By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Giants silenced critics and bolstered their status as a legitimate National Football League playoff contender following their last-minute comeback victory on Sunday over the New England Patriots.
The team began the 2011 season with many question marks and quarterback Eli Manning, coach Tom Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese had all come under fire, yet the Giants are 6-2 following Sunday's 24-20 road win and lead the NFC East.
The Giants spell success with their fourth-quarter poise and efficiency, and Manning led successive touchdown drives of 85 and 80 yards on Sunday for New York's fifth victory of the season claimed with a final-quarter comeback.
Manning took heat in the offseason for declaring himself an elite quarterback in the same class of New England's Tom Brady. The younger brother of Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Peyton Manning was mocked for his assessment since it followed a season where he threw a career-high 25 interceptions.
This year, Manning has thrown 15 touchdown passes against just six interceptions and has the NFL's best fourth-quarter quarterback rating.
"You can't spell elite without E-L-I," Giants defensive captain Justin Tuck told reporters after the victory that ended New England's regular season home winning streak at 20 games.
A string of injuries before the 2011 season weakened the Giants, as did the loss of tight end Kevin Boss and receiver Steve Smith as free agents.
General manager Reese was relatively quiet during the free-agent period, while the division rival Eagles signed so many high-profiled free agents that back-up quarterback Vince Young referred to them as a "Dream Team."
Reese faced criticism for failing to make splashy signings, but young players from within the ranks such as tight end Jake Ballard and receiver Victor Cruz have energised them.
Cruz has become an explosive big-play threat, averaging 17.3 yards off 34 catches including four touchdowns, which he celebrates with a salsa dance in the end zone.
Ballard has shaken his reputation as merely a useful blocker by making big receptions down field.
On the game-winning drive against the Pats, the big tight end made a difficult over-the-shoulder catch down the middle for 28 yards on a third-and-10, then grabbed the decisive one-yard TD pass toward the end zone corner from Manning.
"We knew what we could do but winning a game like that gives us all the confidence in the world."
Even before New England, the Giants sounded confident. "I don't worry about our schedule," defensive back Antrel Rolle said. "Our schedule needs to worry about us."
Coughlin, ripped for posting poor records in the second half of the season the last few campaigns, said his theme this year has been the importance of finishing strong.
Last year, the Giants were 10-6 but missed the playoffs due to a December collapse at home against the Eagles, who scored four touchdowns in the last 8:17 of the game to overcome a 21-point deficit for a 38-31 victory.
"It's part of what we've talked about since the first day we arrived in camp. It has to do with winning the fourth quarter, being the stronger team in the fourth quarter," said Coughlin. "It has to do with finishing better than we did a year ago."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)