(Sports Network) - In the NFL as in life, perception isn't always reality.
On the surface, the 2012 New York Giants matched their regular-season victory total from the previous year with a 9-7 finish that marked their eighth consecutive campaign with a non-losing record.
The truth, however, was that the results couldn't have been any more different.
The 2011 Giants caught fire at exactly the right time, winning three of their final four games to edge rival Dallas for the NFC East crown before riding the hot hand of quarterback Eli Manning and an opportunistic defense to a second Super Bowl triumph in five seasons.
Conversely, last year's version collectively crashed and burned during the stretch run, losing four times in a six-game span over the second half to narrowly miss the postseason despite holding a comfortable lead in the division at the midway point. Manning's play was more mediocre than masterful during that time frame, while age and injuries too often left the defense ripe for the opponents' picking.
"Last year's experience at the end of the year was not a very pretty one," said head coach Tom Coughlin. "We didn't play as well as we're capable of playing. So I think that's on everybody's mind. We're better than that."
How much a defense that surrendered the second-highest yardage total in the league last season improves may hold the key to New York's chances of returning to contention in the NFC. And although the unit entered training camp eager to atone for its 2012 struggles, there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered.
Defensive end Justin Tuck and cornerback Corey Webster, two major contributors to the Giants' success over the years, are being counted on to bounce back from subpar performances though both are on the wrong side of 30. The linebacking corps, a major weakness a season ago, remains unproven. Even the pass rush, a constant source of strength during the team's recent championship runs, has become an cause for concern with Tuck showing signs of breaking down, fellow bookend Osi Umenyiora now in Atlanta and the uber-athletic Jason Pierre-Paul -- the defense's best player -- uncertain for the start of the season after undergoing back surgery in June.
There are far less worries about Manning, who's still in the prime of his career and has proven he can both excel on the game's biggest stages and stay on the field, having started every game for the Giants since midway through the 2004 season. And with a pair of top-tier receivers again at his disposal in the shifty Victor Cruz and the highly motivated Hakeem Nicks -- playing for the big payday his counterpart just received over the summer -- New York's passing attack should remain potent.
More playmakers could be on the way as well, with lightning-fast running back David Wilson and No. 3 wideout Rueben Randle ready for expanded roles after getting their feet wet as rookies last year.
"I think we can definitely do some big things," said Cruz of the offense. "I think we have all the talent in place, I think we have all the tools. It's just a matter of us coming together as a team and as a family, and if we can do that, the sky's the limit for us."
Wilson and Randle are the latest examples of the impressive draft classes general manager Jerry Reese has assembled over the past decade to keep the Giants continually competitive. On the other hand, there are still other spots where the team is relying on players to fend off father time for another year.
It all makes this Giants team about as unpredictable as a February day in Northern New Jersey, where Super Bowl XLVIII will be held on Big Blue's home turf of MetLife Stadium in the first-ever edition of the world's biggest single-day sporting event to be held outdoors in a cold-weather city.
2012 RECORD: 9-7 (2nd, NFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, defeated New England in Super Bowl XLVI
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Tom Coughlin (83-61 in nine seasons with Giants, 151-121 in 17 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Kevin Gilbride (10th season with Giants, 7th as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Perry Fewell (fourth season with Giants)
KEY ADDITIONS: TE Brandon Myers (from Raiders), DT Cullen Jenkins (from Eagles), K Josh Brown (from Bengals), WR Louis Murphy (from Panthers), OT Justin Pugh (1st Round, Syracuse), DE Damontre Moore (3rd Round, Texas A&M), DT Johnathan Hankins (2nd Round, Ohio State), DT Mike Patterson (from Eagles), MLB Dan Connor (from Cowboys), OLB Aaron Curry (free agent), OLB Kyle Bosworth (from Jaguars), CB Aaron Ross (from Jaguars), S Ryan Mundy (from Steelers)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB Ahmad Bradshaw (to Colts), TE Martellus Bennett (to Bears), DT Chris Canty (to Ravens), MLB Chase Blackburn (to Panthers), K Lawrence Tynes (to Buccaneers), RB Kregg Lumpkin (free agent), WR Domenik Hixon (to Panthers), TE Travis Beckum (free agent), OT Sean Locklear (free agent), DE Osi Umenyiora (to Falcons), OLB Michael Boley (free agent), CB Justin Tryon (free agent), S Kenny Phillips (to Eagles)
QB: It's hardly a stretch to say that Manning (3948 yards, 26 TD, 15 INT in '12) is the most critical determining factor to the Giants' fortunes, and the numbers back it up. In games where the level-headed quarterback has produced a passer rating of 99 or better since 2008, New York has gone 25-5. Sure, he's prone to a clunker or two every season and saw his numbers drop off a bit from a near 5,000-yard campaign in 2011, but few signal callers have been better with the game on the line than the three-time Pro Bowl honoree the past few years.
David Carr was re-signed to once again serve as Manning's seldom-used backup, a role rookie Ryan Nassib could inherit in the near future. The Giants traded up in the fourth round to nab the Syracuse product, whose smarts and toughness offset an average skill set and drawn comparisons to Cincinnati triggerman Andy Dalton.
RB: The Giants released Ahmad Bradshaw, the club's leading rusher the last three seasons, in February in part due to salary cap issues but also because of a penchant for nagging injuries. The presence of Wilson (358 rushing yards, 5 total TD), a blazer and considerably greater big-play threat than his hard- nosed and steady successor, also played a part in the move. The 22-year-old showed off his considerable potential with a 100-yard, two-touchdown display on just 13 carries against New Orleans last December, and he's ticketed for far more touches than the 71 rush attempts he handled as a rookie. Wilson has yet to completely earn the coaches' trust in the areas of ball security and pass protection (a phase where Bradshaw shined), however, meaning a timeshare with Andre Brown (385 rushing yards, 12 receptions), a superior receiver, pass blocker and short-yardage back, is likely in the works.
Brown ran for eight touchdowns in 10 games while beginning last season as Bradshaw's main caddy, but broke his leg in November and landed on injured reserve -- a common occurrence throughout his four-year career.
Ryan Torain, a onetime starter in Washington who's been injury-prone as well, is battling third-year speedster Da'Rel Scott and rookie Michael Cox (Massachusetts), a seventh-round pick in April's draft who's turned some heads in camp, for No. 3 duties.
The Giants are one of the few teams that still use a traditional fullback extensively, and have a good one in Henry Hynoski (11 receptions, 1 TD), a powerful lead blocker with some receiving skills. His status for the season opener is in question, however, after hurting his knee in OTAs.
WR: Cruz (86 receptions, 1092 yards, 10 TD), the proud recipient of a new six- year, $46 million contract, and Nicks (53 receptions, 3 TD) give Manning a formidable one-two punch, provided the latter is over knee and foot problems that plagued him throughout last season. The duo combined for over 2,700 yards and 16 touchdowns the year prior, with Cruz a dangerous dual threat from either the slot or outside and Nicks able to consistently win one-on-one matchups with an effective blend of size, strength and skill.
The Giants also have very high hopes for Randle (19 receptions, 3 TD), who drew raves for both his performance and professionalism during camp after flashing high-level ability in spot duty during his debut season. His continued development should ensure the group remains a strength if Nicks opts to leave via free agency next year.
Still on the roster are Jerrel Jernigan and Ramses Barden, two former third- round picks who have mostly disappointed during their pro tenures. Jernigan may have the better chance of sticking due to greater versatility as a kick returner capable of working the slot, with the 6-foot-6 Barden possibly competing with fleet-footed veteran Louis Murphy for only one open spot.
TE: Martellus Bennett parlayed a career season in New York into a hefty four- year contract in Chicago, but Reese was able to find a less-costly alternative on the free-agent market in ex-Raider Brandon Myers. He, too, is coming off a breakout after finishing fourth among NFL tight ends with 79 receptions and scoring four touchdowns in 2012, though he still qualifies as a downgrade from Bennett in terms of blocking and stretching a defense.
At 283 pounds, backup Bear Pascoe is like having an extra tackle on the field and can also fill in at fullback in a pinch, though his contributions in the passing game are minimal. The future at the position may be sophomore Adrien Robinson, an unpolished but very athletic fourth-round pick from last year who figures to cut into Pascoe's snaps as he progresses.
OL: Change is coming to an offensive line that was for the most part an asset in 2012, it just may not happen right away. Right tackle David Diehl has been an esteemed leader and a mainstay in the lineup for the last decade, but turns 33 in September and saw his play decline sharply last season. The front office put him on notice by selecting Syracuse standout Justin Pugh with the 19th overall choice in April's draft, with the mobile rookie viewed as the heir apparent at either that spot or left guard, where incumbent Kevin Boothe has been a serviceable starter but nothing more and also hits free agency at the season's end.
There's greater stability at left tackle after the Giants locked up fifth-year pro Will Beatty with a five-year, $37.5 million contract in February, a reward for finally staying healthy and ably protecting Manning's blind side. He and longtime right guard Chris Snee, a four-time Pro Bowler and one of the league's better run blockers, will again anchor the group, with veteran David Baas set to begin his third season as the team's center.
There's a wealth of experience up front if Diehl can keep his job but little in the way of proven depth, as none of the projected reserve quartet of Pugh, promising tackle/guard James Brewer, backup center Jim Cordle and second-year guard Brandon Mosley have started an NFL game.
DL: The defense's unquestioned backbone throughout much of the Coughlin era, the front four didn't perform up to its usual lofty standards in 2012 and enters this season with some uncertainty for the first time in quite a while.
Pierre-Paul (66 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT) put up 10 fewer sacks than he did during his dominant 2011 breakthrough, though the supremely gifted end remained a force against the run. As the unit's one player capable of taking over a game, the Giants sorely need him at or near full strength.
Tuck (45 tackles, 4 sacks) says he's finally over the injuries that have hampered him over two straight down years, but the jury's out as to whether the defensive captain can fully regain the form that once made him among the game's premier all-around linemen. And though Umenyiora may have been a headache to management with his constant grumblings about his contract situation, the 67 sacks and 28 forced fumbles he delivered over the last seven years won't be easy to replace.
Coordinator Perry Fewell will try to fill that void by moving outside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (37 tackles, 3 sacks) back to his natural end position, where the versatile vet posted eight sacks when last holding that role back in 2008, and more help could arrive if rookie Damontre Moore's outstanding collegiate track record can quickly translate to the next level. The Texas A&M All-American racked up 15 1/2 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in his final year with the Aggies, and his early preseason showing suggests the Giants may have gotten a third-round steal.
The addition of tackle Cullen Jenkins (26 tackles, 4 sacks), formerly of division-rival Philadelphia, was also designed to boost the pass rush, as the nine-year pro's forte is generating penetration from the interior.
Improving a run defense that ranked 28th in the league in yards per attempt was also a high priority, hence the re-signing of 350-pound plugger Shaun Rogers and the choice of burly Ohio State tackle Johnathan Hankins in the draft's second round. The plan is for Rogers, now recovered from a blood clot in his leg that kept him out all last season, to work in a rotation with Jenkins and fellow wide-body Linval Joseph (59 tackles, 4 sacks) as Hankins is eased into the mix.
The Giants are also hoping that 2011 second-round pick Marvin Austin's production becomes more in line with his immense potential following two injury-riddled and uninspiring seasons, with Mike Patterson, another ex-Eagle whose career has been derailed by a frightening brain condition, brought in for further depth at tackle.
LB: Though the Giants lacked premium talent and were wrought with inconsistency at linebacker during last season's defensive disaster, Reese surprisingly did little offseason altering here. The Giants entered camp with Mark Herzlich (30 tackles) and Spencer Paysinger (39 tackles), a pair of third-year undrafted free agents whose contributions have primarily come on special teams, holding down starter's spots in the middle and weakside, respectively.
There's more experience and pedigree at the strongside position, where returnee Keith Rivers (44 tackles) and newcomer Aaron Curry -- both former top 10 picks from other organizations that haven't lived up to their draft status -- the favorites to claim the first two spots on the depth chart.
The coaches love the intensity and leadership that Herzlich, the former Boston College All-American turned cancer survivor, brings to the table, but he's still an unknown quantity with four career starts under his belt. That small sample size prompted the team to add Dan Connor (56 tackles with Cowboys), a decent but unspectacular regular in Carolina two years back, as insurance. Holdover Jacquian Williams is the Giants' fastest linebacker who'll mainly work alongside Paysinger in the nickel defense.
DB: Like the Giants' season as a whole, the secondary was a mixture of good and bad in 2012. On the positive side, New York's 21 interceptions tied for the third-most in the league, with safety Stevie Brown (76 tackles, 11 PD) coming out of nowhere to amass eight picks upon taking over for the chronically hobbled Kenny Phillips. On the other hand, the Giants gave up more plays of 40 yards or greater through the air (13) than any team other than New Orleans, and tied the Saints for the highest yards allowed per pass attempt.
Webster (58 tackles, 4 INT, 13 PD) was the most frequent burn victim, and the staff is keeping its fingers crossed that his rough year was more an aberration than a downward trend. If Webster can bounce back in his age 31 season, he'll give New York a solid cornerback tandem with 2011 first-rounder Prince Amukamara (53 tackles, 1 INT), one of the secondary's few bright spots along with Brown last year.
Depth was a problem as well, with then-rookie Jayron Hosley (40 tackles, 1 INT) taking his lumps when forced into nickel duties due to injuries to Phillips and Terrell Thomas, who tore his ACL in camp for a second straight year. Thomas, a quality corner prior to his mishaps, is back and healthy so far -- though his history makes him a huge wild card -- and another familiar face returns as well in expected slot corner Aaron Ross, a part of Big Blue's two Super Bowl wins who spent last season with Jacksonville after a five-year stint with the G-Men.
Antrel Rolle (96 tackles, 2 INT), whose proficiency as an in-the-box run stopper and vocal presence on the back end make him one of the defense's most important members, will again operate opposite Brown, with ex-Steeler Ryan Mundy (39 tackles) taking over as the third safety after the team let Phillips walk. Will Hill (38 tackles), Rolle's main backup and a valued special-teams player, will miss the season's first four games after failing a drug test.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Lawrence Tynes made a number of clutch kicks during his six- year reign in New York, but wasn't re-signed despite leading the NFC with 145 points and knocking home a personal-best 33 field goals last year. Replacement Josh Brown sports similar career numbers as his predecessor and did well in a late-season assignment with Cincinnati in 2012, hitting on 11-of-12 field-goal attempts with a long of 52 yards.
The remainder of the special teams corps is intact, though there's talk of Wilson being taken off kick returns with his role on offense being increased. It's a move that wouldn't be without risk, as the talented running back averaged an excellent 26.9 yards per runback -- highlighted by a 97-yard touchdown against the Saints -- as a rookie. Jernigan figures as the most likely fill-in if the Giants do decide to go that route.
Punter Steve Weatherford and long-snapper Zak DeOssie also rate above-average at their respective positions, with the former tying for third in the conference with a career-high 47.5 gross average and DeOssie a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a need player and a fixture on the coverage teams.
Randle averaged a nondescript 7.2 yards as the No. 1 punt returner, a job that Jernigan and Hosley -- both of whom were dynamite return men in college -- are each vying for in the preseason.
COACHING: Coughlin is a two-time Super Bowl winning coach with over 150 victories and nine playoff appearances to his credit, and his detail-oriented and tough-love approach ensures the Giants are always a well-prepared and disciplined outfit.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is also from the old guard, entering his 25th season as an NFL coach, and possesses impressive credentials as well. The Giants have ranked in the top eight in total yards in four of the last five years with him calling the plays.
Fewell's results have been mixed, however, and he may be on the hot seat if the defense doesn't turn itself around. His 2011 unit racked up a stout 48 sacks, but finished 25th and 27th, respectively, in points and yards allowed. Last year's group was good at forcing turnovers, but gave up yards in bunches and struggled in third-down situations.
THE SKINNY: With their late-season fade standing out, it's easy to forget that the Giants were just a one-point loss in Washington away from capturing a second straight NFC East title last year. And with an offense that should continue to consistently put up points and a defense that has almost nowhere to go but up, New York is clearly capable of being a serious threat in the division once again. However, there are just too many question marks on the defensive side to make the Giants' goal of becoming the first team to participate in a Super Bowl on their home field one that's well within their reach.