AS HE sat on the steps of a cold gym on a hot day in Albany, N.Y., Mathias Kiwanuka was in a reflective mood. It was early August, a week into the linebacker's seventh training camp with the Giants. Kiwanuka, 29, would rank among the longest-tenured players on most NFL teams, but on the Giants he is still a relative newcomer. Seven of Kiwanuka's teammates, all of them key contributors like him, have been with New York longer: linebacker Chase Blackburn, right tackle David Diehl, quarterback Eli Manning, right guard Chris Snee, defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, and cornerback Corey Webster.
If you want to understand the Giants' ability to succeed despite extended stretches of injury and erratic play—since 2005 they have won more games (68) than any other NFC team, and in 2011 they overcame a 7--7 start to win six straight, including the Super Bowl—you should start with the organization's stability. "It goes all the way back to guys like Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey: the guys who were here when I first got here who showed us as young players how things work," says Kiwanuka. "A younger guy who walks in is going to benefit from the history we have of long-term players who are always going to compete every day, no matter what."
The Giants' coach, Tom Coughlin, and general manager, Jerry Reese, also have long tenures—Coughlin since 2004, Reese since 1994 (he became G.M. in 2007)—and both prefer a steady approach to a tumultuous game. "We know there are peaks and valleys in every season," says Reese. "We try to stay in the middle, stay levelheaded about what we do, try to make the best football decisions."
Reese is often chastised on draft day for failing to address so-called "areas of need," but that strategy would contradict his team's philosophy. "We try to draft the best player—it doesn't matter what position," he says. So, even with Umenyiora and Tuck on the roster, Reese selected Kiwanuka, in 2006, and Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 16½ sacks last season at age 22, in 2010. He now has arguably the best group of pass rushers in the league.
Reese picked Prince Amukamara in the first round in 2011, even though he seemed to have plenty of cornerbacks, and now Amukamara is poised to step in for injured starter Terrell Thomas (torn right ACL). And Virginia Tech running back David Wilson was the Giants' first-rounder this year, even though the team had Ahmad Bradshaw and holes at linebacker and on the offensive line.
The running game could use a boost—it ranked last in the NFL last season, in part because Bradshaw was hampered by a fractured right foot, now healed—and Wilson could provide it. He has impressed everyone on the team, including himself, with his speed and power in practice. "Sometimes I watch film, and I'm like, How'd I do that?" Wilson says. Both Coughlin and Reese say they would like the offense to be more balanced, but both know that achieving the ideal mix is difficult. ("Fifty-three guys: That's really not a lot," Reese likes to say.) The Giants will be NFC East contenders because they are able to maximize what they do best—throwing the ball and rushing the passer—and minimize what they do not, and they do that by putting the most talented players they can get into a stable environment that allows them to remain unflustered even when things go wrong.
"I'm kind of on the side that whatever's going well, you keep doing it, and if that means throw it every down of the game, or run it every down, so be it," says Manning, the Giants' steadiest player. The quarterback had his best year yet in 2011, throwing for 4,933 yards, the sixth-most alltime. He was at his best in crunch time—15 of his 29 touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter—but his bearing, observes Kiwanuka, was the same as it has always been.
For all the Giants' experience and adaptability, one development could derail them: the loss of Manning. "If it happens, David Carr's our backup, and we'd expect him to go in there and win games," says Reese. Then he knocks on his wooden desk. "We don't like to talk about having injuries to Eli."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 8
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 9--7
5 Dallas (Wed)
16 Tampa Bay
20 at Carolina (Thu)
30 at Philadelphia
14 at San Francisco
28 at Dallas
11 at Cincinnati
25 Green Bay
3 at Washington (Mon)
9 New Orleans
16 at Atlanta
23 at Baltimore
AT 6'6" and a lean 265 pounds, Bennett's build stands out on an NFL field—and so does his demeanor. He is affable, imaginative and goofy, and he likes to talk about ways to live more happily and the nicknames he's given himself. One such moniker seems likely to catch on for the 25-year-old, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal in March: the Black Unicorn. "That's probably the best one ever," he says. "The unicorn is kind of mysterious. It's elegant, but it's also powerful. It's pretty awesome." Bennett, a second-round pick by Dallas in '08 who had 85 receptions for 846 yards in his four seasons with the Cowboys, was less than awesome. That's largely because Bennett spent all his time in Dallas as a second option to Jason Witten. "I was the guy who was there just in case something happened to Witten," he says. "I played a lot, but it wasn't in a role in which I'd be catching 60 balls." Giants G.M. Jerry Reese has admired Bennett since he was at Texas A&M and says, "We just think he has a lot of potential that he hasn't been able to display yet." As the likely starter at tight end, he'll get that chance, and he seems poised to become something considerably less rare than a unicorn: a bargain free-agent find by Reese.
Passing attempts of longer than 20 yards by Eli Manning in 2011, 20 more than the next quarterback in the deep-ball rankings.
Percentage of drop-backs on which Eli Manning was pressured but avoided being sacked, the best escape rate in the league (minimum: 100 pressures).
League-high number of plays on which Giants linemen allowed such pressure, 15 more than any other team.
GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS (CRUZ)
Victor Cruz set a team record for receiving yards in 2011, and he'll get plenty more looks this year.
PHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP (BENNETT)