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Bob Ryan

Giants were an oversight in playoff field

Tom Coughlin’s balanced team was dangerous to postseason foes

Nick Laham/Getty Images

If we’d really huddled up and thought about it, QB Eli Manning and the Giants wouldn’t have sneaked up on us so.

INDIANAPOLIS - Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

It’s all so clear. Everything makes perfect sense. The Giants should have been NFC playoff favorites to begin with.

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Examine the participating teams in what I like to call the “tournament’’ and it becomes very obvious the Giants had more going for them than anyone. The only problem was that they had gone 9-7 in the regular season and people allowed that to confuse the issue.

What matters when the tournament begins is what components you have, and how you’re playing. A game on Sept. 25 has no relevance whatsoever, win or lose.

The teams with the opportunity to reach Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI could be broken down into three main categories.

1. Lopsided.

By “lopsided,’’ I mean teams that were clearly better on one side of the ball than the other. The offensive teams were Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England. The defensive teams were Baltimore, San Francisco, and Houston.

The Texans deserve some sympathy. Had Matt Schaub not gotten hurt, they might very well have emerged as a complete playoff menace. People down there probably can’t wait for the 2012 season to get started.

2. Gimme A Break.

If Houston was a legit “What If?,’’ then the Steelers were an even more legit “WHAT IF!’’ Yes, I’m well aware the Ravens beat them twice during the regular season, but simply ask yourself which team you would rather have played in the postseason, the Ravens as they were or the Steelers with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. Pretty easy call, in my book.

Atlanta somewhat qualified as a balanced team, but Matt Ryan has not been a good playoff quarterback and Mike Smith has not been a good playoff coach. They were never a threat. Detroit needs to grow up, and the Lions might simply need a better coach than Jim Schwartz if they hope to maximize their potential.

Neither the Cincinnati Bengals nor the Denver Broncos were ever going to win the three games it takes without the first-round bye to reach the Super Bowl. They just weren’t. In motion picture terms, their Oscar was the nomination. Participation in the tournament was validation for a nice season. Each team can dream big dreams for the future. But involvement in the tournament meant playing multiple games against the Big Boys, and neither team was equipped to do that.

3. Truly Balanced.

Only one team in the tournament fits that description, and that team is the New York Giants. The big nit-pick going in was their curiously absent running game. But there was never any legitimate reason to question Eli Manning and his ability to move the football through the air. They always had an offense. Now that they have rediscovered their running game they have an even more formidable offense.

This doesn’t mean the Giants are a lead-pipe, drop-dead mortal lock to win the game. The team they are playing is not exactly helpless and hapless. The quarterback for New England has demonstrated a pretty good idea of how to play this game, and seven of his teammates were deemed worthy of playing in the Pro Bowl. The coach has been around the block once or twice, too. It will be a fair fight. You don’t have to worry about that (this is when you light a candle, or execute whatever helpful aid you might favor, on behalf of Rob Gronkowski).

The real story here is how the Giants managed to lose those seven games. Some of it was scheduling, always a variable. When they famously lost those four in a row, one loss was at San Francisco, a game that came down to the final play, and another was to Green Bay when the Packers were considered to be something close to invincible. And that was a 38-35 affair.

But there was a quite ugly and embarrassing 49-24 thrashing by the Saints. What was that all about? The fact is, nothing happening Way Back When matters now that the Giants are here. All those L’s are laughable footnotes to a strange and what the Giants are hoping will turn out to be a wonderful season.

Take a look at them now. Eli is playing as well as anyone, and he is gifted with a wide receiving corps than is currently second to none. Ahmad Bradshaw and the bruising Brandon Jacobs are running the football. In Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul the Giants have four guys noted for being able to rush the passer, whereas most teams are lucky to have one. Both those receivers and those pass rushers are going to be difficult matchups for the Patriots.

And while you’d always have to take Bill Belichick in any coaching matchup, the Giants aren’t going to lose the game because Tom Coughlin does something stupid. The Giants will be well-prepared.

The Giants got here by winning three road games, the last two over teams with a combined record of 28-4. Sure, the 49ers game had something of an asterisk to it. But if you’re a Patriots fan, it might not be wise to go there.

They put their pants on one leg at a time, and if you prick them they will bleed, and all that stuff. We’re not talking about one of the great teams of all time.

But we are talking about the NFC team that came in to the tournament with the most assets and which has proven pretty conclusively it was the best NFC team, period.

The New York Giants were the 9-7 fox that never should have been allowed into the playoff henhouse. Now everyone knows why.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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