2-2 Giants can't afford to take Browns lightly

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning walks off New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning walks off the field after losing 19-17 to the Philadelphia Eagles. (Sept. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

A quarter of the way through the season, the defending Super Bowl champs are in last place in the NFC East, fresh off a maddening divisional loss that left Tom Coughlin, as he put it, "in the confession box'' as he publicly accepted blame.

And yet, the vibe surrounding the Giants during this busy New York sports week has been, well . . . there is no vibe.

The Yankees have been in a tense pennant race and the Jets are coming apart at the seams.

The Giants? Surely they will be fine, what with Coughlin at the helm, Eli Manning under center, all of those shiny trophies in the lobby and the winless Browns coming to town.

Right? Probably so. But this being the NFL, the foundation on which everyone's confidence in the 2-2 Giants is built is fragile by definition, making a victory Sunday a most urgent matter.

Amazing statistic: The Giants never suffered their third loss before November in eight seasons under Coughlin. Now they must win four in a row to avoid that fate in 2012.

After the Browns, the rest of the month reads like this: at San Francisco, home to Washington, at Dallas. Further ahead is a minefield that includes the Steelers, Packers, Falcons and Ravens. So going to California next week for a rematch of the NFC Championship Game after a home loss to the Browns would not be a recommended path.

Coughlin did his best Wednesday to talk up the competition, first to his team, then to journalists. "Don't be misled by Cleveland's record," he said. "They're a good, young team . . . They play hard, they battle hard."

The Browns have been competitive, losing three times by a touchdown or less, most recently on the road against the Ravens.

OK, if you must quibble, they have a rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden who turns 29 in 10 days and whose 60.4 passer rating ranks 31st in a 32-team league. That's two spots lower than Mark Sanchez!

Still, this is no gimme. Really. But just in case, Coughlin attempted a modest motivational ploy by reminding players who have been around since 2008 that the Giants' only loss in their first 12 games that season was a 35-14 rout in Cleveland.

"I remember," Coughlin said. "I mentioned it to those who were here."

Manning remembered, too, but said it would have no bearing whatsoever on his preparation or motivation.

More relevant is this tidbit: Manning is 23-5 in October, which explains why Coughlin never has started a season worse than 5-2 with the Giants and why a mid-autumn hot streak is a reasonable bet.

But odds are one thing, performance is another. So as the Giants said all the right things about the Browns, they better have meant it.

"A lot of times I don't even know the opposing team's record," Manning said. "I watch film. I see the situations and see how they're playing and I see a team that makes a lot of big plays."

Coughlin's pitch to his team was that the Browns largely are a mystery given their youth and the fact they play the Giants but once every four years. He hopes increased familiarity will breed respect.

"Everyone needs to share with me the attitude I have about trying to study these people throughout the week and getting to know them better," he said. "If you look at the tape, you'll know what I'm talking about.''

So he hopes. The Giants have a history of playing down to inferior competition at home. Doing so this time would be the first step in a dangerous direction.

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