The NFL’s Most Fascinating Team
By Martin Rogers
Pete Carroll remembers the sneers and the jibes and the simmering resentment, the direct criticism that his team didn’t belong in the postseason and the implied unwelcome of calls for the National Football League to change its playoff regulations to avoid such an outcome.
Back in 2010, three years before they won a Super Bowl, Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks set football sensibilities on their head by daring to reach the playoffs with a losing record, finishing atop the NFC West with a 7-9 record sufficient to win a tiebreaker against the St. Louis Rams.
“It was an unusual experience and we took a lot of disparaging comments,” Carroll told reporters this week. “Which just added to the fun of beating the world champs in the opening game.’’
Carroll’s Seahawks went on to sink the New Orleans Saints in the wildcard round, remembered in NFL Lore as the “Beast Quake” game. The experience has given him a rather distinct perspective on the oddity of this year’s NFC East plotline, one he is running directly into this weekend.
The New York Giants, who will travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks on Sunday at 4:05 p.m. ET on FOX, can be looked at in two ways.
As a 4-7 team without its starting quarterback and star running back that has somehow stumbled its way to the top of an historically dire division. Or, in a season that rewards such things more than any other, the architect of a surprising bounce back from an 0-5 start, a regrouping that has been a triumph of resiliency, adaptability, survival – and most of all, intelligence.
“They are a fascinating team,” three-time Super Bowl champion and FOX Sports NFL analyst Mark Schlereth told me in a telephone conversation. “After Week 4, I told people, they are going to win the division.
“Their key is they are really good at not asking guys to do what they can’t do. They are the masters of mitigating their weaknesses and the first step in that is admitting you have weaknesses. They understand where they are not good. Once you do that, you attack where you can in the right spots.”
Some still bristle at the possibility that the NFC East could produce a champion with a record as poor as 5-11, which would clinch a home playoff game while others with a positive ledger may miss out. Carroll, whose team is 8-3 but by no means guaranteed to top the NFC West, has no problem with it.
“All I would say is whoever comes out of that division and is a division champ, whoever plays them had better look out,” Carroll said. “There’s a lot going on that side of it and what you want to prove and how you want to go about it. (In 2010), in that opportunity -- our guys played great football.”
The rules are the rules and while rewarding losing teams is not to everyone’s taste, one saving grace is that at least there is still a genuine struggle for the NFC East title, unlike the NFC North (effectively over), AFC North (soon to be over) and AFC West (almost mathematically over).
The Giants are on a mini-roll of three victories and know no way other than to battle it out in nail-bitingly close games. This season they have lost by one, two, three and four points, and won by one, two and three.
Their defense is not blessed with a glut of talent but is ruthlessly physical and relies heavily on complex disguises that avoid unfavorable man-to-man matchups. With the ball, they have committed to the run even with Saquon Barkley and Devonta Freeman out injured, while Daniel Jones – doubtful with a hamstring injury this week (Colt McCoy should deputize) – has exhibited what Schlereth described as “exponential growth.”
Head coach Joe Judge has beaten a steady tune in insisting this year is about growth and not the postseason, but he may soon have to change his tack. New York is beginning to get excited about the Giants, and with five games left they are in a stronger position than Washington, the injury-riddled Dallas Cowboys, or the how-completely-can-we-fall-apart Philadelphia Eagles.
FiveThirtyEight rates the Giants the 26th best team in the NFL, but puts their chances of winning the division at 38 percent, well clear of second-best Washington on 29 percent. FOX Bet lists the Giants at +210 to win the NFC East, followed by Washington at +220, Philadelphia at +235, and Dallas at a distant +500.
“I don't like the use the word momentum, but they have got something going for them,” former NFL offensive lineman and FOX Sports NFL analyst Geoff Schwartz said when speaking about the Giants. “I feel like all the NFC East teams should have optimism, because they all can see a clear path to a home playoff game. Win three out of five and you're going to be in.”
Some teams this season have suffered from over-confidence. The Giants have put themselves in position by accepting their shortcomings and working around them. They’re not a great team, but they are a long way removed from being a lost cause.
And, as a unique situation provides an unlikely opportunity, they are the only protagonist in a poor division that is moving towards the light.