As they begin the five-game homestretch that will define their season, the questions persist whether the real Giants team is the one that twice won three games in a row and overcame fourth-quarter deficits to defeat Philadelphia, Arizona and New England on the road or the squad that has dropped its last three games, including a 49-24 defeat Monday night to the Saints in New Orleans.
Tom Coughlin has an unambiguous opinion about that topic.
"We're a better football team than the way we played last night," Coughlin said on a conference call today.
They will have plenty of opportunity to prove it. The Giants will next face the NFL's lone undefeated team, the 11-0 Green Bay Packers, Sunday in MetLife Stadium. Two of their final four games are against the Dallas Cowboys, who now own a one-game lead on the Giants in the NFC East. They will also face Washington and the Jets.
The Giants control their division title destiny and that will remain true for at least another week, no matter what happens against the Packers. But it will slip through their fingers if they don't play a complete game on offense, defense and special teams as Coughlin has preached since … well, forever.
He has not received that lately. One week after the Giants held Philadelphia to 17 points, but lost because they scored only 10, the Giants scored 24 points in a loud and hostile environment (though 14 of them were scored in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was no longer in doubt). They squandered chances to add to their point total. But the defense couldn't stop the Saints' top-rated offense, allowing 577 yards (the second-highest total in history by a Giants opponent), including four touchdown drives of at least 80 yards (one that took just 34 second to complete).
"We have to put all three phases together and win a game," Coughlin said. "We can't have the continuous one group plays pretty well, the other group doesn't and is spotty in the third. We can't have that and we shouldn't be having that this time of year. We should be playing much better, much more consistently. We should know who we are and we should be performing much better."
Any losing streak elicits questions about a team's collective confidence, and Coughlin and the players have started to get their share. They have not won since their stirring comeback victory at New England on Nov. 6. What had been a two-game lead over every other team in the division has evaporated. And they are in the midst of arguably the NFL's most grueling second-half schedule.
Coughlin's only focus is on defeating the Packers and improving to 7-5.
"A win would help a lot," he said. "No question. The confidence, the questions would certainly go away, but nevertheless, we have to play better. We have to earn that right."
The questions to which he refers are about the Giants recent pattern of putting together records of 6-2 or 5-3 in the first half of a season, but not matching them in the second half. Coughlin insists each team is different and what occurred in 2010 or in prior seasons has no bearing on the current squad. But the players hear the questions and know that winning is the only way to make them disappear.
"It's tough, because we know in the back of everyone's head they are going to say, ‘What's wrong with the Giants' after three straight losses," defensive end Justin Tuck said after the Saints game. "But for us, we look forward to the next game because we feel like it's the playoffs right now. We aren't going to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. We are going to go out there and fight."
"We can't get down and we can't get frustrated," said quarterback Eli Manning, who threw for 406 yards and two touchdowns in his second professional return to his hometown. "We have to figure out how to bounce back. We know we've lost three straight games and we know we have a short week and a big game coming up. These last five games for us are big and will determine our season. We just need to figure out how to play better football than what we are doing right now."
That task falls to Coughlin. Each week he studies the game tape and sees where the Giants might have scored a touchdown here, or prevented one there. He believes the team is close, even last night when an interception on the Giants' first series, a failed fake punt that he called a "debacle" and a fumble on a direct snap to rookie running back Da'Rel Scott hurt their chances to run with the Saints.
"There's a lot of disappointment," Coughlin said. "Some people, quite frankly, there was some outstanding play and some outstanding performances. They won't be recognized because of the outcome. When I mentioned to you that I'm taking responsibility for two of those scores, I meant what I said. I also think we should have scored one more time. So you do the math and I'm not going to tell you that that would have made us feel any better or the game would have appeared any closer, but I am going to tell you that that is the way I feel."
Coughlin was asked yet again about the team's recent second-half performances.
"I am very interested in finding out how you lose a game by a touchdown when you do so many good things or last night," Coughlin said. "How is it that we are unable to defend or cover things that we have practiced all week and seem to do a pretty good job of? I am certainly aware of that our team is well aware of this and we have talked about staying focused. We know what the schedule is and each week, we diminish by one and the opportunities diminish as well so we have to take advantage of them as best we can. I don't see any connection between teams, I just see the reasons why you don't win and why you do win. We are trying as hard as we can to help our players so that we are in a better position to win."
And now here come the Packers, who have won 17 consecutive games, including their postseason run last year that ended with a victory in Super Bowl XLV, and nine consecutive road games.
The Giants embrace the challenge presented by a team trying to finish the season with a perfect record.
"That is why you play the game," Coughlin said. "We are just as interested in taking our best shot as anybody that gets the chance to play against a very good football team that was the world champion a year ago. We are going to prepare as hard as we can. We are going to work as hard as we can. We realize that the margin is thin and we are going to have to play very well in order to accomplish this but we think we can.
"This is a short week and we really don't have time, quite frankly, to even get stuck on lamenting over this game. We've got to move forward. You know the schedule and we've got to flip the page and jump right into our preparation against an obviously very, very good Green Bay team. You talk about a group that's confident and flying high, well, certainly they are."
If the Giants beat them, they will reverse course once again and head into the season's final quarter with a huge dose of confidence in their own locker room.
*Coughlin said defensive end Osi Umenyiora and linebacker Mark Herzlich, who each left the game in New Orleans with an ankle injury, were being examined at the Hospital for Special Surgery. He was unable to provide an update on their condition.