Are the New York Giants for Real?
At this moment, the second-best record in the NFC belongs to the 8-3 New York Giants.
With the division mate Dallas Cowboys at 10-1, the Giants would only be the 5 seed in the conference if the playoffs started today, but by raw record, they’re still percentage points above the 2 seed, the Seattle Seahawks, who are 7-3-1.
There are only two other teams in the league with more wins than the Giants through Week 12 -- the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders -- but when there’s a discussion of the league’s top tier of teams, the Giants are never brought up.
That seems to make sense. There's been little to suggest this team should be lumped in with those those teams, but here they are with one of the best records in the NFL.
So what exactly do we know about the 2016 New York Giants?
If there’s one unit of the team that should take responsibility for the Giants’ record, it should be the defense. The Giants had one of the league’s worst defenses last season by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- ranked 25th by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
The front office decided that wasn’t good enough but kept defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in place. Instead, the Giants chose to ramp up the talent on that side of the ball. In free agency, they shopped at the top of the market and brought in Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison, and Olivier Vernon from other teams. They also franchised Jason Pierre-Paul, who was coming off just a half season of play.
All of those moves so far have paid off. The Giants went into Week 12 ranked 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. While they won’t get much of a favorable opponent adjustment after playing the Cleveland Browns in Week 12 -- the 22nd-ranked offense by Adjusted NEP per play -- 7 sacks, a defensive touchdown, and just 13 points allowed is a pretty good defensive performance against any opponent.
While he’s not in a Twitter spat with Terrelle Pryor, Janoris Jenkins has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league this season. Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, Jenkins had the second best Success Rate in coverage among cornerbacks targeted 25 or more times heading into Week 12.
The only corner with a better Success Rate than Jenkins’ 69 percent is teammate Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at 72 percent. Add in the development of Landon Collins, who is playing like one of the best safeties in the league, and there appears to be a formidable secondary that ranks 12th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.
Along the defensive line, the three stars have been exactly what the Giants had hoped. Harrison has helped plug the middle of the line, and the Giants rank ninth against the run by Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play.
And while the sacks weren’t coming until the Browns game, Vernon and Pierre-Paul had been among the league leaders in pressures. Lately the sacks have been coming a little more, as Pierre- Paul has 7 and Vernon has 5.5.
When Ben McAdoo was promoted to head coach in the offseason, the idea was to keep consistency with the one unit on the team that was working well in 2015. The Giants were 10th in Adjusted NEP per play last season but haven’t looked close to that in 2016. Entering Week 12, the Giants were 17th in Adjusted NEP per play.
Inconsistency has been a recurring theme for the Giants’ offense through 2016. There are days when the Giants will throw for fewer than 200 yards, like they did against the Green Bay Packers and the Browns on Sunday. There are also games when they can throw for nearly 400 like they did in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens, who are fourth in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, which featured 222 yards alone from Odell Beckham.
Beckham, himself, has been experiencing an up-and-down year. His Reception NEP per target of 0.64 through Sunday is well below his 0.96 last season, which was second-best among wide receivers with at least 100 targets. Beckham has just two games with more than 100 receiving yards, though he has two others with 97 and 96. His yards per reception, receptions per game, yards per game, and catch rate are all at career lows through his three seasons.
Some of that has come from inconsistency at quarterback.
Eli Manning came into Sunday ranked 19th among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back, well below his 11th-ranked finish last season. Manning’s rapport with his receivers has been questionable throughout 2016. Just against the Browns, Manning missed Beckham twice early in the game on wide open plays that should have resulted in a touchdown.
There is also no running game to speak of. The Giants ranked 20th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play heading into Sunday, and against the Browns they gained 100 rushing yards as a team for just the fifth time this season.
Shane Vereen is expected to return from injury soon, and he has been the Giants’ best rusher -- his 38.7 percent Success Rate leads the team, and he’s one of two runners with positive Rushing NEP per attempt, along with Orleans Darkwa.
At 8-3 the Giants have set themselves up nicely for a postseason berth.
Historically, 90 percent of 8-3 teams make the playoffs, but the Giants do have a tough stretch of games to close out the season. They’ll have to go to Pittsburgh in Week 13 and still have a game each against all three divisional opponents, two of which are on the road to close out the season.
Three of New York’s last four games come against top-seven offenses by Adjusted NEP per play. The one that isn’t features the top-ranked defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play in the Philadelphia Eagles.
With a point differential of a 6-5 team, the Giants aren’t quite as good as their record suggests, but with the current state of the league, that could be said about a number of teams likely headed to the playoffs. With the eight wins in the bank, the Giants could go 2-3 in the final five games and still likely make it as a Wild Card team in the NFC, especially if one of those two wins comes against Washington, the current 6 seed.
For the Giants, though, it might not matter how they play heading into the playoffs -- just how they get there.
Heading into Week 12, New York ranked just 14th by our nERD metric. In 2011, the Giants ranked 11th in nERD, and in 2007, they were just 15th. Both of those seasons ended with a Super Bowl win.
We shouldn’t expect another Super Bowl win, but in a season that lacks truly great teams, no end result to this Giants season should come as a surprise.