Behind Head Coach Bill Parcells's playoff plans for the New York Giants this season was the unshakeable belief that this was a much better team than most National Football League observers said it would be. Rated somewhere below Washington and Dallas in the NFC's East division, the Giants seemed like a team that would be happy to repeat last year's 9-7 record -- a borderline mark as far as making the playoffs is concerned, although it did turn out to be enough to earn them a wild-card berth in 1984.
So far this fall, however, New York has been at or near the top of its division right straight along. And despite Monday night's hard-fought 23-21 loss at Washington, the Giants are still tied for first place with the Cowboys -- a game ahead of the Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles -- with just five weeks left in the regular season.
This is a team which gets things done offensively; whose defense continues to be of playoff caliber; and whose special team members invariably seem to be in the right place at the right time.
Last year, when the Giants made the playoffs for the first time since 1963 (they won their first game, then ran into eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco in the next one), it was mostly their defense that got them there.
Parcells hung some window dressing on a 3-4 alignment up front, added a few wrinkles in the secondary, and more often than not turned his opponents' ground game to rubble. Today that defense, though basically the same, is executing even better.
Meanwhile quarterback Phil Simms, a frequent target of second-guessing fans and sportswriters over the last few years, has pretty much muzzled the ``wolves'' who used to tear him apart verbally.
New York's offensive line has been protecting Simms as though he were Princess Di on tour -- or at least Prince Charles. The result is that Phil hasn't had to force his passes or throw to receivers before they have properly outdistanced their coverage.
Simms's favorite target these days is wide receiver Lionel Manuel, last year's surprise rookie find from Pacific who has continued to dazzle everyone with his combination of speed and good hands. Phil, in fact, credits Manuel's ability to consistently get free for a lot of this season's aerial success.
``When Lionel makes his cut he also increases his speed, so if you can get the ball to him in stride, he's going to make the big play for you,'' the quarterback notes. ``Opponents who try to defend him one-on-one invariably wind up chasing him.''
The Giants face three more tough road games, plus home engagements against Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but they're confident they can win enough of them to nail down a playoff berth.
``If we continue to execute well and keep our turnovers to a minimum,'' Simms says, ``It won't make any difference where we play.''
There are at least a half dozen reasons why the New England Patriots have won six games in a row, including quarterback Steve Grogan, who has finally learned to keep his temper in check. But perhaps nothing has been more responsible for New England's upswing than the play of the team's offensive line. Even when the Patriots at various times this season were missing right guard Ron Wooten, right tackle Darryl Haley, and center Peter Brock because of injuries, things continued to go smoothly.
More than just taking up the slack were second-year guard Paul Fairchild, third-year tackle Steve Moore, plus 13-year veteran center Guy Morriss, who was picked up last season on waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Two of the Patriots' Pro Bowl standouts, tackle Brian Holloway and guard John Hannah, continue to anchor the left side of the line. In fact Grogan and Hannah, who in previous years hardly spoke to each other, have suddenly become a mutual admiration society.
Asked how much longer he will continue to coach the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers before moving permanently into the front office, San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh grinned. ``It depends on what week you're asking!'' he replied. ``Naturally I was hoping that our record at this point would be better than it is [6-5].
``If you are in a decision-making role and you're not winning consistently, I think you have a tendency to question whether you're doing things the best way. Lately I've been doing a lot of that.''
From Head Coach Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings, back in the NFL after a year of self-imposed retirement: ``Patience is the greatest virtue you can have in this business. We don't always win, but I like to think that we're always prepared. Right now there are a lot of NFL teams with better personnel than the Vikings, but give us three years and we'll have made the necessary adjustments.''