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Giants need to improve defense to support solid offense

The highest-scoring team in the NFC East spent the early part of New Year’s Eve packing belongings into boxes and exiting the locker room carrying large, fully stuffed black bags to their cars and their next destination — home, in most cases, wherever that may be.

The highest-scoring team in the NFC East is done for the season, players going their separate ways amid rampant speculation about the franchise quarterback and loads of hand-wringing for an offense that for the season’s first two months felt barely functional.

The highest-scoring team in the NFC East finished in last place and went 1-5 in its own division, failing miserably in the first tenet for teams wishing to contend for the playoffs: Tend to business in your own neighborhood.

The Giants are gone, while the Cowboys and Eagles are gearing up for playoff games this weekend, trashing all those premature hot takes about the NFC East being the worst division in the NFL. It is shocking, but true, that the 369 points scored by the Giants tops the list in the division, as they scored 30 more points than the first-place Cowboys, two more points than the second-place Eagles and 88 more points than the third-place Redskins.

This does not mean the Giants were the most efficient offense in the division, but it does illustrate the improvement shown in the second half of the season, the absolute impact Saquon Barkley made as a rookie and where this team needs to fortify itself moving forward.

No team in the division allowed anything close to the 412 points the Giants yielded on defense. It was 88 more points given up than the Cowboys, 64 more points than the Eagles and 53 more points than the Redskins. At a time of unprecedented scoring in the league, defense still matters and the Giants have been and remain woefully deficient at point prevention.

It was telling that after the Cowboys scored their last touchdown with 1:11 remaining in the season finale, the Giants were wounded but not yet defeated, their lead sliced to 35-34.

“Then we had another opportunity,’’ coach Pat Shurmur said afterward. “They go for two and we didn’t stop them.’’

That could stand as the 2018 banner headline for the 2018 Giants: We didn’t stop them.

James Bettcher, the defensive coordinator brought in by Shurmur from the Cardinals, never truly put his stamp on a unit that finished 24th in the league in yards allowed, 20th in rushing yards allowed, 27th in passing net yards per play, 30th in sacks, 25th in first downs allowed, 26th in third-down efficiency and 32nd in fourth-down efficiency. The exotic blitz packages Bettcher was supposed to import from Arizona never made it to East Rutherford. His best run-stopper, Damon “Snacks’’ Harrison, was traded away in October, as was Eli Apple, a starting cornerback.

By the time the season came to an end, Bettcher had to put three undrafted rookies on the field. He went all season with Curtis Riley, undrafted and a Titans backup for two years, as the starting free safety, enduring a few highs (four interceptions) and far too many strange and unusual angles to the ball.

Bettcher got solid play from rookies B.J. Hill and Lorenzo Carter and leadership from former Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree. There was rarely any semblance of adequate pressure on the opposing quarterback and Olivier Vernon, who missed the first five games with a high ankle sprain, never really looked right. Vernon needed a surge in the final game to lead the team with seven sacks.

The free agents signed by general manager Dave Gettleman — Kareem Martin, Josh Mauro and Connor Barwin — provided marginal production, at best, although Michael Thomas at safety was a steadying influence. Landon Collins, once again playing alongside a suspect partner at the back end, did not come close to recapturing his 2016 form before a partially torn labrum prematurely ended his season.

“Am I tired of losing? Yeah, hell yeah,’’ said Collins, an Alabama product and an impending free agent. “I came from a winning organization. Definitely tired of losing, yeah.’’

Help is needed at every level on defense. Better cornerbacks and a new free safety. A point-of-attack linebacker. Stronger run-stoppers on the line. And, rising above all else, is the desperate need for pass-rush talent. If the Giants are the highest-scoring team in the NFC East in 2019, their defense cannot let them down again.

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