Super Bowl champion Giants lacking respect

From oddsmakers to experts, people aren’t giving the New York

Giants the respect a Super Bowl champion deserves.

Eli Manning and Co. sneaked into the playoffs last year and then

played their best football in January and February. For the second

time in five years, they beat the favored New England Patriots to

claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

With nearly all their starters on defense returning and the core

on offense back, the Giants have a legitimate chance to repeat. At

least, they should be considered the team to beat in the NFC.

Apparently, that’s not the case.

In Las Vegas, 10 teams are listed ahead of the Giants in the

Super Bowl odds. The Giants opened at 16-1 and have dropped to 22-1

at the Bovada Sportsbook.

Then there’s the AP Pro32 NFL power rankings. The Giants were

No. 3 behind the Green Bay Packers and the Patriots in the

first-ever poll released July 31.

So, who do opponents think is the best team in the NFC? Even

teammates disagree.

”It was a coin flip whether the Giants even got into the

playoffs,” Philadelphia Eagles guard Evan Mathis said. ”They

played very well, obviously, and they deserved it, but Green Bay,

with their experience, should be the team to beat.”

The Giants went 9-7 last year and split with the Eagles, losing

at home with Vince Young starting in place of Michael Vick. Had one

play gone differently in any of Philadelphia’s close defeats, the

Eagles (8-8) would’ve won the division.

Meanwhile, the Packers steamrolled to a 15-1 record and seemed

on their way to winning their second straight Super Bowl before

losing to the Giants in their first playoff game.

”The Giants are the Super Bowl champs, so they’re the team to

beat,” Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. ”Each year, each

team, it’s a new season. But the Giants hold the reign.”

Maybe until Week 1.

”We know we’ve got to improve,” Manning said. ”We were 9-7

last year in the regular season. That’s not good enough. We were a

better team than that. Obviously we showed that throughout the

playoffs. We’ve got to have that urgency, that consistency,

throughout the whole season, and play our best football for the 16

regular-season games. That’s what we’re going to work on and just

keep grinding, staying hungry to get better and to make sure we can

have another successful year this year.”

The Packers might not place as much emphasis on the regular

season after last year’s debacle.

”We went through a great regular season, winning 15 games and

doing a lot of things that hadn’t happened here in Green Bay

before, and got knocked out in the first round,” NFL MVP Aaron

Rodgers said. ”It makes you realize the only thing that matters is

winning championships, and you have to win some playoff games to

get there.”

There are other serious challengers in the NFC besides the

Giants and Packers.

The Eagles are looking to bounce back after failing to live up

to enormous expectations last year. If Vick can stay healthy, the

offense should be dynamic with All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy

and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. An improved

defense will be the key to Philadelphia’s success.

The North might be the toughest division in the conference. The

Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions will make it difficult for the

Packers to cruise to another division title.

In the South, the New Orleans Saints have plenty of talent, but

must overcome a turbulent, bounty-plagued offseason. The Atlanta

Falcons are trying to get over the hump in the playoffs after

failing three times in the last four years.

And the West is no walkover anymore. The San Francisco 49ers

were perhaps a fumble in overtime away from going to the Super

Bowl.

NFC EAST

The Giants have an elite quarterback, a strong defense led by

All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul, and a Hall-of-Fame caliber coach in Tom

Coughlin. But they’ve never won a playoff game the season after

winning a Super Bowl. And, they’ll have a hard time just getting

out of a tough East.

The Eagles are determined to prove last year was an aberration,

and expect to build off a season-ending four-game winning streak.

Players rallied around coach Andy Reid after his 29-year-old son,

Garrett, died during training camp. They have an explosive offense,

but need a revamped defense to do its part.

In Dallas, the window could be closing on Tony Romo and the

Cowboys. They lost four of five down the stretch last season to

finish 8-8 and have won just one playoff game in 15 years. Dallas

beefed up its defense in the offseason, giving second-year

coordinator Rob Ryan more talent to work with. Romo and coach Jason

Garrett have been together a long time, and the offense could be

dangerous.

There’s plenty of reason for optimism in Washington because the

Redskins finally have their franchise quarterback in Robert Griffin

III. With RG3 leading the way and a defense that made huge strides

last year, the Redskins have a chance to win more than six games

for the first time under coach Mike Shanahan.

NFC NORTH

The Packers had little roster turnover and were nearly

invincible last year until running into the Giants. Rodgers and the

league’s No. 1 offense have a new weapon in running back Cedric

Benson. But the worst-ranked defense needs to improve to make

things easier. The Packers invested their first six draft picks on

defense, so that should help a bit.

Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are reunited in Chicago,

bolstering an offense that was potent until injuries hit last

season. Keeping Cutler healthy is a top priority. On defense, the

Bears have some aging stars. Still, they could give Green Bay a run

for the title.

The Lions learned to win last year, going 10-6 and making the

playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. They return

almost all of their starters and have continuity on the coaching

staff. QB Matthew Stafford, whose chief target is All-Pro WR Calvin

Johnson, could be even better if the offense finds balance. All

that means Detroit probably wasn’t a one-year flash.

It’s clearly a rebuilding year in Minnesota. The Vikings won

three games last year, and their best player, running back Adrian

Peterson, is coming back from major knee surgery.

NFC SOUTH

The Saints lost coach Sean Payton to a suspension, but they

still have record-breaking QB Drew Brees. The bounty scandal made

for a tumultuous offseason, and the Saints are eager to just play

football. Bringing in Steve Spagnuolo to run the defense could

prove to be the biggest move of the offseason.

It’s obvious Matt Ryan and Mike Smith can win in the regular

season. But the quarterback and the coach haven’t shown it in the

playoffs. Ryan needs to ramp up his game. Two new coordinators

could help Smith make all the right moves.

Cam Newton’s sensational rookie season has everyone eager to see

more of Carolina. Newton is a special player who makes the offense

a threat each time it has the ball. If the defense plays better,

the Panthers could be a surprise team.

Greg Schiano makes the transition from college to the pros in

Tampa Bay. He’s got a tough task trying to turn around a 4-12 team.

A difficult early schedule doesn’t help. Finishing .500 would be a

remarkable step forward.

NFC WEST

Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh led a team with an often-maligned

quarterback that hadn’t reached the playoffs in eight years to the

doorstep of the Super Bowl. A stout defense returns all its

starters, and Randy Moss is back in the league after a year off to

upgrade an offense that once boasted some of the greatest players

in history. Alex Smith finally has deep threats with the addition

of Moss and Mario Manningham, but the 49ers still rely on Frank

Gore and the run game.

The Cardinals spent much of the preseason trying to figure out

whether Kevin Kolb or John Skelton should be the starting QB. It

doesn’t bode well that neither ran away with the job. Whoever is

under center needs to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, and maybe

CB-KR Patrick Peterson can provide more of his return magic.

Rookie QB Russell Wilson beat out Matt Flynn for the starting

job in Seattle. Neither will be throwing passes to Terrell Owens,

but the new Seahawks QB can only upgrade an offense that ranked

28th despite featuring RB Marshawn Lynch. An already solid defense

could be dominant with the addition of eight skilled rookies, and

might get coach Pete Carroll a winning season.

Jeff Fisher has his work cut out for him in St. Louis. The Rams

cleaned house after a 2-14 season. Fisher was one of the most

successful coaches in the NFL with the Oilers/Titans. Count on the

Rams to be a physical team that beats up some opponents, even if it

doesn’t beat them on the scoreboard.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

NFC EAST

1) New York Giants

2) Philadelphia

3) Dallas

4) Washington

NFC NORTH

1) Green Bay

2) Chicago

3) Detroit

4) Minnesota

NFC SOUTH

1) New Orleans

2) Atlanta

3) Carolina

4) Tampa Bay

NFC WEST

1) San Francisco

2) Arizona

3) Seattle

4) St. Louis

Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobMaaddi

Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and

http://twitter.com/AP-NFL