EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Well, this is a departure, isn't it?
The never-too-high, never-too-loud New York Giants are still only a 4-6 team, and yet they're suddenly chattering this week like they're the best 4-6 team that ever lived. And the fact that the Dallas Cowboys, who gouged them for six turnovers to eke out a 36-31 season-opening win, are coming to town Sunday with their pretty 3-0 division record just sitting there, waiting to be ruined, is only a sidelight.
The noise coming out of the Giants' locker room has less to do with what they think of Dallas and more to do with what they think of themselves.
The Giants weren't talking as if their season was on the brink of Armageddon when they were 0-6. If anything, they were as confoundingly even-keeled as a winless team gets.
So what prompted Jason Pierre-Paul to open his mouth Wednesday and promise the Giants are going to play this Week 12 game as if "it's the Super Bowl" and go on to predict it'll be a "bloodbath"? And why did fellow defensive lineman Justin Tuck say the Giants' intense dislike for the Cowboys will make Sunday's rematch one of those vicious games that leave everyone seeking out the cold tub or trainer's room come Monday?
Simple, says Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas, who has been stealing looks across the locker room this week and enjoying how bold Pierre-Paul's and Tuck's and everyone else's talk has become now that the Giants have strung together a four-game winning streak.
For the first time all season, the Giants have finally created a bit of a clearing for themselves where they can actually see a realistic way to salvage their season -- starting by beating the hated Cowboys and making the NFC East a tight, three-way race with the Eagles. Linebacker Jon Beason has helped them get better at stopping the run. Andre Brown's return has given Eli Manning a running game that can help him, for a change. And Tuck is playing like Tuck again.
So if the Giants are talking more than usual, Thomas says it's because they've figured a few things out about themselves since their 0-6 start and now know why they're winning -- which is crucial to keeping the winning streak going.
"It's a lot of things," Thomas said Thursday. "If we're talking more this week, it's because we know this is our season. If we lose this game, we know our chances are slim and none. So that's how we're approaching it mentally and physically and emotionally -- whatever we've got to do or say to get ourselves into it this week, do it."
But the other piece to it, Thomas added, is the strength that comes from "the way we pulled together" when "we could've fallen apart."
That's certainly not the mood in Washington right now, where Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III has sparked a debate about what true leadership looks like by publicly criticizing the team's offense and coaches, only to be rapped on the knuckles himself by veteran receiver Santana Moss. Tampa Bay saw its season implode into recrimination and countercharges. Big-dreaming Houston fans were so frustrated with the Texans' lousy start they actually cheered when quarterback Matt Schaub lay on the field hurt weeks ago.
So how did the Giants avoid all that toxicity and save themselves?
Thomas says, "We challenged each other. Behind the scenes, we called each other out, and as men, we took it for what it was: 'I gotta play better. I've gotta to do this.' Because what it was, we were beating ourselves at times. We were getting mishaps here and there. But we were beating ourselves. Once we stopped doing that, you could see how good we could be."
But wait, Thomas was asked: Was it just the defensive backs challenging other defensive backs, or say, the beleaguered offensive linemen breaking off into their individual position group meetings to figure things out on their own?
"No, no. It was everybody," he said. "Everybody held each other accountable. Everybody looked each other in the eye and said, 'We've got to get better.' It took us longer than expected, but we finally got it right."
Like a lot of Giants, Thomas gives coach Tom Coughlin a lot of credit for holding things together too. The 67-year-old coach used to knock heads with the likes of safety Antrel Rolle and prodigal son Brandon Jacobs, who was cast off and then invited back again this season. But now both Rolle and Jacobs are among Coughlin's strongest supporters. And it was hard to miss during the Giants' winless start how Coughlin seemed to pull out the oldest coaching trick in the book: He didn't rant at the Giants when they were down; he's only lately been getting cranky now that they're winning again.
Thursday, he was complimentary about the Giants' practice but finally back to grousing a little about details that "need to be cleaned up."
Behind the scenes, Coughlin has always favored planting little thoughts in his players' heads as well. The hallways at the Giants' practice facility are filled with large posters touting selflessness and teamwork. Thursday, wideout Hakeem Nicks was wearing a team-issued shirt that read: "Do it for your brother." A few other players wore shirts that read, "Build a bridge."
Hokey as it all sounds -- considering we are talking about players promising to turn Sunday games into bloodbaths -- Coughlin has seen how maintaining the right kind of work environment, regardless of the team's record or which player is up or down, pays dividends. He strongly believes having the right team values, not just talent, can lift you out of almost anything. Or at least make the hard times shorter.
"The nature of what your philosophy is, and what your beliefs are, sometimes can be magnified by utilizing someone of stature who may have said it better," Coughlin explained Wednesday. That same day, this was the message he gave to his team: "People who achieve great things that the world will never forget start out by accomplishing small things that the world will never see."
That emphasis on personal accountability is the same as what Thomas described. It's a mindset that has helped the Giants keep whatever tension or doubt or frustrations they felt in-house, and then channel their energy the right way rather than dwell on doomsday scenarios when their record kept sliding to 0-3, then 0-4, then 0-5.
Thomas said all along, the unchanging message was just, "Win the game this week."
It's funny what even four wins will do for a team. Manning, who has been mucking through one of the worst statistical seasons of his career and still leads the NFL in interceptions, smirked Wednesday when asked if his new beard is a "superstitious" nod to the Giants' winning streak and then shot back, "I just think it looks great." Jacobs was asked if "as dark as things were around here, did you really think that five weeks later you'd be playing a big game against the Cowboys and it would be something that mattered?" and he quickly answered, "No question."
Dallas has the better overall record. Dallas is ahead of the Giants in the mediocre NFC East. And yet it's the 4-6 Giants who are beating their chests and talking big this week, as if they have the 5-5 Cowboys right where they want them. As if they're not buying all the talk that their winning streak was built against backup QBs, none of them as good as Tony Romo.
"Well, it's Dallas -- there's no love lost," Thomas said with a smile Thursday. "At the end of the day, you can say whatever you want. You can put 'I can't stand them' on the bulletin board, or whatever. But you still have to go out there and play. This is still all about who wants it more.
"And we'll be bringing our best come Sunday."