Where Can the New York Giants Improve Most in 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJune 19, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Quarterback  Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants talks with head coach Tom Coughlin during the second half against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 25, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Giants defeated the Eagles 29-16.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The New York Giants are the NFL’s ultimate Super Bowl-or-bust team.

No, this does not mean the 2013 season comes with such demanding expectations, but the Giants are a team that tends to go on Super Bowl runs that were not expected heading into the season.

In the 13 seasons since 2000, the Giants have been to three Super Bowls (2-1 record), went one-and-done in the playoffs four times and missed the playoffs entirely six times.

Of the last 12 times the Giants made the playoffs, which goes back to the 1986 season, they reached five Super Bowls and went one-and-done six times. The only different result was in 1993 when they beat Minnesota in a Wild Card Game before losing big to the 49ers in the Divisional Playoffs.

If they can qualify for the tournament and get past the first game, the Giants make their playoff runs go the distance.

As for the upcoming 10th season in the Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era, by now we have a good idea of how this one will go.

The Giants have started 5-2 or better in each of the last nine seasons, which ties the 1975-83 Dallas Cowboys for the NFL record. Things always start well with the Giants earning respect as a NFC threat, but it comes down to finishing.

Twice the Giants have put it together late for two incredible championship runs, but the reality is they have also fallen apart and missed the playoffs in three of the last four years.

It’s never about the start but always the finish for this team, which likes to attempt to dig itself out of adverse situations. With an NFC East lacking powerhouses, this season presents another opportunity to impress with another title run.

Giants Have It All, When They Want It

Last season’s 9-7 finish for the defending champion Giants was a tough one, as they showed so much potential to be an elite team.

They annihilated the 49ers 26-3 in San Francisco. Coach Jim Harbaugh is 15-3-1 at home, but two of the losses have been to the Giants.

The Giants embarrassed the ultra-competitive Packers 38-10 in prime time in Week 12. The 28-point loss was the biggest margin of defeat in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ career.

The Giants scored 52 points against the Saints in another one of their four wins by at least 25 points.

Yet there was no postseason, as the Giants suffered blowout losses to the Bengals (31-13), Falcons (34-0) and Ravens (33-14). A year after leading seven fourth-quarter comebacks, Manning had three in 2012. He had fewer opportunities with the losses getting out of hand so quickly late in the season.

However, Manning is 55-5 (.917) as a starter when the Giants allow fewer than 20 points. Two of those losses came last season against the division: a 19-17 heartbreaker against Philadelphia and a tough 17-16 loss in Washington.

At 8-5, the Giants’ season basically fell apart when they were outscored 67-14 by the Falcons and Ravens. Both of those games were on the road at two of the toughest places to win. They were also against the regular-season champion (Atlanta) and eventual Super Bowl champion (Baltimore).

It's a tough task for anyone to come out with a win or two, but when the Giants are on their game, they can beat anyone. Their no-show effort in those games was very disheartening.

The Giants have arguably the best formula for success out of all teams in the NFL today. Their method has been proven to work for two different title runs, but the problem is the team rarely sustains it for a long period of time like the elite teams who win 12-14 games can.

Manning is a dependable quarterback with 135 consecutive starts. He can make all the throws, but even after nine years, he will still miss easy ones he can make and fall victim to some head-scratching decisions. His consistency and accuracy cannot match his brother, but he is very much a gamer who can stretch the field and carry a team when the chips are down.

Manning’s 24 fourth-quarter comeback wins are the most in NFL history by a quarterback through nine seasons.

At best, a quarter of the league has a team with a quarterback capable of going on a three- or four-game hot streak against playoff competition. That’s what you need to win a Super Bowl, and that’s what Manning has already done twice with some brilliant plays along the way.

Part of his durability comes from getting rid of the ball quickly, which helps his offensive line look better. The Giants usually field a good offensive line, giving them balance with a productive running game.

No matter if it was Tiki Barber or the duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants usually get results on the ground—it's not a one-dimensional attack.

The receivers are always very good as well, whether it was a vertical threat like Plaxico Burress, a slot guy like Steve Smith, a big-play receiver in Victor Cruz or an all-around receiver like Hakeem Nicks.

Cruz just recently signed his tender for $2.87 million, so he should be ready to go this season. Still, it would be nice to have him happily locked up to a long-term deal.

Defensively, the Giants have continued to build the advantage of running a 4-3 with a lot of talent along the defensive line. By getting pressure with only having to rush four, that gives the Giants favorable advantages with the back seven defenders covering five receivers.

This allows the Giants to have success without having any real stud linebacker or player in the secondary. You get a good pass rush, and there is no problem with having Corey Webster as a top cornerback.

We have seen the Giants hold down the two highest-scoring teams in history (2007 Patriots and 2011 Packers) to an average of 17 points in the playoffs.

Rarely has the defense had great stats in the regular season, but no other team has recently run the 4-3 to such success against elite offenses in big games like the Giants.

Quarterbacks are getting too good at identifying blitzes and spreading the field to attack to rely on sending extra rushers to create pressure. As long as the Giants have a premier edge-rusher like Jason Pierre-Paul along with good depth, they will have the right matchup for pass-happy offenses.

Pierre-Paul’s surprise back surgery this offseason is a concern, but he should return to the field early this season. This is why it helps to have depth like veteran Mathias Kiwanuka, who can play defensive end should Pierre-Paul miss games.

The Giants never wow anyone with elite statistics because they continue to have too many bad performances over the course of a 16-game season.

There are no real flaws in how the team is built or plays—outside of the invisible “on/off switch” it seems to manage during the season. It’s just that more often than not in the last nine years, someone forgets to turn it back on after December.

How do you solve that after a decade? It does not seem like Coughlin has figured it out yet, but when he gets the full effort out of his team, then it is as tough as any to beat.

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

With a few noteworthy changes to the roster, here is a depth chart of potential starters (credit to Ourlads):

Perhaps the most notable change comes at running back. Ahmad Bradshaw is gone, and David Wilson was the first-round pick last season, but he only carried the ball 71 times. He did show some talent with four scores and an average of 5.0 yards per carry. He did impress on special teams by leading the league with 1,533 kick return yards.

You would expect Wilson to get most of the carries now, but Andre Brown was also impressive last season.

Justin Pugh was this year’s first-round pick and should have a great opportunity to take over the right tackle job right away.

The wide receivers are still going to rely on Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, both likely exceeding 1,000 yards, though expectations are rising on second-year receiver Rueben Randle. He was a second-round pick in 2012 and caught 19 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns last season.

With Domenik Hixon gone, Randle should be contributing more this year.

Tight end Martellus Bennett, who had a career-best 626 receiving yards last year left to Chicago, but in comes Brandon Myers from Oakland. Even if it included a lot of garbage-time stats, he caught 79 passes for 806 yards last year.

Myers is the prototypical Giants tight end, which means he’s another big white guy Manning will have no problem throwing to a la Kevin Boss and Jake Ballard.

This is still a defense that will be led by the defensive ends in Justin Tuck and Pierre-Paul. They are crucial to this unit having success. The Giants even found a potential steal in the draft with Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore slipping to the third round.

The Giants also signed free-agent Cullen Jenkins to replace defensive tackle Chris Canty. Jenkins did not live up to expectations in Philadelphia the last two years but is a veteran. Should he not be up to the job, the Giants do have Shaun Rogers, Marvin Austin and second-round rookie Johnathan Hankins on the current roster.

Chase Blackburn and Michael Boley are gone, so the linebackers have gone through changes. Dan Connor should compete for the starting middle linebacker spot. He was a standout at Penn State but has battled injuries in a five-year NFL career with Carolina (2008-11) and Dallas (2012).

Jacquian Williams was a sixth-round pick by the Giants in 2011, but he only has five career starts. Mathias Kiwanuka can play linebacker too but will likely play along the defensive line.

Former No. 4 overall pick Aaron Curry is also on the roster, though he has had a difficult time earning his keep in the NFL.

The secondary remains intact, with Stevie Brown coming out of nowhere last season to intercept eight passes and return them for 307 yards.

Cornerback Prince Amukamara has missed 12 games since being the team’s first-round pick in 2011, so it would be beneficial to see if he can last a full season.

Lawrence Tynes is no longer the kicker. Currently, the Giants have 34-year-old Josh Brown and David Buehler on the roster. Brown has a much better track record.

With Pierre-Paul’s status in question, uncertainty at linebacker and the search for consistency from the secondary, this looks like another season where the offense will have to carry the defense.

However, Coughlin is one of the league’s best coaches. He turns 67 in August and is all about winning now. If you have a franchise quarterback and a few elite playmakers on both sides of the ball, then you are competing at the top level in this league.

The Giants still have that.

Conclusion: Still a Contender, But Can They Finish?

Going for a new record with a 10th-straight start of 5-2 or better could prove to be difficult with the season beginning in Dallas in prime time followed by the third Manning Bowl. Eli has yet to outscore his brother Peyton in the NFL.

The opener in Dallas should be especially important, since the Cowboys do present strong competition in the tightly contested NFC East.

A mind-numbing stat from last year: Eli Manning led three fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in his first four appearances at new Cowboys Stadium. Tony Romo also had three in his first 23 starts there.

Getting that early head-to-head win could set the tone for the division race. After the Manning Bowl, things should ease up for the Giants, which makes it likely they will be sitting pretty at the midway point of the season once again.

The bye week comes in Week 9. That’s when we will see if the high level of play can sustain itself or improve in the second half of the season.

The Giants will host Green Bay and Dallas in consecutive weeks in November. That’s followed by a crucial trip to Washington, which was essentially the Week 13 game last season that cost them the division. The Giants will host Washington in the Week 17 finale in what could be another game that decides the NFC East.

A 10-6 finish is very possible for this team, which could be all that is needed to win the division and get a home playoff game.

Though for the Giants, they have to time it right so that they enter the playoffs on a good note. Otherwise, we have not seen this team advance yet under Coughlin. All of the playoff success came in 2007 and 2011.

When the Giants play their best, they can beat any team in any stadium. It’s just a matter of finishing.

With Super Bowl XLVIII being played in their home stadium, the Giants have an opportunity to make more improbable history this season.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.