Bob Glauber has been Newsday's national football columnist since 1992. He was Newsday's football writer covering the Jets
It is the one-word theme that Tom Coughlin has drilled into his players' collective psyche, the only issue that applies after all the failures of the recent past: finish.
Coughlin probably has used that word a thousand times on game days, in team meetings, at practices, during interview sessions. For all we know, he mumbles the word to himself at times during the day. He's that focused on the mission.
Well, the day of reckoning is almost upon the Giants' coach. With a win-or-else game against the Cowboys on Sunday night, he will find out if his team has what it takes to complete the mission and advance to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.
Win and you're in.
Lose and you're done. Simple as that.
But there is more on the line than just a football game and a chance to win the division. Despite all of the goodwill engendered by Saturday's win over the Jets in the Battle of New York, the Giants' situation might very well come unglued with a loss to the Cowboys.
Beat their NFC East rivals, the team Justin Tuck openly admits he hates, and the Giants are in the tournament with a chance to win their first playoff game since their remarkable Super Bowl run after the 2007 season. Lose to the Cowboys, and the Giants' inability to follow through on their coach's demand to finish will cost jobs.
Of players and coaches alike.
And if you don't think Coughlin's situation is tenuous, then you haven't been paying attention. Giants co-owner John Mara may have enjoyed a huge sigh of relief after his team beat the Jets and their brash coach. But only if the Giants follow up their gutty performance by defeating the Cowboys will Mara have convincing evidence that a coaching change isn't necessary.
Anything less, and Mara will have every reason to think seriously about whether Coughlin should stay.
I realize Neil Best opined Tuesday that he votes for Coughlin to come back next season on the final year of his contract, and that if things don't work out in 2012, then he can gracefully retire. But I think you have to see what happens Sunday before you can make any determination about what comes next.
Beat Dallas, and it's not an issue: Coughlin is -- and deserves to be -- back in 2012.
But a failure to finish against the Cowboys, and Mara and general manager Jerry Reese will have to give making a move some serious consideration. After all, bringing back Coughlin after the completion of yet another second-half meltdown, capped by a loss to Dallas, would continue a disturbing trend that has been a major part of Coughlin's eight-season tenure.
The numbers go as follows: Since Coughlin became coach in 2004, the Giants have gone 47-17 during the first eight games of the season, including 6-2 this year. But in the second half of seasons, it has been a completely different story -- the record is 26-37, including a deflating 2-5 this year.
Put another way, the Giants have the same number of wins the second half of this season as the Colts, who are 2-13.
Yes, there are extenuating circumstances: The Giants have endured many injuries, although their depth is solid enough that they managed to produce another good first-half record. The schedule was significantly easier at the beginning; the tougher competition, including the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, the red-hot Saints, the much-improved 49ers and the resurgent Eagles, came during the second half.
But with an elite quarterback in Eli Manning, an emerging group of young receivers that includes Hakeem Nicks and free-agent sensation Victor Cruz, and a defensive line that features arguably the league's best young pass rusher in Jason Pierre-Paul, there are enough pieces in place to compete with the league's best.
So there's no reason to believe the Giants shouldn't beat the Cowboys, get to the playoffs and make good on Coughlin's vow to finish and remove the stench from last year's late-season collapse.
It's all right there for Coughlin, with everything on the line. And it comes down to the one word he has been preaching all year.
It's time to finish.
Or else be finished.