EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- You'd better believe the New York Giants wanted this game. They wanted to give all their storm-weary fans with flooded basements and dark, cold houses something to cheer about Sunday afternoon. They wanted to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, because they're the kind of signature NFL franchise against which you measure yourself when you want to do something like defend a Super Bowl title. They wanted to keep their foot on the gas as they made the turn into the season's second half and started pulling away from the rest of the NFC East. They didn't want everybody to start asking them, again, about how they always seem to play so well in the first half of the regular season and slump through the second.
They wanted this one badly, and that's why Sunday's 24-20 loss made their coach so red-faced angry.
"That's as disappointing a loss as we've had in a long time," Tom Coughlin said, without prompting, at the start of his postgame news conference. "We've lost games around here where we've played really well and played physically tough and just got beat. But this wasn't one of them."
No, it was not. This was a game in which the Giants were physically manhandled by a big, mauling road-grader of a Steelers offensive line that paved the way for 147 Isaac Redman rushing yards. A game in which Eli Manning went 10-for-24 for 125 yards, an interception and, for the second week in a row, no touchdowns. In which they went into the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead and did absolutely none of the things they needed to do to hold it.
"We've been a team known for finishing," said defensive end Justin Tuck, who was one of the game's few bright spots with two sacks and a batted pass. "And if we take a lead into the fourth quarter and don't hold it, that's frustrating. That's not us."
It's not the Giants team that rolled into Week 9 on a four-game winning streak and playing like one of the league's top teams. That team would have found a way to run for positive yards against the Steelers and eat up some of that fourth-quarter clock. That team would have converted more than two of its 10 third-down conversion attempts. That team's quarterback would have made the throws he needed to make to extend at least one of the team's three fourth-quarter possessions. Manning couldn't make one. The Giants ran nine offensive plays in the fourth quarter for a combined total of minus-9 yards and did not pick up a single first down.
"We've been playing pretty well in fourth quarters, and tonight we were in a position to possibly win the game and we couldn't come through," Manning said. "We haven't been playing our best football, offensively, the last couple of weeks. Tonight it caught up with us."
The issue is, of course, what happens next. The Giants and their Super Bowl championship pedigree deserve the benefit of the doubt, and this may turn out to have been just a bad game against a hot Steelers team. They could roll into Cincinnati next week, take apart the Bengals like nothing ever happened and roll into their bye week with a still-comfy division lead. Entirely possible, and of course they know that.
But the Giants were upset about this game, and there are good reasons why. They have started the season 6-2 or better in seven of Coughlin's nine seasons as their head coach. Only twice in the first eight seasons did they post a winning record over the final eight games of the regular season. Now, you can argue that last year's 3-5 record in the second half meant little because they ended up winning the Super Bowl, and you are correct. But the Giants have no interest in getting bogged down in that paradigm. They don't want to spend this whole week, or any of the next few weeks, answering questions about second-half slides and whether they can avoid one this season. They just wanted to avoid it, to keep rolling into and through the second half the way they did the last time they were defending champs.
"We understand what November has meant," Tuck said. "I don't think tonight was a case of that. We've got a huge game next week in Cincinnati that we'll be prepared for, and hopefully we can end this November curse."
There are a couple of different ways this can go. The Giants can snap out of their offensive funk, get back to playing the physically tough style of football they only seem to play when they're in San Francisco or in Dallas or in playoff games and get back on another winning streak that carries them to the NFC East title. Or they can keep slogging through games the way they did Sunday, hoping opponents' turnovers and a couple of good breaks here and there will allow them to cobble together enough field goals to win. Either way, you like their chances to win it in the end. But the Giants would prefer not to make everything a question mark if they could. And after Sunday, question marks were everywhere.
"People have got to play the way they're capable of playing," a befuddled Coughlin said. "Look at where our big-play production has been. Two weeks ago, we were the No. 1 big-play team in the league. I mean, it doesn't make any sense."
Little about this kooky, week-to-week life in the NFL ever does. The Giants thought maybe they had something figured out, and that they could take control of their season. Instead, their fourth-quarter superhero quarterback is slumping, they can't stop the run and they head into the week as just another team trying to work out some problems it didn't see coming. What they make of this bump in their road, and the direction in which they turn the season starting again next week, will determine whether this was just a harmless, annoying blip or a sign of the same old things to come.