Although the New York Giants' next game comes at home against a Cleveland Browns team that has lost 10 in a row, the contest appears to be a critical one for the defending Super Bowl champions.
That's because the Giants are facing one of the few supposed soft spots in their brutal schedule, which they'll try to take advantage of Sunday in what will be a rare day game for them in the early going.
The Giants (2-2) should hit the field eager to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss last week, as they fell 19-17 at Philadelphia to drop to 0-2 in the NFC East for the first time since 1996. New York appeared on its way to another fourth-quarter comeback victory in the closing minutes, driving to the Eagles' 27.
However, a pass interference penalty pushed the Giants back to the 36, and Lawrence Tynes eventually came up just short on a 54-yard field-goal attempt with 15 seconds remaining.
"We've still got four more divisional games," quarterback Eli Manning said. "It's a lot of football left and we've got to worry about Cleveland and get back to winning and there's no point in getting down now."
Apparently still suffering from the identity crisis that plagued the team throughout last season, New York went back to looking like the club that opened 7-7 before winning its last six games to capture the championship.
The Giants had won two in a row after falling to Dallas and appeared on the verge of giving themselves a chance to have a four-game winning streak after this week.
Instead, New York finds itself in a familiar position of having to overcome adversity.
"We have a great team and we believe in each other," running back Ahmad Bradshaw said. "We've been down this road before. There's nothing we can't handle. There's nothing we're not preparing for. Like I said, we played a great game. It's just how it ended, we didn't finish."
Bradshaw and his teammates had better finish Sunday - only their second afternoon game so far in 2012 - or they might be facing an even bigger uphill battle than they encountered last year. With games against San Francisco, Green Bay, Atlanta, Baltimore and Pittsburgh remaining in addition to their divisional games, the Giants may not be able to afford to lose to the Browns if they want to make the playoffs.
While Cleveland (0-4) is one of two winless teams, the Browns haven't lost by more than 10 points and played Baltimore tough on the road last Thursday, falling 23-16. Cleveland drove from its own 10 to the Ravens' 33 in the final minute, but a pair of desperation passes into the end zone from Brandon Weeden fell incomplete.
Plus, New York has been increasingly banged up on both sides of the ball. Receivers Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden, along with safety Kenny Phillips and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, won't play due to injuries. Other key players such as offensive linemen David Diehl and Chris Snee, safety Antrelle Rolle and cornerback Corey Webster, are questionable due to health issues.
The Browns will try to take advantage, though they could also be missing some key players. Receiver Josh Cribbs, however, practiced Wednesday for the first time since sustaining a concussion against Baltimore.
"We'll put the guys on the field that can play, make the roster as good as we can make it," said coach Pat Shurmur, whose team hasn't won since Nov. 20. "If we have to use three tight ends, all right."
Containing Manning, who threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns with one interception last week, could prove to be a major challenge. Cleveland is allowing 286.0 yards per game through the air - 28th in the league - and 403.3 overall.
After giving up 191 yards rushing to the Eagles, the Giants will be facing a Browns team that's totaled 76 in the last two games and is averaging 76.3. New York, though, still may see a steady diet of bruising rookie running back Trent Richardson, who's rushed for 222 yards and three touchdowns.
"We've got to find a way to get the ball to No. 33 somehow," Weeden said of the No. 3 overall pick, who caught four passes for 57 yards against the Ravens.
The Giants had a four-game winning streak in the series snapped in the last meeting, a 35-14 loss at Cleveland on Oct. 13, 2008. Manning threw three interceptions.
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