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Giants may be closer to a playoff run, even with Eli Manning at QB

Ralph Vacchiano | Facebook | Twitter | Archive

The revisionist history from the Giants is that they were never in a win-now mode, even though almost every move they made in the offseason seemed to indicate they were. Regardless, it obviously didn’t work. They badly overestimated the talent on their roster.

The Giants simply weren’t capable of winning now.

But maybe now they are.

Not now — as in this season, even with the playoffs still within mathematical reach. Those chances were lost months ago in their 1-7 start. But out of the ashes, the Giants have won four of their last five, and it’s starting to look like they’ve found a winning formula. And just maybe their recent surge and offensive revival behind Saquon Barkley and Eli Manning proves they’re closer than almost anybody thought they really were.

“Years are connected,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said after Sunday’s 40-16 win at Washington. “And I think that’s what we’re trying to do.”

That is why Shurmur kept his foot on the gas, even when the future could’ve been served better by higher draft position. His belief has been that if he could re-teach his players how to win and establish a positive culture even at the end of this mess of a season, it could carry over into 2019. And if it did, he believed the Giants would still have enough talent to win.

That’s a slippery slope to be sure — judging a team and its future based on how they performed at the end of a lost season with all the pressure off. But it’s still hard to deny the things they see with their own eyes. What the Giants have done since the bye week — going 4-1 and averaging 31.4 points per game — clearly works.

And there may be no reason at all that it won’t work next season too, even — and maybe especially — if Manning returns.

The key has been Barkley. Shurmur admitted he refocused his offense around the stellar rookie running back, and the results have been outstanding. He’s rushed for 605 yards in five games on 6.2 yards per carry, and he has 738 total yards and six total touchdowns. He’s also topped 100 rushing yards in four straight games.

But Barkley hasn’t exactly done it alone.

“It all goes hand in hand,” Shurmur said. “You just can’t put Joe Schmo in at quarterback and think you’re going to win games. You’ve got to have a guy that can play the position.”

And Manning, just when it seemed the fan base and maybe the organization was ready to move on from him, proved he could still play the position, especially when he has sufficient blocking up front. With Barkley mesmerizing defenses, Manning has completed 66.4 percent of his passes over the last five weeks for 1,083 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Of course, none of it would have happened if the offensive line hadn’t improved the way it seemed to do as soon as the Giants claimed right guard Jamon Brown off waivers from the Rams. But now with Barkley not getting constantly pounded behind the line of scrimmage and Manning not constantly running for his life, the young runner and the aging quarterback seem to make quite a team.

“The best friend of a quarterback is really the running back, because he can take some pressure off of him,” Shurmur said. “But the running back can’t do it unless you block for him, so it’s all connected. That’s what we’re seeing. I think from an offensive standpoint we’re seeing a much better connection, that’s the way I would phrase it, since the bye — blocking, running, throwing, scoring points.”

It is what they’re seeing, and it’s what they envisioned during the offseason. It’s part of why they drafted Barkley second overall, to try and make one more run under Manning, rather than draft Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen so they could develop Manning’s heir. They believed, as Shurmur famously said, that Manning had “years” left as a top quarterback, and with only two years remaining on his contract they decided to go for it now.

Now, Manning has just one year left on his deal and he’ll turn 38 in less than a month. But his heir is still not on the Giants’ roster, and there’s no guarantee they’ll find him in the NFL draft. So why not load up on offensive linemen and pass rushers in the offseason and try to make that one last run?

They might, if they believe that this recent surge isn’t a mirage. They’ll have a better idea over the final three games, each one against a playoff contender. But if they think the Manning-Barkley tandem can be a formidable weapon, especially with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr., they’ll use their limited salary cap freedom and a likely top-15 draft pick to see if they can plug enough holes to make that run at the playoffs they thought they’d make this year.

Because this season has shown the Giants, even after a hideous start, aren’t far away from being playoff-caliber when 8-8 or 9-7 is all that it takes. Their history proves anything can happen if they can just somehow squeak in. The Giants also have learned the hard way that these opportunities don’t come around often, and it could be a while before the next one if they start over with a rookie quarterback.

So why not let Manning and Barkley team up for one more shot in 2019 before moving on to the unknown future? Maybe the first eight games was just about them figuring out how to do it.

Now that they have, it could be fun to see what they’re really able to do.

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