The November Swoon is a myth. Eli Manning’s tired arm is an urban legend. Reports of the Giants’ death, as always, were greatly exaggerated.
The Giants proved on Sunday night that there is nothing wrong with them, except that there is rarely anything overwhelmingly right with them. They remain the sports world’s Above Average Champions, the team that wins not by being great at anything, but by being good at everything and terrible at nothing. They faced a Packers team that does one thing right, allowed them to do that one thing exactly one time, then beat them a dozen different ways, by the score of 38-10.
It was a triumph of constancy for a team in an illusory slump. The Giants had not won in a month. That month consisted of a loss to the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger was healthy, an ugly drubbing at the hands of the Bengals and their bye. Losses to the Steelers are part of life, even for the NFL’s aristocracy. Even Bill Belichick has not figured out how to win the bye. The Bengals are pretty good, though not good enough to justify the pounding they gave the Giants. The “slump” was really one awful game, at the hands of a surprising foe, an “any given Sunday” with an exaggerated magnitude because it occurred in November.
November is the imaginary month of dread for the Giants. They were 4-10 in November since 2009 entering Sunday night, and we start the clock in 2009 to avoid their 5-0 November in 2008 which does not fit the storyline. As trends go, it’s mighty meager, but the Giants force us to manufacture a little drama while they go about their business. They aren’t good at making midseason news, which is one reason that they always appear to pull out of perceived slumps, when in fact they are really just traipsing toward 10-6 by any available route. If the Giants actually reacted to one of these “swoons,” they might get themselves in trouble. Luckily, they know better.
That it is still November was as plain as the moustaches on player’s and coach’s faces on Sunday night. Many Packers and Giants took part in “Movember,” a facial-hair growing event to raise awareness of men’s health issues. Aaron Rodgers hoped to grow a moustache that looked like Sam Elliott’s. He looked more like George Harrison, except that the quiet Beatle would have had better pocket presence than Rodgers on Sunday night.
Eli Manning looked like he was trying to grow the moustache Sam Elliott had in junior high. It is not even clear that Manning was participating in Movember; he may have just substituted chocolate milk for Gatorade. What Manning clearly did not have, in addition to a full moustache, was a tired arm. Manning had gone more than a month without a touchdown pass. He had three on Sunday night, including the 200th of his career. If his arm was tired at all, he had a chance to rest it when the Giants sat on their lead for the entire second half. So much for the other manufactured controversy of the month.
The Giants don’t need big games from Manning to win when they are playing like they did on Sunday night, but they will take them. The Giants defense allowed one Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson bomb and then clamped down. Their run defense was never challenged, because the Packers have no running game. That gave the defense an easy task: Pretend that they are facing the pass-first Patriots in the Super Bowl.
The Giants’ defensive backs were their unsung heroes on Sunday night. Over and over again, Rodgers dropped to pass, saw no one open, lingered a bit, borrowed time, scrambled. Eventually, Mathias Kiwanuka (two sacks) or some other defender would arrive, but most of the Giants’ five sacks were caused by Corey Webster, Prince Amukamara, Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and the rest of a secondary that kept the best quarterback in the NFL from finding his go-to receivers. Running backs John Kuhn and Alex Green had more receptions than Nelson.
Meanwhile, the Giants rushed for 147 yards, 96 of them in the first half, before the game got goofy. Ahmad Bradshaw took a screen pass 59 yards in the first quarter, with Hakeem Nicks and Henry Hynoski blocking downfield to spring him. The Giants’ offensive line allowed just one sack. Manning did not have to tax that arm too often, because the Giants were pitching another team effort.
When the Giants are at the top of their game, like they were on Sunday night, they look like a team without a weakness. When they lose, they look like a team without a strength. That’s why it is so tempting to write them off during real or perceived slumps. There is no “the guy” except the unassuming Manning, no one obviously-failing unit to point a finger at. The Packers come away from a loss like Sunday night’s knowing that they need Clay Matthews back and that they need to keep flailing away at the running game. The Giants just come up a little short in their losses, a lot short in the Bengals loss. It’s homogenized, and it would be maddening if it weren’t so often successful.
November will soon end, and the Giants’ imaginary droop will have amounted to little. They face no serious challengers in their division. They have beaten the 49ers and Packers convincingly in the regular season this year, and they also beat both of their likely conference challengers in last year’s playoffs. Their front four remains their great equalizer, their one unit that can be truly called “great.” Everything else hums along with the best kind of adequacy. The Giants, as usual, are good enough to win a Super Bowl, but no more.
The calendar is about to change. The Giants won’t change. They remain the best “good enough” team ever, and they proved on Sunday how great good enough can really be.