Eli Manning and the New York Giants didn't end last season the way they expected to. What was thought to be a team destined for the playoffs ended up underachieving and coming up short in the race for a playoff spot.
With that in the rear view mirror, it can be hard to look ahead and say that this coming season will be much different.
However, the fact of the matter is that the Giants have one of the most talented rosters in all of football. They have few glaring weaknesses and they've retained their talent from last year.
Mathias Kiawanuka, their versatile defensive end-linebacker hybrid who was dogged by a neck injury last year, will be back to prove why he was a first-round pick. Before losing his season to injury in Week Three, Kiawanuka had already racked up 4.0 sacks. Having him back will bolster an already fearsome pass rush.
Elsewhere along the defensive front, the Giants have Jason Pierre-Paul coming in with another year of experience under his belt.
Pierre-Paul, one of the most physically gifted athletes in the NFL, only began playing the sport of football in 2006 as a senior in high school. After a 2010 season that saw him register 30 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, in 2011 he will be taking the field a year older and a year wiser.
Kiawanuka and Pierre-Paul represent only a small part of what is, as a unit, one of the best defenses in football. The defense ranked eighth in rush yards allowed and ninth in pass yards allowed; it was a strength last year and it will be a strength this year.
The defense was also lucky enough not to lose coordinator Perry Fewell to one of the many head coaching job opportunities around the NFL this offseason. The defense took a step backwards when the team lost Steve Spagnuolo to the St. Louis Rams after the 2008 season and a similar situation would have occurred had Fewell left for greener pastures.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Giants retained the rights of Ahmad Bradshaw, their most productive, reliable and consistent ball carrier.
Although he was plagued by a chronic fumbling problem, I am confident that Tom Coughlin will address that issue; he was able to cure Tiki Barber of his fumblitis and he will do the same with Bradshaw.
While the Giants got a full season out of Bradshaw, the same cannot be said about much of the receiving corps.
Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Ramses Barden, Domenik Hixon and Victor Cruz all missed time due to injury last year. The lack of experience at the wide receiver position late in the season due to injury did the Giants no favors and could be to blame for many of Eli Manning's interceptions.
While every team deals with injury, this unit was hit particularly hard; in the end it was too much to overcome. 2011 should see the wide receivers come in at full strength and, when healthy, the Giants sport one of the deepest set of pass catchers in the league.
When predicting that a team will win their division, it's important to also take a look at the teams they will be going up against for the title.
In Dallas, the Cowboys will be bringing back Tony Romo from a shoulder injury and starting their first full season with Jason Garrett as the head coach. Romo still has to prove that he is 100 percent healed from the shoulder injury and Garrett has to prove that he is ready to be more than an interim NFL head coach.
In Philadelphia, the Giants will encounter their biggest roadblock on the way to winning the division. Mike Vick and his electric receiving corps took down the Giants twice last year and New York needs to prove that they can hang with their neighbors to the south.
Both of the Giants' losses to the Eagles were of the hard luck variety and, had the ball bounced differently a few times, the Giants could have won one or both of the games. While that may seem to be a poor excuse, it's no secret that the Giants shot themselves in the foot on more than one occasion with boneheaded plays last season.
Tom Coughlin will not stand for those types of mental mistakes to happen for two seasons in row. Plays like Matt Dodge not kicking the ball out of bounds and Eli Manning sliding headfirst and fumbling must be eliminated, and Coughlin is just the man to do it.
There hasn't been a back-to-back champion in the NFC East since the Eagles managed to win the crown in 2003 and 2004, and I don't think the Eagles will repeat the feat this year.
Look for the New York Giants to lock up the 2011 NFC East crown as Eli Manning returns to the playoffs to avenge the failures of the last two seasons.
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