I was fooled, I admit it. I bought in to the New York Giants' training camp assertions that they'd be different this year -- that they were a good enough team to build on their late-season and Super Bowl success and develop themselves into a consistent, reliable powerhouse. It all made sense. They were young enough, appeared determined enough and were bringing back the quarterback and the coach and the pass rush you need to be a dominant team in the 2012 NFL.
So I went all-in, predicted 12-4 and a repeat division title, neither of which can possibly happen now. After losing their past two games by the combined score of 67-14, the Giants are a long shot even to reach the playoffs. And the prevailing sentiment based on the way they look right now is that they wouldn't be a threat to do anything even if they got there.
The question, as it always does, becomes: "What happened?" And while there are many potential technical reasons for the failure of this year's Giants to be what they wanted and expected to be, it boils down to the fact that when they reached down inside for that something extra that was always there last year, it wasn't there anymore. And when you're the Giants, who live on the edge, that's enough to make the difference.
Think about who the Giants really are. They're not the kind of team that wins 12, 13 games and goes through long stretches where they get to feel comfortable about themselves and their ability to roll anybody in the league. The Giants contend for the playoffs every year, but they've only posted double-digit wins in four of Tom Coughlin's nine years as their head coach. Coughlin's greatness manifests itself in his ability to get the absolute most out of his team, be it for one big game or for a multi-game stretch like the one that resulted in last year's Super Bowl title. The Giants don't kick around among the elite teams in the league all season long; they hang around and put themselves in the best possible position to knock off those teams, and then very often they've shown an ability to motivate and execute at a high enough level to pull it off.
But it doesn't work every time. It can't work every time. When you rely on always pushing the right button at the right time, on finding just the right kind of external motivation necessary to elevate your championship-seasoned players from their default regular-season doldrums, you're not going to bat 1.000. No coach is, no matter how great.
So what happened with the Giants? Sure, Eli Manning was off on too many throws, and Hakeem Nicks probably hasn't been 100 percent all year, and Justin Tuck doesn't look like the player he used to be, and Corey Webster didn't have the same kind of year he had in 2011, and they didn't have the same kind of depth they had last year at running back and wide receiver, and a dozen other things that fall into the category of "it's just tough to repeat." But the main problem is these Giants aren't built to repeat. They're built to contend and sometimes make it into the playoffs and sometimes not and ideally rely on all of their experience to help them take advantage of it when they do.
In the NFL's salary-cap era, this is a fine way to operate. Sure, it frustrates the fans in years like this, or in 2009 or 2010, when you come up just short. But if you punctuate it with the occasional 2007 or 2011, the payoff makes the December bummers a lot more tolerable. The Giants will always have a good team, and a team capable of making the playoffs and making noise once they do. But they don't seem as though they'll be the kind of team that can be certain of making it -- of clinching their spot in early December and playing for seeding. Maybe that's because they won't sell out for that one big year, instead preferring to build and maintain the kind of deep roster that regenerates itself and offers a perennial opportunity to get into the tournament and take their chances. Maybe it's because Manning is the kind of quarterback who can dominate a big game or a fourth quarter but not a 16-game season. You can pick any theory you like.
In the end, the Giants are what they are. If they win Sunday, they'll finish the regular season with the same exact record they had last year and one game worse than they had the year before. But because of the way things fell, and their inability to deliver in the big spots this year when they never failed to do so last year, they still likely won't get a chance to play a single playoff game. They made a run and, apparently, ran out of gas. When you live on the edge and you're constantly relying on the ability to reach deep down inside yourself for that little something extra to get you over the top, you're just not always going to find it. That's who the Giants are, and it makes them very exciting to follow. It just doesn't make them a dominant, 12-win, every-year playoff team. And once Giants fans get past the letdown and the shock and the feeling of an opportunity lost, they'll probably realize that's okay.