- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008

The New York Giants of last season, it’s said, just got hot at the right time and won a title. This season, they’ve been hot just about all the time.

These Giants, who enter Sunday’s game with the Washington Redskins with an NFC-best 10-1 record, are better than the team that won three road playoff games and upset the unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

The offense rocketed from 16th last season to fifth this year and from 14th in scoring to first. A defense that ranked 17th in scoring last season now is tied for fifth - an impressive leap considering the loss the pass rush took this summer with six time All-Pro Michael Strahan’s retirement and fellow defensive end Osi Umenyiora’s season-ending knee injury.

Coach Tom Coughlin doesn’t want to reflect on how far his team has come. He said he doesn’t “do the comparison thing.”

Eli Manning, on the other hand, does.

“I think we found our style of playing football,” the fifth-year quarterback said. “We’ve been a team that’s been streaky. At times, we would play great, but we would also have bad games. We just found that we’ve got to be consistent.”

No one more so than Manning, who last December blossomed into the quarterback the Giants hoped for when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2004.

Manning passed for 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions in the eight-game stretch that ended with him earning the Super Bowl MVP trophy - a much different quarterback than the one who tossed a combined six interceptions and two touchdown passes in consecutive games at about this time last season.

He has maintained his refined play this season with 18 touchdowns passes and seven interceptions. His passer rating reflects his improved consistency. Manning posted ratings between 73.9 and 77.0 during each of his first three full years as a starter but now ranks eighth in the league at 91.6.

“Through the experience of the playoffs and the Super Bowl, any player that has had that kind of success would naturally gain confidence from that, and that’s exactly what he’s done,” Coughlin said. “[Eli has] handled our offense and managed our team in a way that has given us a chance to win no matter what the role in that particular day was.”

That was apparent in Week 12 against the Arizona Cardinals.

Top running back Brandon Jacobs was a game-day scratch because of a knee injury, forcing the Giants to rely more than usual on the pass. Then, ace receiver Plaxico Burress aggravated a hamstring and exited after one series.

Manning responded with a stellar performance. He completed 26 of 33 passes for 240 yards for three touchdowns and posted a 127.3 passer rating in the Giants’ 37-29 win.

Manning’s performance mirrored that of the pass rush. Despite losing Strahan and Umenyiora, New York’s defense slipped only from first to fourth in sacks per pass.

Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka has surpassed his career high with 6.5 sacks, and tackle Fred Robbins has matched his with 5.5. With a team-leading 9.5 sacks, end Justin Tuck is half a sack from his best.

On the other side of the trenches, the offensive line has allowed only 13 sacks and opened big holes for Jacobs and productive backups Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward.

Bradshaw, new No. 1 receiver Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss all emerged in the playoffs last season.

The Giants can assure themselves of a return trip to the playoffs with a victory over the Redskins, but that won’t generate much excitement for a team that for 10 months has become accustomed to being the NFL’s best.

The Giants still could make history with a strong performance down the stretch of the regular season. None of the previous 41 Super Bowl champions won 15 games the next season, a mark within reach for the Giants.

Considering that all five of the Giants’ remaining foes - the Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings - hold a winning record, a sweep to the finish seems unlikely.

But such possibilities are tempered by memories of the rocky road that took the Giants to a title last season: an 0-2 start, two losses in the final three regular-season games, three straight road games in the playoffs.

“Just one of [our goals] is making the playoffs,” Tuck said. “I don’t think guys are going to start thinking they are better than what they are because we know what we had to go through last year as far as the playoff run … and it isn’t going to be any different this year - just hopefully we get a lot of home games instead of having to travel.”

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