If the New York Giants keep losing games -- as their schedule, their injuries and a number of other factors certainly indicate that they could -- their 2011 season will fall neatly into a recent historical pattern. Fast starts and weak finishes have, with the one glorious exception, been the hallmark of Tom Coughlin's Giants teams. And if this team, which started 6-2, misses the playoffs for the third year in a row, the comparisons will come quickly and far too easily. "Another second-half collapse," everyone will moan as they wonder about Coughlin's job security and why the Giants can't seal the deal in December. There will be much time devoted to discussions of what can be done to change this and what it is about the way the Giants do business that lends itself to poorer play in colder weather.
It's easy to see all of this happening, and that's too bad. Because no matter how this Giants team finishes -- whether it surprises us all by winning games it seems it shouldn't or whether it limps home the way many are predicting it will -- this season is not just some repeat of 2009 or 2010. A poor finish here would be more correction than collapse -- an inevitability that had been obscured by the hot start. The shame would be that people would forget that these Giants already have outperformed reasonable preseason expectations -- that their mere presence in the race at this point in the season means they've overcome a great deal and shown as much heart and grit as any other team in the league.
This week the Giants will play the Saints in New Orleans on "Monday Night Football." It's the fourth game in a six-game stretch most observers believed would define their season. They are 1-2 in that stretch so far, having won at New England, lost in San Francisco and fallen at home Sunday night to the Philadelphia Eagles. After they're done with the Saints, they'll face the 11-0 Packers at home next week before heading to Dallas to finish off that six-game stretch with a head-to-head contest that could go a long way toward deciding the NFC East.
The Giants' 2011 roster has no business contending for a division championship, and the fact that they're doing so means they've overachieved. The Giants never should have been 6-2, because 6-2 is a great record and they are not a great team. They head into this game 6-4 in spite of having allowed exactly as many points this year as they've scored. Should they lose it, they'll be just a notch above .500, which is about where most neutral indications say they should be. But, because of the direction in which they're heading, it feels to Giants fans like a disappointment.
That's why it's important to keep all of this in perspective. The idea that Coughlin finds himself on the hot seat, for example, is preposterous. This is a guy who started 6-2 with a team that did almost nothing to improve itself in the offseason and suffered season-ending injuries to two key defensive starters before the season even began. Injuries have rained on the heads of Coughlin and his coaching staff since the beginning of August and haven't let up. They won the New England game without their starting running back and best wide receiver. Right now, they're still without that running back and dealing with the absence of one of the men -- linebacker Michael Boley -- whose outsized first-half performance was one of the main reasons they were able to overcome their considerable obstacles and race out to the early division lead.
The Giants' 2011 story so far is one of Coughlin the coach and Eli Manning the quarterback doing a lot with a little. The offensive line is thin and (largely) old and simply hasn't been very good. The defense is succeeding because it's good at getting to the opposing quarterback and because of some surprisingly stellar individual performances in the secondary. The Giants are still frighteningly thin in all of the spots in which they were thin in early September, and the fact that Coughlin has managed to win more games than he's lost so far is worthy of praise and gratitude from the fan base -- not the same old tired questions about job security.
Look deeper, folks. The 2009 Giants were an embarrassment -- a talented but bratty bunch of defensive players who mailed in the second half of the season because they didn't like their defensive coordinator. The 2010 Giants were 15 minutes of football from locking up their division before a Michael Vick/DeSean Jackson miracle snatched it away. The 2011 Giants are a far different story.
First of all, they haven't blown it yet. Manning and the defensive line have played well enough this year that it wouldn't be a stunning surprise if they beat the Saints on Monday night and at least played the Packers tough next week. The Giants have been in every game, and the excellence of their quarterback and his receivers gives them a chance in every fourth quarter despite their problems up front, in the running game, at linebacker and on special teams. What they have proved so far is that they're tough and spirited and capable of outperforming expectations and the talent level of their roster. And if they stumble through this brutal second-half schedule and miss the playoffs again, that won't prove they're the same old Giants from years past, even if that's the way it looks to the casual observer. These Giants deserve more respect than that.