It would be easy to chalk this up to typical New York Giants behavior -- paste the Saints one week, get shut out 34-0 in Atlanta the next. One good, one bad, never consistent -- that's the party-line book on the Giants, and there are plenty of people inside and outside their locker room who are trying to fit this season into that narrative.
I think they're wrong. I think Sunday's loss in Atlanta was extremely atypical of the Giants -- that it contradicted many of the things we believed we knew about them and that they believe about themselves. And I think the fact that it went as wrong as it did offers the Giants and their fans good reason to think it might not turn out OK this time.
Now, you know where I've stood on this all year: Fool me twice, shame on me. I'm not going to count the Giants out until they're 100 percent mathematically out. What they did last year earned them every benefit of every pundit's doubt. But they've lost four of their last six games and allowed not one, but two teams to pass them in the NFC East standings. They still make the playoffs, at least as a wild-card team, if they win in Baltimore next week and beat the Eagles at home in Week 17. But any assumption that they'll win both of those games is rooted in what they showed you last year -- not what they've shown you this year. And that may be the Giants' biggest problem right now:
"I've been here too long. ...I've seen this too many times before to have any doubt in my mind," Osi Umenyiora said of bouncing back. "I know it can be done. But talking about it isn't going to do nothing. We have to go out there and get it done."
It is time -- perhaps past time -- for the Giants to stop assuming this will all be OK because it was last year. It is time -- perhaps past time -- to look seriously at this year's problems and seek solutions, rather than recycle the same old tricks and assume they'll work again. I get that it's easy for a team that won the Super Bowl to convince itself that it should stay the course. And of course the Giants (who are actually one game better than they were at this point last season) might just flip that switch this week and turn out to have been right all along.
But I argue that there are deeper concerns, specific to 2012, that point to doubt. And I think Sunday's game is a perfect example. If you believe in the narrative about a team that gets up for big games and thrives off of a confidence inspired by past accomplishments and victories, then that's a game you expect the Giants to win. Or at least come within 33 points. Instead, they didn't even show up against a team they beat 24-2 in a playoff game 11 months earlier. Their quarterback played one of the worst games of his career. They couldn't get a yard on fourth down when they needed one, and Matt Ryan couldn't have been any more comfortable in the pocket if it had been surrounded by electrified barbed wire. These facts are what bug you if you're a Giants fan right now. As much evidence as 2011 showed you that this team can get things done in the biggest and most dire of spots, Sunday was the latest in an upsettingly long chain of 2012 evidence that such things shouldn't be assumed.
I heard Carl Banks on WFAN radio this morning in New York talking about "collective will" and wondering whether this year's Giants have enough of it to succeed. I think he's spot-on. This year's Giants have shown an ability to play tough but not to stay tough. They haven't shown the collective ability to make good on their offseason goal of playing more consistent, more dominant football week in and week out. And the worst part is, their answer to this seems to be to wait around for a happy, nostalgic visit from the Ghost of Playoff Race Past -- to assume they'll do it again just because they did it before.
Doesn't work that way. The Giants need to spend a little less time reminding themselves how good they were in 2011 and a little more time focusing on the real, concrete problems of 2012. What is different and fixable about Eli Manning and the passing game? Why can't the pass-rushers get to the quarterback? Why is Lawrence Tynes missing 30-yard field goals? Why can't they summon that big third-down or fourth-down conversion when they need it most?
They didn't have to ask these questions in 2011, when Manning was brilliant every week and Jason Pierre-Paul ranked among the league sacks leaders, the breaks were going their way and they were never out of any game. But this year is different, as every one is, and they have 14 games' worth of evidence to prove it. A long, critical assessment of those 14 games would do the Giants a lot more good this week than any more talk about what they've proven in the past. Because if they keep focusing on last year, they're going to wake up in a couple of weeks and find that this year didn't turn out the way they were certain it would.