No one knows for certain if Giants coach Tom Coughlin must win Sunday to keep his job with a year remaining on his contract and a lockout looming on the horizon. But amid speculation about whether the Giants will show up for him against the Redskins in Landover, Md., the crusty veteran coach revealed the depth of his faith in this group of players after Friday's practice.
"This is my team, and I love these guys one way or the other," Coughlin said. "I told them two weeks ago that I was proud of them. They were shocked that I said that after the Philadelphia game."
The Philadelphia game, of course, is where a season headed for the playoffs went off track when the Giants - after taking a 21-point lead with 8:17 remaining - surrendered 28 points in the final 7:28 in a 38-31 loss.
"They wouldn't think that I would be open with that statement, but I did," Coughlin said of his players. "We all know the game is about performing; it's about executing; it's about winning. So to that end, we are a team; we are all together, all our goals are team-oriented. We just have to go do it."
If the Packers (9-6) beat the Bears in Green Bay on Sunday, they will get the final NFC wild card no matter what the Giants (9-6) do by virtue of their 45-17 win over the Giants last Sunday. Another poor performance after the defensive letdowns of the past two weeks could undermine Coughlin. But in a week rife with media speculation about his job security, Coughlin said he hasn't addressed that issue with the team. "No," he said. "It's not about me."
Just as the Giants did after their stunning loss to the Eagles on Dec. 19, they have responded with a strong week of practice. As they left the field Friday, the players sounded unusually upbeat and animated. "We had good enthusiasm," Coughlin said. "I think the key thing for us is the physical aspect of the game - win the line of scrimmage."
A defense that was dominant in the middle of the season as the Giants won eight of 10 heading into the second Eagles game suddenly came unraveled in the past five quarters. Or, as Coughlin noted: "It's not five quarters. It's less. But it's not just the defense. It was the way our team played last week."
Defensive tackle Barry Cofield acknowledged the intensity level was lacking at Green Bay, but he doesn't believe there is any similarity between the current defensive problems under new coordinator Perry Fewell and the beaten defense under Bill Sheridan at the end of last season.
"I definitely think we're far more capable than we were last year," Cofield said. "Last year, we didn't have the horses. I definitely didn't have the level of confidence I have going into this Week 17. I fully feel like we've got everything in place to win."
The Giants will be facing a different Redskins team than the one they dominated in a 31-7 win Dec. 5 because Donovan McNabb has been replaced at quarterback by Rex Grossman. Even if the Giants beat the Redskins (6-9), 10 wins might not be enough.
"We had two weeks when we were in control of our own situation," Coughlin said. "We need help now. We pray we get that help. The first thing we have to do is go to Washington and win, and that's all I've been focused on."
Coughlin will know soon enough if his prayers have been answered.