It wasn't supposed to be like this for the New York Giants, not this season. Those old problems about starting fast and struggling in the second half? Those were behind them, drowned under a wave of Super Bowl confetti on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium one giddy night in early February. This season's team, we were told, had learned from the old mistakes and would find a way to overcome the pattern. They began November with three more wins than anyone else in the division, and it appeared as though they were right.
Yet, here the Giants sit, one game up with four to play and a December schedule that looks as friendly as a polar bear that's down to its last fish. Losers of three of their past four games, the defending Super Bowl champs find themselves in another late-season slugfest, needing to muscle up and play like the NFC East's clear No. 1 team if they're to claim its playoff spot. If they do, they'll enter the postseason as one of the NFC's scariest teams, bolstered by championship experience and recent memories of success against the rest of the teams in the field.
But if they don't -- if the slide continues and the Giants somehow fail to win this division in a season in which the Redskins and Cowboys have struggled so badly and the Eagles failed to post -- then it will be no one's fault but their own. And their leaders should shoulder as much blame as they got credit for last season's success.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning didn't court or revel in the accolades they received as the Giants rolled into and through the Super Bowl last season. Neither is that sort of man. But receive them they did, and the public debate that flowed into the early part of the offseason was about their chances to reach the Hall of Fame. Accolades don't come a lot more juicy than that, and Coughlin's and Manning's were well-earned. But a failure to build on them, rather than revert to the same kind of late-season behavior that used to raise questions about this coach and this quarterback, would be a missed opportunity.
Manning was being talked about this season as maybe the best quarterback in the league. He has clearly proved, during the course of two Super Bowl runs, that he's the guy you'd pick if you needed a quarterback in a big spot in the biggest of games. But the very best quarterbacks don't have wild swings of inconsistency. The very best ones steer their teams through full seasons without the kinds of tough stretches that take their playoff chances from solid to shaky over the course of a month. Manning's self-professed mission this season was to pilot a Giants team that didn't have to stop everybody's hearts before coming through in the end. While his team has looked like one of the best in the league in games against the 49ers, Packers and a few others, it is wobbling in a way that requires its on-field leader to play better than he has.
Coughlin is obviously a great coach, but nobody's perfect. And one of Coughlin's imperfections appears to be that his teams arrive at every December still needing the right kind of kick in the pants. Last season, he delivered it, hitting exactly the right note in the week following a home loss to the Redskins that dropped the Giants to 7-7. He went positive on a team that was expecting a tongue-lashing. He talked up opportunity and appreciation of circumstances. He made his players feel good about themselves at a time when they weren't so inclined. It worked, and as I have written here many times, the Giants' Super Bowl run was the residue of masterful Coughlin coaching.
But it's a tough thing to have to pull off every year, and in the two seasons immediately prior to 2011, Coughlin couldn't. What he's got up his sleeve for 2012 remains to be seen, but the larger issue is that this whole setup keeps happening. Coughlin and Manning said all summer that their goal this season was greater consistency -- to not be the team that has to catch itself sleepwalking and flip the switch when it needs to. This season's Giants have shown the same inconsistent, switch-flipping ways. So whatever Coughlin, Manning, Justin Tuck or anyone else who considers himself a Giants leader believed he could do to change that didn't work.
They are instead left with this -- a one-game lead with four very tough games to go. They never beat the Saints or the Eagles, and sandwiched between those two games are trips to Atlanta and Baltimore -- two of the toughest road venues in the league. It's not going to be easy. It never is with the Giants. It might be that the teams behind them aren't good enough to make up even that one-game deficit. It might be that the Giants play these final four games the way they played the 49ers and the Packers and render the Redskins' and Cowboys' efforts moot. It might be that Coughlin and Manning have been saving up some 2011-12 magic for just this very moment, and we're all sitting here in a month laughing that we ever though it was possible they'd blow it.
But if they do blow it, this goes on their résumés, just the way last season did. If the Giants don't win the NFC East, it'll be a stone-cold choke job, and a failure by their leaders to get them to play like the only championship-caliber team in a weak division. It wasn't supposed to come to this for the Giants, not again. The fact that it has is the responsibility of the men charged with leading them -- the two men that last season's run dropped on the doorstep of the Hall of Fame. If the Giants don't finish this job, that must go on Coughlin's and Manning's résumés -- right alongside last season's Super Bowl.