After one of the sorriest performances in Giants history, the team struck an apologetic pose Monday.
"I apologize, I'm sorry," Eli Manning said less than 24 hours after his Giants lost to the Panthers, 41-9, and the team's playoff hopes were extinguished with last night's Cowboys win over the Redskins. "I wish I had an answer. I wish we could have come out and played better football. I just don't have the answer to why it happened."
Tom Coughlin was equally contrite.
"To a man, we'd like to apologize for [Sunday]," he said. "For whatever reason, a team that had an awful lot to play for, that had opportunities there, that was playing in Giants Stadium for the last regular-season game, didn't play up to our capabilities. It's been a very frustrating thing."
As the Giants slunk into their training facility Monday to prepare for the final game of the regular season and attempt to analyze what went wrong against the Panthers - punter Jeff Feagles compared it to a kid who knows he's messed up and now has to face the punishment - the gravity of what they missed out on with their inconsistent play began to set in.
The Giants are only the third team since the playoffs were reconfigured in 1990 to start a season 5-0 and not make the playoffs (although the Broncos, who started this year 6-0, have a chance to join the club). Since 1990 there have been only 14 other teams to be five games over .500 at any point in the season and not make the playoffs.
The Giants had been to the playoffs four consecutive years. For the first time since Manning was a rookie, in 2004 when Coughlin was a first-year coach, the Giants will be watching the postseason from the outside.
"You get to thinking that comes with the territory, that it's something that happens every year," Manning said. "You forget how difficult it is to make the playoffs . . . I think it kind of opens your eyes back up again in that we have to get back to playing better football."
Was there ever a time when Manning could imagine himself standing in front of his locker apologizing?
"No," Manning said. "You hope you never have to."
As for a reason for the collapse, there were few offered. Even as Coughlin met with the team's leadership council Monday, it seemed that answers - like wins - were in short supply.
"There were a couple of references perhaps to confidence and playing from behind and that kind of thing, but really nothing that was of great benefit that I can use in a planning way going forward," Coughlin said.
For many Giants, this is the first time they'll have to play a regular-season game with their season already finished.
"Based on the year we had last year and the way we lost [in the playoffs] and the way things were going this year, you kind of thought things would go in the same direction," defensive back Terrell Thomas said. "We never could get back on track."
Third-year tight end Kevin Boss said it was strange accepting the end of a championship chase.
"I've been fortunate enough to be in the postseason my first two years," he said. "It is difficult knowing we won't be back this year."
But there are others who have been through this before and know that it's only the luckiest six teams in each conference that advance beyond the 16-game schedule. The rest wind up playing out the string.
"They're in unfamiliar territory," veteran linebacker Danny Clark said of the young players who have known only success in their careers. He's urged them to play hard in the final game. "This is our thumbprint that we leave on that tape," he said.
Feagles was more blunt.
"You play for your job," he said. "I've been on a 4-12 team in '03 and when you're not playing for anything, you're playing for your job. That's the way I've always looked at it."
Coughlin said he would not "stoop" to telling the players that they are playing for their jobs on Sunday in Minnesota, but he thinks the message still got through to the team.
"There's a lot of character in this room and they do have a lot of pride," Coughlin said. "They understand how important it is to go out and win."
Understanding the importance of games hasn't been the problem for the Giants this season. Responding to it has.