With eight minutes remaining against Philadelphia just over a week ago, the Giants led 31-10 and seemed well on their way to making the playoffs. But that game turned into a shattering 38-31 loss, and the spiral continued in a 45-17 loss at Green Bay on Sunday that left their playoff hopes hanging by a thread that is not entirely within their control.
"I think the players are unsure of how all this came about, as much as any of us are," coach Tom Coughlin said last night, and he wasn't simply referring to the fact that they were stranded in Appleton, Wis., for the second straight night because their charter flight was unable to return.
The Giants (9-6) postponed their return flight to early this morning, but their mental state might be just as fragile as their travel plans after two crushing defeats. To make the playoffs now, they must win Sunday at Washington and hope Green Bay loses at home to Chicago. Both are 4:15 p.m. games. When New Orleans beat Atlanta, 17-14, last night, one scenario for making the playoffs was removed for the Giants.
"We have to have a little bit of help to get it done, but there is a chance," Coughlin said in a media conference call. "That's the incentive for us to regroup and try to put together the kind of game we can be proud of."
Because the Giants knew going into Sunday's game that a win would put them in the playoffs and a loss would give the advantage to the Packers for the final wild-card berth, Coughlin rejected the notion that his team somehow came out "flat'' Sunday. What he couldn't discount was the notion that the Giants still might have been reeling from their previous collapse.
"We played for 52 minutes really, really well the week before, but again, we have nothing to show for that," he said. "If there is a confidence issue, if there is a lack of bounce in our step, we've got to be able to transfer from practice to the field. Last week, I thought the practices were good, and yet, what I saw on the field did not look like we practiced."
He said the defense couldn't stop the Packers in key running situations and was beaten repeatedly in man-to-man pass coverage. He was bothered by the inability to sustain a consistent running game, but more than anything else, he found another six turnovers - four interceptions by Eli Manning and fumbles by Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs - incomprehensible.
The Giants trailed 21-14 at halftime, but Bradshaw fumbled - "A terrible, tragic error," Coughlin said - to set up a Packers field goal. Green Bay's lead became 31-17 after Jacobs lost another fumble deep in Packers territory, and Manning threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter.
"I think it lets the air out of our team a little bit when we turn the ball over like that," Coughlin said. "It's very difficult not to. The fumble right away [by Bradshaw], Brandon's fumble when we're going down and definitely will be in field position where we can get it back to one score, these things hurt.
"I've been saying this all year. Other than points scored and points against, it's turnovers. The word 'psychological' was mentioned earlier. Well, let me tell you, there's a lot of 'psychological' stuff that goes along with this, too."
If the Giants don't make the playoffs, they'll have a long offseason to wonder why.