Can Giants again reclaim the magic?
Welcome back to the latest installment of down-to-the-wire football by the Giants, when it comes down to what happens next, after they've backed themselves into a corner, again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again.
They had another strong start to the season, ending the first half with a 6-2 record, a trend they figured would continue into the second half and serve as a springboard to the postseason for a chance at the team's first Super Bowl repeat.
Instead, coach Tom Coughlin again is trying to figure out what's wrong in the midst of another second-half swoon. And if the Giants don't beat the Ravens in a virtual must-win situation Sunday, the two-time championship coach will have to explain away his team's latest collapse.
Sound familiar? It should, because the Giants have been here almost every season in the Coughlin era. Twice they've come away champions. The rest have ended in disappointment.
"We have the two-game schedule and we have to win both games to get into the playoffs and everybody's aware of that," Coughlin said. "Hopefully we'll play the way we feel like we're capable of playing."
Capable is one thing. Actual is quite another.
When the Giants have played the way they're capable of playing, they are the best team in football. Statement wins over the Packers, 49ers and Saints have shown that much.
But the Giants have underachieved too often, particularly during their 2-4 stretch in the second half. Now they're left with one last chance to turn it around. Win at Baltimore and at home against the Eagles, and they're in the postseason with a chance to repeat. Lose once, and they'll need plenty of help. Lose twice, and it's over.
"The reality is we haven't been able to play to substantiate what I would say is the personality of this team," Coughlin said. "So I'm definitely counting on the veterans to go ahead and prove this. Last [season], we did it over a six-game run, and we're exactly in that situation again."
Last year at this point, they were 7-7 and teetering on the edge of elimination. But Victor Cruz's 99-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the Jets sparked a two-game winning streak that earned the Giants the NFC East title. And they elevated their play in the postseason, winning their next four games to earn a second Super Bowl title in the Coughlin era.
They won't get there again unless there is another dramatic turnaround, this one just a week after the most thorough beating the Giants have suffered since Coughlin and Eli Manning came to the Giants in 2004. Can they erase the memory of last Sunday's 34-0 embarrassment in Atlanta?
There's no saying they can't, because they've survived this late-season high-wire act twice before, setting the stage for playoff brilliance. But there won't be a chance for a third ring this season unless the two constants from their previous Super Bowl runs re-emerge -- elite quarterback play from Manning and a dominant pass rush.
Manning needs to play the way he did in those games against the 49ers, Packers and Saints, without the turnovers and inefficiency he has displayed too often this season -- most recently against the Falcons, when he had his worst passer rating (38.9) in five years.
Like a championship golfer able to recover from bad shots, Manning has shown a similar ability to overcome poor performances. For instance, he threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions in a win over the Packers after a miserable performance against the Bengals, a loss that completed a three-game stretch in which he threw zero touchdown passes.
Equally important is the Giants' pass rush, which has almost disappeared the last three weeks. The Giants seem to think they've got the best defensive line in the game, but it hasn't shown up since they sacked Aaron Rodgers five times Nov. 25. The Giants have three sacks in three games since.
Even if Justin Tuck misses Sunday's game because of his shoulder injury, the Giants have enough manpower to sustain a good pass rush. But even with Tuck the team allows 4.6 yards per carry, 26th in the NFL.
"We had 18 missed tackles, man, and that is not acceptable," Jason Pierre-Paul said of the Falcons game. "We cannot have missed tackles."
Pierre-Paul said the pass rush isn't as bad as some are making it out to be. We beg to differ.
If the Giants can get to Joe Flacco and disrupt the Ravens' passing game, there's still a chance. If Manning can solve the Ravens' injury-riddled defense, hope remains.
Beat the Ravens, and the Giants can play themselves into January.
Lose this one, and it's just about over.