EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Tom Coughlin sits down with his captains and key players during their exit interviews on Monday, the head coach will ask a question that everybody wants to know the answer to.
"What in the world was the last two weeks all about?" Coughlin asked in an incredulous tone.
And it's a good bet Coughlin will see nothing but blank stares.
After throwing away the NFC East and their playoff hopes by failing to show up in Atlanta and Baltimore in the previous two weeks, the New York Giants teased their head coach and fans with one final glimpse of what could have been by destroying the hapless Philadelphia Eagles, 42-7.
And the Giants had barely taken off their uniforms in their locker room before finding out that their season was officially over after the Chicago Bears had outlasted the Detroit Lions, 26-24, to officially eliminate the defending champs.
"The equipment guy came in and said don't worry about your laundry because you're not going to need it anymore," guard Chris Snee said.
The Giants (9-7) needed the Bears, Vikings and Cowboys all to lose in order to get into the playoffs to defend their title. Instead, they have an entire offseason to figure out the answer to Coughlin's question.
How did the Giants go from unbeatable at the start of 2012 to failing to qualify for the playoffs before New Year's Eve?
"That is what we will reflect on this offseason," defensive end/linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said. "I can point to a number of distractions that we had, but in years past there have been distractions.
"For whatever reason it was, this group just didn't always come out with that same fire and same intensity," Kiwanuka continued. "You are going to come out with intensity and fire and passion and sometimes you are going to lose, but not in the way that we did, especially down the stretch."
Coughlin will look back with remorse to a painful 19-17 loss in Philadelphia in Week 4 and a frustrating 17-16 loss in Washington in Week 13 as games that could have gotten the Giants into the playoffs.
But as excruciating as those two division losses were, the head coach might be able to stomach those better than the inexplicable vanishing acts the Giants delivered in the two previous weeks on the road in Atlanta and Baltimore.
The Giants lost 34-0 in Atlanta and then 33-14 in Baltimore with a playoff spot in their hands.
"For whatever reason those last two games, we just weren't ready to play," said safety Antrel Rolle, who usually has a good idea of what the team is missing. "Whatever reason that was, there's really no explanation behind it."
"More importantly, we have to understand who we are as a team, what's going to be our identity," Rolle added.
Do the Giants have the talent to win 12 games and be the team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs? Yes.
But they are a franchise that has hovered around 9 and 10 wins the past three seasons and has missed the playoffs in two of those three years. They routinely open the season 6-2, only to sputter down the stretch. They will win a few games few expect them to while almost always losing a couple of games that few thought they would. It's just a matter of whether or not 9 to 10 wins is enough to get them in the playoffs.
General manager Jerry Reese will certainly make some moves to alter the way this team looks next year. He doesn't need to overhaul anything knowing that the core of this team and his coaching staff are one season removed from winning it all. Reese just has to surround Eli Manning with more help and have his team get healthier.
He will need to tinker with areas like offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and cornerbacks. The GM has some young talent to work with like running back David Wilson and wide receiver Rueben Randle -- the rookie duo that combined for three touchdowns on Sunday.
But there likely will be some familiar veteran faces who do not return after winning a lot of games here in the past several years.
"We knew this was going to be the last ride for a lot of guys to be Giants," running back Ahmad Bradshaw said after rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing for the season. "And we just wanted to have fun with those guys. It could be me at the same token, so I just wanted to come out and put it all on the field."
No one wlll ever doubt Bradshaw spilling every ounce of effort that his injured body has left. But can the same be said about every Giant on the roster?
Were some players perhaps subconsciously satisfied with reaching the mountaintop a season ago?
It's something Coughlin will spend an entire offseason trying to figure out.
"Quite frankly I am anxious to find out if anybody has an opinion or an answer," Coughlin said. "Because our program is literally the same except for the emphasis throughout the course of our next opponent."
Coughlin may never get his answer.
"I'll tell him I don't know," said Snee, who has played through hip pain this season. "I put my heart into this. I've played through a lot. I put the time in, coming in early, 6 o'clock in the morning. I don't know. If I had an answer, I would tell you."
"It's frustrating, and it will be for quite some time," Snee later added. "We're a better team than 9-7. (But) the way we played the prior two weeks, we don't deserve to be in the playoffs."