Kiwanuka, Giants need to win out

There are two season openers for the New York Giants.

The official one was played Sept. 5 against the Dallas Cowboys.

The real one takes place Sunday against the host Baltimore Ravens in the FOX America’s Game of the Week (4:25 p.m. ET).

New York’s first 14 contests? The Giants (8-6) won just enough to remain in the playoff hunt but not enough to clinch a postseason berth as three other NFC clubs have already.

To join them, New York will probably have to win its remaining games against the Ravens (9-5) and Dec. 30 against visiting Philadelphia (4-10). Doing so would guarantee at least a wild-card berth, as Washington (8-6) or Dallas (8-6) would capture the NFC East by winning out.

New York faced similar desperation in two of the past five Decembers. The 2007 and 2011 Giants responded by ultimately winning Super Bowl titles.

For a member of both those squads, a championship is the only thing that can justify New York’s erratic performance through much of the 2012 campaign.

“If we end up getting another ring and hoist the trophy in the air, I could look back and say, ‘Yeah, we had to make it hard on ourselves,’” Giants outside linebacker/defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka told in a telephone interview.

“We all know this is not where we want to be. We know that we react well under pressure and that it’s a good quality to have. But we don’t want to keep putting ourselves in this situation.”

A rollercoaster past four weeks encapsulate why New York is in these straits. The Giants thrashed the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers and New Orleans by a 90-37 margin. They also lost to the Redskins and were pounded, 34-0, on the road last Sunday by Atlanta.

Kiwanuka was so disgusted Sunday that he told the media afterward: “That’s not Giants football. That is embarrassing not just to us, but to whoever wore a Giants decal on their hat or shirt or anything like that.”

Kiwanuka told that his anger has since subsided.

“Yeah, we’ve put it behind us,” Kiwanuka said after Wednesday’s practice. “It was tough. After the game, that was the feeling and emotion you’ve got. But life goes on. We’ve still a got playoff run we can make.”

Kiwanuka said news that the Giants still control their own playoff destiny has provided a morale boost. The fact New York has been there/done that before in December helps as well.

“There are guys here who have been through those high-intensity stressful situations, so we know how this team is going to react,” said Kiwanuka, who joined the Giants in 2006 as a first-round draft choice. “We can draw on that personally, because it’s fresh on our mind.

“That’s part of our frustration, too. We have high expectations as a team and ourselves and want to be able to reach them.”

The Ravens find themselves in a more advantageous position than New York, having clinched a playoff berth last Sunday despite suffering a third straight loss, against Denver. Baltimore also could fall to the Giants and still capture the AFC North by winning at Cincinnati (8-6) in Week 17. But the Ravens want to get back on the winning track Sunday to ensure a first-round home playoff game and avoid the possibility of having to travel as a wild card.

That means Baltimore’s offense has to rebound from a lousy showing against the Broncos. Ravens coach John Harbaugh stressed this week that his team must do a better job in the running game. Ray Rice was held to 38 yards on 12 carries by Denver.

“One thing that stands out about them is their physicality,” Kiwanuka said of the Ravens. “That matches up with our type of game, too. We love throwback NFL games where it’s, ‘May the stronger, smarter team survive.’”

Although they haven’t produced as many sacks as last season, the Giants may still be able to take advantage of a Ravens offensive line that has struggled lately to protect quarterback Joe Flacco. One of the players to watch is Kiwanuka, who handles multiple roles as a standup strong-side linebacker and backup end with pass-rush skills. Kiwanuka has 26 tackles, three sacks and five quarterback hurries in 2012.

“It tests your mental strength and physical ability,” Kiwanuka said of his dual responsibilities. “I look at it as a challenge. As long as I keep rising up to meet my expectations, I’m happy with it.”

More joy for Kiwanuka would come if the Giants could duplicate their past December success.

“We’re not in the situation we want because of what happened last week, but everything is still right in front of us,” he said. “We just have to take it.”