Eli Manning celebrates a touchdown pass to teammate Domenik Hixon...

Eli Manning celebrates a touchdown pass to teammate Domenik Hixon late in the first half against the New Orleans Saints. (Dec. 9, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Tom Coughlin wishes it didn't have to come to this on such a regular basis, and for the life of him, the Giants' coach really doesn't have any explanation for it.

This cycle his teams almost always go through can be so maddening to him at times, yet ultimately so satisfying, especially when there is a Lombardi Trophy to be hoisted in the end.

The best Coughlin can come up with to explain these mystifying second-half slumps, followed by resilient, impressive victories like the one he had just presided over Sunday night, is the quality of competition.

"Unfortunately, you're playing against good people," Coughlin said after the Giants beat the Saints, 52-27, in a big-play extravaganza that included a record-setting day of kickoff returns for David Wilson, four touchdown passes by Eli Manning and two more interceptions by Stevie Brown. "This is a highly, highly competitive league, and parity is there. We're all about trying to be consistent, but sometimes that doesn't happen."

Actually, it happens too often for the Giants' own good. Consistently, they produce excellent records in the first half of the season (at least 5-3 each year since 2005), only to struggle in the second half. Only once -- in 2008 -- did Coughlin's Giants win the division with ease. Second-half struggles every other time.

Including this one.

After a 6-2 record at the halfway mark, the Giants again failed to retain momentum into the second half. They lost three of their next four and went from a commanding lead in the division to a skin-of-their-teeth lead.

They entered Week 14 with a one-game edge over the Cowboys and Redskins, and they took the field just minutes after both teams came back to win in dramatic fashion.

In other words, lose to the Saints, and poof goes the NFC East lead.

Familiar territory for the Giants: backs pressed firmly against the wall. That's when they do some of their best work -- this game included.

With three games left, the Giants (8-5) remain in control . . . barely. But maybe that's a good thing, because this team is used to a late-season high-wire act.

Such as the one last year, when they squeaked into the playoffs with back-to-back wins over the Jets and Cowboys and went on to win it all. Or in 2007, when they got in as a wild card the next-to-last week of the regular season, then ran the table in the playoffs.

Even in 2006, when the Giants beat the Redskins in the final week to make the playoffs and save Coughlin's job, they responded to the win-or-else pressure.

"I would hope we play our best all the time, but it's not the case," Coughlin said. "We have traditionally done a decent job in certain years when we had no margin for error and our backs were to the wall. If that's the case, then let's keep our back to the wall."

Of course, it doesn't always work out in the Giants' favor; they folded in the fourth quarter against the Eagles late in the 2010 season and missed the playoffs. But as defending champions, the Giants know the best way to get in position to repeat is to win out -- or else they might need help to get in.

So no dwelling on this big win, something they've been guilty of this season, especially after statement games against the 49ers and Packers.

"I think we kind of got caught up in some of our big wins and didn't play our best the next week," Justin Tuck said. "So I'm already thinking about next week. These are playoff-type games. This is what it's all about: December football, leading into the playoffs."

The best way to get there: Accept the pressure and use it to your advantage.

"You're better off if you feel that you have to win each one of these games," Coughlin said. "The way you solve your own problems is to take care of your own business. How do you take care of your own business?"


Said Coughlin: "Win."