is in a prime position to be relevant again. All they need to do is fix some glaring issues, such as the offensive line and quarterback play, and the task isn't as daunting as most would think.
The one bright spot during the season was the Giants' defense. Despite the offense having 10 more turnovers than the next-highest team and the third-most punts in the league, the defense finished eighth in total yards allowed.
That's astounding considering how often the offense put them on the field. The defense finished tied for fourth in yards per rush attempt and fourth in yards per pass attempt allowed. They are the only team to finish in the top five in both categories in the entire NFL.
Prince Amukamara finally started playing like a first-round pick, Cullen Jenkins and Linval Joseph were formidable on the interior of the defense line, John Beason brought credibility to the linebacking corps, Will Hill and Antrel Rolle became one of the top safety duos and Justin Tuck resurrected himself. As long as this group remains mostly intact with a few upgrades (outside linebacker, cornerback depth, healthy Pierre-Paul), they should be formidable again next season.
Now on the other side of the ball lies all the issues, but those issues can be corrected rather quickly.
The NFL is a league that goes through trends, and it appears that the league is becoming more centered around the running game again. In each of the past two seasons, seven of the top-10 teams in rushing attempts were playoff teams. In 2011, that number was just five.
This season, 10 of the 12 playoff teams averaged at least four yards per rush during the regular season. Four of those 10 teams failed to average four yards per rush the year before. That gives the Giants and their 3.5 yards per rush this season hope going into next season.
Remember, they did go from 3.5 yards per rush to 4.6 yards per rush between 2011 and 2012. It isn't an impossible task. A good running game is a quarterback's best friend, and Eli Manning needs all the friends he can get. His 27 picks and 103 passes defended showed how unreliable he can be when forced to carry the load consistently. Of course, in order for the running game to improve, the offensive line needs some changes, but most of you have known that for some time now.
The Giants also struggled in pass protection, allowing 40 sacks and relentless pressure in Eli Manning's face. Looking at other teams can give the Giants hope for a quick improvement in this area as well. San Diego, Chicago and Indianapolis all decreased their sack totals by at least nine from the year before.
All three of those teams also increased their rushing totals by at least 0.3 yards per rush. Cincinnati cut their sack total in half from 46 to 23 from last season to this year. If the Giants focus on upgrading the offensive line, this unit can become a strength next year.
Seven of the 12 playoff teams finished in the top half in passing yards per game during the regular season, but nine of those 12 teams averaged at least seven yards per pass attempt. That shows that you don't have to throw the ball a lot, but you have to be efficient when you do.
Eli Manning's yards per attempt dipped to 6.8 this season, but with a career average of 7.05, you'd expect him to return to that level. Eli has a track record of following a horrible season with an excellent one. In his previous two seasons with 20 or more interceptions, he only threw 10 and 16 picks the next year, respectively. Expect the passing attack to return to respectability next year.
With a formidable defense, a sound running game and solid quarterback play, the Giants could be a team to be reckoned with come January 2015. They already have one of those things in place, and fortunately the other things can be fixed in one offseason. Now it's up to general manager Jerry Reese and Eli Manning to fix those issues.
All statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com.