Pressure is on Giants

In a league where it's prudent to revisit any franchise's playoff pulse in two- or three-week increments, the latest measure of the New York Giants' heartbeat after three consecutive defeats is notably faint.

You can't, though, say the same thing for the Giants' collective blood pressure.

Place a blood pressure cuff around the arm of just about anyone in the New York locker room, it seems, and the elevated systolic and diastolic readings are those of a team about to explode. The irony is that the Giants appear more like a group poised to implode.

On Nov. 12, the Giants were 6-2 and facing the Chicago Bears at home for a game that was supposed to define NFC supremacy. Three weeks later -- after a second-half collapse against the Bears, an uninspiring effort in a loss at Jacksonville, and the unthinkable meltdown at Tennessee last Sunday -- hardly anyone appears conscious of the fact that a victory over the visiting Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon nudges the Giants back into first place in the NFC East.

Least cognizant of that, it seems, are the Giants themselves.

If the past three losses have represented the slow and confounding deterioration of a team once regarded as possessing Super Bowl potential, this week has been the equivalent of a freight train rumbling downhill with its brake lines purposely sliced. And there have been plenty of engineers, given that the team has more agendas than a congressional appropriations hearing, grabbing for the controls but still not trying particularly hard to avoid a train wreck.

Certainly, there have been enough public collisions to signal a team in dire straits. One can only imagine what has transpired internally. In the office of coach Tom Coughlin, it's likely that the flies on the walls have, by now, donned headsets to cancel out the din. Unfortunately, the Giants seem to have turned a deaf ear to Coughlin as well.

Ravaged by injuries and with a defense minus six starters, including its two Pro Bowl ends, the Giants could use their burgeoning attrition rate as a convenient excuse. To their credit, they have not. And maybe that's because the deeper wounds that have struck down the Giants are the self-inflicted ones.

Yeah, the performance of quarterback Eli Manning has been miserable, as he has completed a pedestrian 51.6 percent of his passes over the last six games and thrown six touchdowns passes but eight interceptions in that stretch. And tailback Tiki Barber hasn't found the same kinds of holes he did earlier in the season, or to listen to him, hasn't been afforded ample opportunity to find them. The defense has been hampered by injuries and sprung numerous holes. And, for sure, some coaching decisions and play calls on both sides of the ball have been dubious.

But if the Giants continue their slide, it's just as likely to have been what occurred off the field, even more so than what's transpired on it, that will have proved their undoing.

The same gang that ran off former coach Jim Fassel is now, clearly, trying to do the same with Coughlin. Not even the names have been changed in an attempt to protect those culpable. There are just enough agents provocateurs in the New York locker room, most with ready access to a competitive media contingent, to undermine coaching authority. And, truth be told, Coughlin hasn't always helped himself, either, beseeching players to keep grievances in house and then airing dirty laundry himself on occasion.

Maybe we were naive, but until talking with players and media and some assistant coaches this week, we weren't aware to what extent the vultures were circling Coughlin's head. Having seen the Giants first-hand in two of their three straight losses, it was obvious there were problems on the field, but those have now been superseded by the loud rumblings off it. Still, we just figured the normally conservative Giants front office would view the player unrest as just a few malcontents and deal with them in the offseason.

The problems, however, run deeper than that. There is a perception now that, while everyone sits straight and with eyes focused during Coughlin's meetings, players are making faces at him the minute he turns to leave the room. If you're the principal, how long can you retain a teacher who is regarded with such a dearth of basic respect? And so with some chagrin, because we still think Coughlin is a top-flight coach, it seems fair to acknowledge he's in trouble.

New York lost its final eight games of the season in 2003. It began the Coughlin era in 2004 by dropping its eight of its last nine games, winning the finale. Losing out the rest of the way this season would mean a pair of eight-game slides on Coughlin's watch and that would almost mandate some action.

It has been a painful year of transition for the Giants. The team lost its co-owners, the sainted Wellington Mara and the highly-regarded Bob Tisch, in a three-week span last season. General manager Ernie Accorsi will retire at the end of this season and Barber has announced this year is his last. That's a lot of upheaval for a franchise always viewed as a pillar of stability in the league.

Should the franchise be forced to change coaches, it would be another, well, Giants step backward. But when the league-owned network and Web site are both reporting that Coughlin could be coaching for his life this Sunday against the Cowboys, one can't help but take notice.

Only a few weeks ago, everyone felt The Big Blue was headed toward a special season. The flickering pulse of the Giants right now, though, suggests it could be a Big Blew It season instead.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.