Just in time, the Giants secondary started playing like it was always supposed to

Corey Webster. (nfl.com)
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Seven-eighths of the way through the regular season, the 2011 Giants were 7-7. They managed to squeak into the playoffs over the next two games, but did so with the ignominy of being the only team with a winning record to have scored fewer points than their opponents. They are the only Super Bowl team in history with that distinction, and their 9-7 record is tied with two other teams for the worst of any Super Bowl participant.

Yet these Giants can’t rightly be called a “Cinderella” team. Talk to Giants fans, and they’re confident: They should win, they’re saying, which is distinct from the 2007 Super Bowl run, when Giants fans talked themselves into thinking their team could win. After all, what Cinderella team comes into the Super Bowl as nominal 3-point underdogs, the lowest point spread in 30 years?

Now, of course this speaks to how vulnerable this Patriots team is compared to past Super Bowl incarnations. And yes, it’s reflective of the state of the N.F.L., where that line about “getting hot at the right time” seems more and more true each year.

But more significant is this: During their current five-game winning streak, the Giants have resembled less a team making an out-of-nowhere run than one finally putting the pieces together that were there all along.

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Which brings us to the team’s defensive backfield.

Looked at one way, it’s a pretty impressive collection of big-name players in their prime, who together represent a heavy investment of draft picks and salary-cap space by the Giants’ general manager, Jerry Reese.

Safety Antrel Rolle was once the eighth overall pick in the draft, and came to the Giants via a big free-agent deal before the 2010 season. The other safety, Kenny Phillips, was a highly touted first-round pick by the Giants, and came into this season finally healthy after a serious knee surgery two years ago that limited him last year. Corey Webster has been a solidly above-average cornerback for several years now, and was given a contract to match by the Giants in 2008. The other corner, Aaron Ross, is shakier, but was once a first-round draft pick and was the Giants’ best corner during most of the 2007 Super Bowl season. He’s not great, but he’s no slouch.

Compared to the flotsam of undrafted free agents many teams were forced to trot out this year (the Patriots come to mind) the Giants’ defensive backfield is positively star-studded. Plus, the starters stayed almost injury-free for most of the season: Rolle, Webster, and Ross played in all 16 games, and Phillips played in 15. (This excludes a training-camp injury to Terrell Thomas, the team’s best corner in 2010, that caused him to miss the season.)

So the talent was there. But the results were not. The Giants finished 22nd in the league this year in yards allowed per passing attempt (7.5, compared to the league average of 7.2) and 28th in total passing yards allowed. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic, which takes game context and quality of opposition into account, the Giants were 21st in the league against the pass. This represented a severe drop-off from 2010, when the Giants were 12th in the league in yards allowed per attempt and 3rd in DVOA.

Some players were more culpable than others. Webster had an outstanding year, allowing quarterbacks who threw in his direction during the regular season a 71.6 rating, according to Pro Football Focus. Ross was much worse, allowing a 102.8 rating.

Of course, there were other factors behind the Giants poor pass defense. Injuries to the linebacking corps left inexperienced players patrolling the intermediate-middle zones of the field, where the Giants were most vulnerable. According to Pro Football Focus, opponents completed a staggering 60 percent of their throws on intermediate routes (both in the middle and along the sidelines).

Also, a series of injuries to several presumptive nickel cornerbacks left Rolle, a natural safety, manning that position, to poor results. Including playoff games, Rolle has allowed quarterbacks who have thrown in his direction a 103.4 rating.

Still, there seemed to be no good reason that a secondary with such respectable-sounding names kept getting torched by opposing offenses. Logically enough, given the disconnect between reputation and results for most of the season, fingers pointed at defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.

One play in particular looked at the time to be the defensive backfield’s final breakdown, one that would likely cost Fewell his job and perhaps Tom Coughlin his. You probably remember the play: It was late in the season in Dallas, where the Giants were in the process of turning in one of their worst defensive performances of the season in a game in which a loss meant elimination.

Dallas was up by four points with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, needing only a first down to practically seal a victory. Dallas receiver Miles Austin, being covered by Aaron Ross, got a quick four yards of separation a couple instants after the snap, setting up an easy pitch-and-catch. But quarterback Tony Romo somehow overthrew Austin, giving the Giants a reprieve. The Giants won the game and pretty much saved their season.

It would be poetic to say that the Giants took this stroke of luck and ran with it, but it wouldn’t be true. The next week, the defense, the secondary included, turned in one last stinker, this one in a home loss to lowly Washington.

But since then, the Giants’ secondary has gone from very bad to very good. In their past five games, they’ve given up 5.8 yards per passing attempt, which would have ranked second in the league for the entire season. (Of course, the recent stellar play of the secondary has coincided with a reinvigorated pass rush, spurred on by the return to action of Osi Umenyiora and a reinvigorated Justin Tuck.)

Ross in particular has improved during this stretch, allowing an average quarterback rating of 76.7 on balls thrown in his direction. Webster, fresh off an outstanding performance against San Francisco last Sunday, has maintained his excellence at 71.5.

On one hand, it’s a miraculous turnaround. But as such things go, it’s not that unexpected, and is one of the reasons why the Giants’ recent run seems less like a magic carpet ride than a regression to the mean.