3:11 pm Feb. 1, 2012
The fact that the 9-7 Giants are only three-point underdogs to the 13-3 Patriots, and the fact that around 85 percent of WFAN callers are predicting a double-digit Giants win, speaks to a generally accepted premise: The Giants team that started off this season 7-7 is a wholly different entity than the one that has since gone 5-0.
This is the N.F.L., after all, when the margin between mediocrity and greatness is razor-thin. Last year’s Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, made a late-season leap from one to the next. So did the last Giants Super Bowl team, in 2007.
Further evidence that such a transition is possible can be found in the person of Justin Tuck. Like the Giants, he was having an underachieving, disappointing season through the first 14 games. Since then, he has done like his team and started to play like he should.
Tuck battled neck and groin injuries for most of the season, which caused him to miss four games and play sparingly in another. By the 14-game mark, Tuck, in ten games, had amassed a meager three sacks and 14 quarterback pressures, according to game-charting stats of Pro Football Focus. That’s quite a fall-off from a guy who averaged nearly 10 sacks since emerging in 2007 as a third dominant rusher alongside Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, and who had 33 quarterback pressures last year.
But since then, Tuck’s turnaround has mirrored that of the Giants: Starting with a dominant effort against the Jets, in which he notched a sack, had six pressures, and batted two passes down, Tuck has 3.5 sacks and 14 pressures. Basically, Tuck has been slightly more productive over the past five games than he was in his previous ten.
He’ll have a chance of keeping it up on Sunday. Tuck, the left defensive end, will be matched up on many plays with a rookie fill-in at right tackle across from him, where the Patriots' Nate Solder is filling in for veteran Sebastian Vollmer. On passing downs, Tuck usually lines up at defensive tackle, but often loops outside as part of a choreographed rush.
Tuck’s metamorphosis has been somewhat overshadowed by the focus on the team’s two other defensive ends: Jason Pierre-Paul, the new, new thing who, like Tuck in 2007, has exploded into superstardom this year; and Osi Umenyiora, who returned to health in the regular season’s last game and has since notched an absurd 5.5 sacks and 11 pressures in four games. (Pierre-Paul has actually managed to pick up steam himself, with 3.5 sacks and 19 pressures during this span.)
But, in a healthy, productive Tuck, the Giants have basically added one of the best players at the league at his position. That’s a far cry from the player in mid-November who proclaimed, in response to a reporter’s question, “I do suck … I’m a very honest person.”
That episode of self-recrimination summed up Tuck’s mood for most of the season. He has always been the moral center of the Giants, with his naturally honest and thoughtful demeanor making him a favorite of reporters. As the season went on and the Giants defense showed no signs of any dramatic turnaround, Tuck was left to explain it all. At a certain point, he could explain no longer. He started moping through his Monday interviews with WFAN’s Mike Francesa, exacting, 20-minute sessions where his normal optimism seemed to have given out.
His gestures on the field told the same story: The camera would focus on him after a big gain by the opposing team. He’d be shown walking pigeon-toed, hands on his hips, his head down and shaking, as if to say, We know better than this.
He was right. And because of that, Mopey Tuck has been replaced by Charming Tuck. At media day yesterday, Tuck predicted “another one of those epic Super Bowls” on Sunday, just like the 17-14 Giants win over New England four years ago.
That game, famously, was Tuck’s finest hour. He had two sacks of Tom Brady, including one that forced a critical fumble to thwart a New England scoring drive. That was the best version of Tuck, the one which, after a frustrating season, has finally returned.
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- Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley