"Hope," Tom Coughlin said today, "is a nice word."
It is after a disheartening shutout loss that not only cost the Giants sole possession of first place in the NFC East, but seemingly control of their postseason destiny. But before he reached his seat on the Giants' charter flight following the team's 34-0 loss yesterday in Atlanta, Coughlin learned the Giants can become a playoff team without help from anyone else. If they win their final two games – Sunday in Baltimore and the finale at home vs. Philadelphia – they will be no worse than a wild card team.
To the Giants, joining the playoff field is all that matters.
"That's what we have to focus on," Coughlin said.
"In is in," quarterback Eli Manning said. "You always want to win the division. That's always kind of the goal at the beginning of the year, because that's the only way to insure that you make the playoffs. But ultimately it's about getting into the playoffs and our focus is to win these two games and we're in. Whether we're division champs or wild card, it doesn't make a difference."
The Giants are 8-6 and tied with Dallas and Washington atop the NFC East. Because they have the poorest division record of the trio, the Giants are technically in third place. But they can win the division title if they win both of their games and the Cowboys and Redskins each lose at least once.
Two victories would also get the Giants to 10 for the season. Dallas and Washington both cannot finish with 10 victories, because they face each other in the season finale. If both of those teams win twice, the Giants would compete with Chicago, Minnesota and possibly Seattle for the sixth and final NFC postseason berth.
The Seahawks are 9-7, while the Bears and Vikings are 8-6. If Seattle stays one game ahead, and the Giants, Chicago and Minnesota all win out to finish 10-6, the Giants would enter the playoffs based on a better conference record.
If the Giants and Seattle Seahawks are the wild card teams with 10-6 records, the Giants would get the fifth seed based on a better conference record (8-4 to 7-5).
The Giants can clinch a postseason berth this week if they win and Washington (at Philadelphia), Dallas (vs. New Orleans), Chicago (at Arizona) and Minnesota (at Houston) all lose.
That's a lot of games that have to fall the Giants' way. The Giants can guarantee themselves a berth by winning their last two games. And that will require quite a bit of improvement from the performance they put in yesterday, when they fell behind less than three minutes into the game, put little pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and journeyed inside the Atlanta 20-yard line just twice.
That the Giants would play so poorly one week after crushing New Orleans, 52-27, was baffling to some players and the head coach.
"Unfortunately, we've had bad games in the past," Coughlin said. "We have used the theme of consistency; I pounded away on that on Saturday night and obviously that didn't work. Consistency two-fold: one, in terms of our execution and our performance, but the second thing is the passion and so-on and so-forth that we bring to each and every game knowing the circumstances."
"We've shown this year that we can be one of the best in the league and then there are times where you're not sure if we're playing like the worst in the league," guard Kevin Boothe said. "It can be frustrating. What always comes back to us is just being consistent. I think that's how you become an elite team in this league, stringing together several successful games in a row. But all that stuff is the past. We learned from it and here we are in a situation where we have a big game this week."
In Baltimore, the Giants will face a team that is dealing with its own issues. The Ravens have lost three consecutive games, including a 34-17 home defeat yesterday to Denver. But unlike the Giants, they have already clinched a playoff spot.
The Giants hurt themselves across the board in Atlanta where they suffered their first regular-season shutout defeat in 16 years. The offense managed only 10 first downs and owned the ball for just 21:03. They failed on three fourth-down conversion opportunities, plays that could have given the team some momentum and led to points.
"We could have executed better," Manning said. "I think it's just a matter of certain plays. If you look at the first half, having 200 yards of total offense and getting down there having good drives, we just didn't finish. That's just a part of football and each week it can be a matter of certain plays that can dictate the game and how things turn and obviously we didn't play our best."
Defensively, the Giants were unable to inhibit Ryan, who completed 23 of 28 passes, three for touchdowns, and was sacked only once.
It was the fourth time in five games the Giants had no more than one sack.
"We're being well pass-protected," Coughlin said. "We're not getting, and when we do get the one-on-one, we don't seem to be able to get there. The rhythm of the throw is gone. The ball is off. Should that be the case consistently? No, of course not. We should have more pressure on the quarterback, but it has not happened for us and so we continue to strive for it to happen."
An inability to pressure Ryan was not the Giants' only defensive issue.
"We need to be more physical," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "We're not shedding blockers. We're not tackling. I think they (the coaches) said we had 18 missed tackles yesterday. That's not championship defense."
For the Giants to win another championship, they have to find their way into the playoffs. Thankfully for them, they can get there without depending on anyone else.
"Every team in the league starts out, they want one goal," Coughlin said. "You can't even have that goal till you get in the playoffs. You spend your whole time, for us, it's win the division. That is something that really is not in our control, but being in the playoffs is."
Now they have to take advantage of that opportunity.