And yet, the Redskins beat the Giants twice last season and so we are now having this discussion. The topic is: are the Redskins really close to being a better team that the Giants? The super bowl champion Giants?
Let me say this: they will not be better within the next year. But the Giants still do not represent the pinnacle of the NFC, and I think playing tough against them for a second straight year would represent a reasonable goal for the Redskins next season.
For plenty of the season, the Giants were merely getting by with a sporadic Jason Pierre-Paul defensive play, and a breakout season by Victor Cruz that happened to coincide with regression in Eli Manning's interception rate. On one hand, the contribution of those three players is more than the Redskins got. On the other hand, a championship football tem they alone would not make.
The Giants got it together in time for the playoffs, but reports of an offensive improvement or clutchness shown by the younger Manning in the postseason were greatly exaggerated. The Giants offense produced one average performance at home against a dangerous Falcons team, an excellent performance against an awful Green Bay defense, and then two really not-so-good performances in winning efforts on the road at San Francisco and in the super bowl against New England.
So what changed for the Giants down the stretch? They found their defense. Ranked 26th in total defense over the course of the regular season, and just 20th in Defensive DVOA after ranking 3rd a year ago, the Giants were destroyed on the defensive side of the ball in the preseason, and didn't really get the contribution from their rookie class that propelled their 2007 run. In fact, though the Giants D might have been a bit underrated by total defense, there were some really unimpressive defensive units that rated higher than the Giants this year: the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks, the Miami Dolphins, the Detroit Lions, and the entire NFC East division. Yes, by at least one objective measure of defensive effieciency, the unit that put the Giants over the top in the postseason ranked lowest in the NFC East over the course of the season.
A good comparable for this Giants team was actually the 2006 Colts, led by the other Manning. Now that was a team that modeled itself much like the Redskins did (pay your stars in the offseason, we'll find depth come training camp), except that they had Peyton Manning leading the charge as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, which was a bit of a difference. That Colts defense (run defense in particular) was awful during the regular season. And yet in the playoffs, they held the top-ranked Ravens out of the end zone, nearly shut the Patriots out in a half to facilitate a comeback, took Larry Johnson totally out of the game, and then forced Rex Grossman into multiple sloppy turnovers in Super Bowl 41, paving Manning's path to the Lombardi Trophy.
Eli Manning certainly deserves a lot of credit for his persistance this year, as the Giants would have been long dead and buried in November without his right arm to keep them in close games against teams like the Dolphins, and Pierre-Paul might deserve the team MVP award for making a one-man effort to keep the Giants relevant with the season on the line, and it also helped that they picked a year when the NFC East was so down to go on a four game losing streak and then win the super bowl anyway.
But something I wrote before the Redskins played the Giants in December while the Giants and Cowboys were struggling through a must-win game in Dallas is that it was simply hard to see the Redskins as a markedly worse team than the Giants. I mean sure, the Giants had previously run off six wins in a row against the Redskins and had made them look bad at times. But that gap had already closed. And that was before I picked the Redskins to go into the Meadowlands and knock off a struggling Giants team.
The Redskins don't have an Eli Manning. They don't have a Jason Pierre-Paul or even an Osi Umenyiora. But they definately have Justin Tuck in Ryan Kerrigan, and Brian Orakpo is certainly no slouch. And it's not like the Giants have London Fletcher either - the closest thing they have to him is Michael Boley. Kenny Phillips, as good as he is, sure isn't better than a healthy LaRon Landry and may not be much better than the one with the lame achilies. O.J. Atogwe was a free agent bust. Next to Antrel Rolle, he looks like money well spent. Josh Wilson is underrated much like Corey Webster is underrated as a cover corner. Terrell Thomas got hurt and spent the year on IR following a steller 2010 season. But the Redskins had Philip Buchanon. Aaron Ross, meet DeAngelo Hall.
Right now, the biggest difference between the Redskins and the Giants is in the passing game, although that's theoretically a gap the Redskins could close this offseason. They would ultimately be closing it at the expense of something else: the Redskins could trade up for Robert Griffin III (presume the compensation set in the Eli Manning deal), draft a receiver with their second round pick, and sign another receiving target in free agency. But the Giants have a draft as well, and that hypothetical would pretty much exhaust the Redskins resources to get better through organic methods.
So yeah, even in the best case scenario, the Redskins would be looking more along the lines of trying to establish being a tough out for the Giants and Cowboys again, rather than passing them in the divison. Fourth place is still a more likely finish for the 2012 Redskins than the other three spots combined. But the gap between the Giants and the Redskins that was so prominant in the Zorn years has mostly closed here in the Shanahan years. The Redskins defense is good enough to give Eli Manning and Tony Romo fits (its still working on Vick). The Redskins offense is really starting to challenge those defense.
For one last year, the gap between the Redskins and Eagles is likely to grow, and the Eagles project (by my methodology at least) to win the NFC East in 2012 by a fairly substancial margin, perhaps two or three games. But the Giants are the super bowl champs. And if the Redskins close the gap on them and beat up on a fourth place schedule that includes the Bucs and Vikings, then sure, a wild card next year won't be out of the question no matter what the Redskins do in the offseason, and no matter who their quarterback is. It's highly unlikely, and would require at least ten years, but you never know: Philadelphia could end up sweeping the Giants and Cowboys, and putting the Redskins in the thick of the wild card race late.
And the 2011 Giants proved that it really doesn't matter if you're an underachieving team who drops games regularly to inferior opponents. If you're healthy (and more importantly have the talent) to begin with when the playoffs roll around, your quarterback doesn't need to lead you to multiple victories in the playoffs. Eli Manning wasn't a better quarterback this postseason than he was in the regular season. He had a stinker in the NFC Championship game. The best thing you can say about that performance is that he competed like a Champion, and didn't turn the ball over in 60 dropbacks.
The talent isn't there just yet, but it should be there after the offseason. There's a lot of if's there: you could be looking at a situation where Landry, Fred Davis, and London Fletcher all walk. But that's completely within the Redskins control. They have the resources to draft themselves to be a good team, sooner rather than later. That is also in their control.
Last year, the discussion about the Redskins centered around 5-7 wins, and "hey, the Cowboys are kind of a circus" and "well, the Giants are going to have their depth tested" and "ha! The Eagles think they can by a Championship! That never works!" Well, this year, you can expect the Redskins to be more relevant. 8 wins relevant? Whoa, let's not go that far.
But I can say that if the Redskins are fortunate enough to get out to another 2-0 start and lead at halftime in the third game, there will be far more reason to believe they can sustain that start for another 27 halves of football than there was with a 2011 team that built it's hopes on the swagger of Rex Grossman and the confidence of John Beck.