The Tom Coughlin mantra and the Victor Cruz breakout, packaged for posterity

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Tom Coughlin. (Photo via Giants.com)
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Because they’re documentaries, the N.F.L. Network’s “America’s Game” specials work better the further you go back in time.

It’s more illuminating to see the wizened faces of the 1966 Packers reflect on Vince Lombardi than it is to hear Eli Manning rehash familiar storylines from several months ago. Documentaries, particularly of the mythmaking N.F.L. Films variety, work best when they traffic in history, not the present.

Aside from a couple of anecdotes and behind-the-scenes shots, there’s not much new material in the 2011 Giants “America’s Game,” which premiered on the N.F.L. Network Tuesday night.

Still, most Giants fans will find it highly enjoyable. For fans of Super Bowl-winning teams, the ensuing “America’s Game” is one of the spoils.

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However legitimate the quibbles about the N.F.L. Films’ corniness and over-the-top quality, many of us fell for the N.F.L. largely because of the way it was packaged. For those among us, those stirring orchestral soundtracks, syncopated with the slow-mo images of balletic gallantry, never cease to have power.

While it’s strange to see guys who are playing tonight presented as legends of yore, in a way the documentary couldn’t come a moment too soon: It’s hard to win a Super Bowl (Vegas currently has the Giants as 22-1 shots) so it's best to safely encase the 2011 Giants in mythical bronze before the chaos and likely disappointment of 2012 intrudes.

THE DOCUMENTARY'S STORY ARC BEGINS AT TOM COUGHLIN'S mantra for the season: “Finish.” In an auditorium, presumably in training camp at the University at Albany, Coughlin is shown in grainy footage telling his team, “You’re gonna hear me say this a thousand times: Finish, finish, finish.”

Coughlin is never eloquent. He just tells his team what they should do, and then hammers it home bluntly and relentlessly.

To further illustrate his point, Coughlin showed a video of a female high school cross country runner who collapses in exhaustion just before the finish line.

With her legs having shut down, she wills herself across the finish line by crawling, thus preserving a victory for her team.

As Coughlin summarized, “She said to herself, ‘You have to finish. That’s the point.’”

As one of four “As told to by” narrators, along with Eli Manning, Justin Tuck, and Victor Cruz, Coughlin isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, but he’s engaging in his own way. It’s a side he showed more vividly in the 2007 “America’s Game,” and it’s a side he’s let the public see more often since that first Giants championship, during which time his reputation has morphed from a borderline sadistic psychopath into a gruff but ultimately good man.

Manning, too, is more comfortable and colorful in these things than he is with the media during the season, where his M.O. is to hew to a script of singsongy platitudes, politely filling reporters’ notebooks without really telling them anything.

But Cruz and Tuck are by far more engaging.

The Alabama-bred Tuck, a down-home wiseass, reveals that he slept with a He-Man sword as a kid. He also shares the story of his rough 2011 season, during which he lost his grandfather and two uncles, and sustained several injuries, including an alarming one to his neck that caused him to “lose that edge.”

In a tidbit that’s not news to die-hard Giants fans but would be to casual ones or fans of other teams, Tuck reveals a heart-to-heart with Tom Coughlin that shook him out of his self-pitying stupor.

“I thought he was somewhat depressed,” Coughlin says.

Tuck announces his newfound motivation before the regular season game against the Packers. In one of his many fiery and infectious pre-game speeches, he says, “I’m breaking out tonight, and you wanna know why? ‘Cuz I done let you down all year. And all that bullshit about, ‘Tuck hurt,’ ‘Tuck this?’ I’m coming out breathing fire tonight!”

As many observers have noted, that Packers game, which the Giants narrowly lost, nonetheless served as a springboard for the title Giants’ run, recalling a similarly galvanizing close loss to the Patriots at the end of the 2007 season. The Giants, like Tuck, were healthy and focused from that point on, and went on to win seven of their next eight games.

DURING THE LOCKOUT BEFORE LAST SEASON, Eli Manning was looking for a teammate to throw the football around with. He knew that Victor Cruz was a local guy, from nearby Paterson, so he texted him.

Cruz didn’t recognize the number, so he texted back, “Who’s this?”

Eli identified himself.

“Then I go to my moms, like, ‘Ma, Eli just texted me!’” Cruz tells the camera, dropping his athlete monotone for his New York accent. “She goes, ‘Well, you better text him back!’”

Thus began the fairy tale of Cruz’s 2011 season, which, the documentary reminds us, likely wouldn’t have happened had not receiver Domenik Hixon injured his knee in Week 2.

By that point, Cruz was behind Hixon on the depth chart, having angered coaches with his mental errors during the preseason. In one clip, Coughlin chews Cruz out for not responding to a blitz by running a “hot” route.

“When are you gonna see a hot? How many years is it gonna take?” Coughlin yells, practically chasing Cruz down.

It didn’t take long. The next game in Philadelphia, he scored the first of his many improbable touchdowns by breaking a tackle and then juking two defenders on a 75-yard play after a short pass. On his way to the endzone, he recalled a conversation with quarterbacks coach (and former receivers coach) Mike Sullivan, who told him to represent his culture if he ever scored a touchdown.

“I’m going into score and I’m like, ‘Damn, I gotta do this dance now,’” he says. “So I get in the endzone and I’m like, ‘Man, here goes nothing.’”

Cruz breaks into his salsa dance, and a Latin beat introduces a montage showcasing his many astounding plays. The most memorable of those was a 99-yard touchdown catch against the Jets, which took the Giants from behind the eight-ball and gave them control of a game they needed to win.

Earlier that week, there had been some trash-talking between Cruz and the Jets, during which Jets star Darrelle Revis implied that Cruz was still a nobody.

After the touchdown, Cruz is heard crowing to his teammates on the sideline, “They know my name now, right?”

The documentary cuts to Cruz being interviewed. He laughs, then bashfully puts his head down and scratches behind his ear.

“You guys got that? You got that on audio?”