If incentive could be stuffed into a container, the Giants will be dealing with an overflow when they take the field at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday to face the Cincinnati Bengals.
The entire team and coaching staff has looked forward all week to rectifying the outcome and performance from their 24-20 loss last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unit evaluations made nobody feel better, because players on offense, defense and special teams all thought they played far below their capabilities.
"This is a very, very important game for our football team," coach Tom Coughlin said. "A lot of teams would like to be 6-3; we'd like to be 7-3. That's pretty obvious. I've called upon them to be pros, to focus."
Playing better and boosting their lead in the NFC East should provide all the motivation the Giants need to play as they did during the four-game winning streak that preceded the loss. But in case they need more, there's the realization that they'd have to sit on another loss for two weeks, because the Giants' bye follows the game against the 3-5 Bengals.
"It would make a whole world of difference," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said. "You have a long time to sit and think about the loss and it's difficult to enjoy your bye week with your family when you're coming off of a loss, especially if you felt like you personally could have done things better. So that's what my personal goal is and I'm sure that's what the whole team's goal is to just make sure that no stone is left unturned. If it's extra studying, if it's extra conditioning, if it's extra running to the ball, we've just got to get that done so we can come out with a win."
Players up and down the roster have made a similar vow this week. The members of the offense surely tired of answering questions about their perceived shortcomings after a 182-yard outing vs. the Steelers – the second game in a row in which the unit scored only one touchdown. With the outcome in the balance, the offense went three-and-out on each of its three fourth-quarter possessions.
"We have to be more consistent with our execution and I think we're trying to do that," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said.
A good place to start would be third down, where the Giants converted only five of 25 opportunities the last two weeks. That contributed to a total of just 24 first downs, the team's lowest two-game total since Coughlin's first season as coach in 2004. How do they raise that total?
"Get better on third down," Eli Manning said. "The last couple of weeks, we haven't been very good on third down. Those are failed drives and each one has its own story of why it wasn't successful. A little off here, the defense makes a play there, you get a tipped ball. Little things can come into factor and we're not catching breaks right now. So, we have to do a good job of making our own breaks. Sometimes, you get a little bad luck and we have that going for us right now. But we've got to start executing a little bit better and start making those plays."
Defensive players have uttered similar quotes this week, because they were similarly displeased with their execution against Pittsburgh. Most disturbing was the 158 yards allowed on the ground, including 147 by Isaac Redman. It was the second time in three games the opposing team ran for more than 150 yards.
"Obviously, we didn't play New York Giants defense," tackle Chris Canty said. 'It wasn't our best effort. We understand that, but as coach mentioned earlier, that discontent can lead to progress for our football team."
"I thought that we didn't shed well and we didn't tackle well," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "That was my impression of how we played. We could've tackled a hell of a lot better. We could've shed a hell of a lot better in that football game to make some football plays."
The special teams can't escape the scrutiny the rest of the team has been subjected to. Strong for most of the season, the coverage teams gave up kickoff returns of 50 and 68 yards and a punt return of 63 yards last week.
"We're (ticked) about that," special teams coordinator Tom Quinn said. "The defense bailed us out (the Steelers did not score after any of those runbacks), take our hats off to them, but we have to do our job. We didn't do our job, we weren't physical enough, weren't fast enough down the field and we didn't get off any blocks. … We were more consistent last year. I think we have more tackles inside the 20 this year, but we don't want to be giving up one every couple games or the stuff that we had last week. We have to be more consistent."
Although the list of areas to improve is long, this is hardly the time to be alarmed. The Giants players are convinced their Pittsburgh performance was an aberration, one bad week that will be put aside if they win in Cincinnati.
"One game doesn't change our perception of the team," Kiwanuka said. "It just makes it critical that we don't have two of those games in a row and in order to stop that, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and be honest and say, 'Okay, I could do this better, I could do that better and make sure we get it done.' The sky is not falling. We're not panicked around here. We're going to ramp it up a little bit and make sure we do everything in our power to come out with a win."
"It's another tremendous opportunity in front of us," Canty said. "We're looking forward to going out there and competing against a very good Cincinnati Bengals football team. They're a very young, hungry, up-and-coming team, so they present a lot of challenges. I think guys have really put this team under the microscope and really honed in on preparing for this challenge, preparing for the personnel and different things that they do and how they try to attack the opponents and I think that kind of focus is going to bode well for us going into Sunday."
They certainly have enough incentive to play well.
*Three Giants have been declared out of Sunday's game: safety Kenny Phillips (knee), linebacker Jacquian Williams (knee) and cornerback Michael Coe (hamstring).
*Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), guard Chris Snee (ankle) and linebacker Keith Rivers (calf), a former Bengal, are questionable. Snee, for the first time this week, and Rivers practiced on a limited basis. Bradshaw did not practice.
"I've gotten to rest some this week and do some rehab and I feel better every day," said Snee, who rolled his ankle in the first quarter against the Steelers but stayed in the game. "I'd love to be out there, but that's a decision we haven't made yet and you could talk to the head guy."
So what does the head guy think?
"He feels better, but I think we'll see (if he can play) in another couple days," Coughlin said.
Center David Baas (ankle/elbow), linebacker Chase Blackburn (hamstring), running back Andre Brown (shoulder), wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (knee), tight end Bear Pascoe (ankle) and Canty (groin) are all probable. Nicks was limited in practice, the other five players in that group worked fully.
Blackburn did not play last week, but said he is ready to go in Cincinnati.
"I've continued to push myself harder," he said. "They allowed me to do more things throughout the week and I haven't had any setbacks. So I'm continuing to get stronger and hopefully I'll just continue along that path with this day off tomorrow."
*If the Giants win Sunday, they will have the NFL's best record in games prior to a regular-season bye:
Team Won/Lost Percentage
Giants 18-5 .783
Dallas Cowboys 18-6 .750
Seattle Seahawks 17-6 .739
New Orleans Saints 16-8 .667
San Francisco 49ers 15-8 .652
Minnesota Vikings 15-8 .652
*The Giants trail in their series with the Bengals, 5-3. The home team has own all eight games, so the Giants are 0-5 in Cincinnati, including a 23-22 loss in Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 26, 2004. They also lost to the Bengals in Riverfront Stadium in the series' first four games (in 1972, '77, '85 and '91.) The teams last met on Sept. 21, 2008, when the Giants earned a 26-23 overtime victory. The Giants also defeated the Bengals at home on Oct. 26, 1997 (29-27) and Dec. 11, 1994 (27-20).