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Giants still far away from contending despite second-half turnaround

Ralph Vacchiano | Facebook | Twitter | Archive

The Indianapolis Colts are a legitimately good team that might finish this season with 10 wins and a berth in the playoffs. And the Giants, as awful as they’ve been all year, took them to the wire. They were one drive — maybe one pass — away from winning this game.

Instead they lost 28-27, leaving them with nothing but a moral victory. And while it was another sign that they’ve improved since their miserable first half of the season, they’re still 4-3 since their 1-7 start.

To the Giants, that’s encouraging at least, even if they haven’t exactly found a way yet to dig out of their organizational hole.

“We are going through adversity, but once we get this thing figured out, I believe we’re going to get this thing rolling,” super-rookie Saquon Barkley told reporters in the postgame locker room in Indianapolis on Sunday. “We’re going to be playing at a high level and we’re going to look back and laugh at years like this.”

Maybe. But when? How soon can that happen? When they were 1-7 they looked like they were years away and staring at a massive rebuilding project. Has their 3-3 stretch and nice efforts like the one they gave on Sunday — without Odell Beckham Jr., by the way — an indication they’re closer than at times they appear?

“We’re super-close,” receiver Sterling Shepard told reporters. “We’re there.”

As nice as it is to say, it doesn’t ring true. What the Giants are close to is mediocrity, not true contention. Now, mediocrity can be enough these days in an NFL where 9-7 isn’t out of reach for anyone and that’s often enough to get to the playoffs, where anything can happen. But the Giants don’t want to be a team that just sneaks into the postseason and hopes for a miracle.

They really wanted and expected to be a Super Bowl contender again in the short term. They really believed they were capable of taking a legitimate shot at another title before the end of quarterback Eli Manning‘s career.

Sunday’s game against the Colts, as positive as they may take it, was really a sign of why they still have a ways to go to make that happen. They are still missing many of the ingredients shared by most championship teams.

Nowhere is that more evident than on defense, which has made a habit of melting own late in games all season long. They were certainly strained by the struggling offense at times this season, but almost always when the Giants needed one stop to win a game or to have a chance to win a game, the defense miserably failed.

That was the case again against the Colts, where Manning was outstanding (25 of 33, 309 yards) right up until his final pass — an ill-advised deep shot, 30 yards over the middle toward Bennie Fowler that was picked off. Shepard (6 catches, 113 yards) and Evan Engram (6-87) were terrific too.

But there wasn’t a lot of room to run for Barkley (21 carries, 43 yards), showing once again that the offensive line still needs a major upgrade. And maybe more importantly, the Giants’ defense yielded touchdowns on three of the Colts’ four drives in the second half. On the go-ahead drive — 53 yards in 3:43 for a touchdown with 55 seconds remaining — it was like they were barely there.

Yes, they were missing linebacker Alec Ogletree, who has been one of their best players lately, and safety Landon Collins. But the key players in what passes for their pass rush were all there, doing their usual job of not getting to the quarterback. If they can’t generate a pass rush, they won’t have a strong defense, and they know that most championship teams need that.

So it’s nice that the Giants are on a 3-3 stretch and playing hard, and that they took a playoff team to the brink despite being undermanned. But they can’t fool themselves into thinking they’re “super close”. This stretch hasn’t been a mirage. They are playing better football. But they are still playing it with a flawed team.

Surely, Giants GM Dave Gettleman knows that. He can see that his team has improved, but still needs some major offseason improvement. They do have some ingredients that will help them towards their goal of short-term contention. But right now, with the team they have, all they really are is close to mediocrity and a .500-type season.

Their goal should be to do better than that. Assuming it is, they’re still not really all that close at all.

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