Tom Coughlin today charted the Giants' course for the final month of the regular season.
"It's a four-game season and we have to win, literally, every one of our games," Coughlin said on a conference call. "That's how I look at it."
The Giants face that daunting challenge after losing last night to the Redskins in Washington, 17-16. They still lead the NFC East with a 7-5 record, but Dallas and Washington lurk right behind them at 6-6. And with a 2-3 record in division games, the Giants likely will not win a tiebreaker. So to ensure a playoff berth, they're going to have to win the division. The only way to guarantee that is to win every game.
It's a significant understatement to say that will be difficult. The season's fourth quarter begins Sunday at home against the always-dangerous New Orleans Saints, who are 5-3 in their last eight games after an 0-4 start. The Giants will then hit the road to face Atlanta and Baltimore, two teams with a combined record of 20-4, before concluding the season at home against their nemesis, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Although disheartened after losing a game they believed they should have won, the Giants said in their locker room following the game that they can right the ship before it sinks.
"We still have a great opportunity ahead of us," quarterback Eli Manning said. "We have some tough teams to face, but that is what will make it exciting. These next four games will be big games. We have to play better football and find a way to win games."
"We have the lead," linebacker Michael Boley said. "Our destiny is in our hands."
To avoid letting it slip away, the Giants must raise their level of play over what they showed last night. Coughlin began his call today by pointing out numerous positive aspects of the Giants' performance: holding the Redskins to 17 points, a 60 percent success rate on third down conversions (nine of 15), 390 total yards, no turnovers and owning the ball for 33:13.
"Some of the things that we started out to do in the game, we did," Coughlin said.
That was particularly true in the first half, which ended with the Giants leading, 13-10. But in the second half, they gained only 117 yards – 31 rushing - had five first downs and, most importantly, scored just three points. The Redskins scored the game-winning points on Robert Griffin III's eight-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon with an 11:31 remaining. The Giants had two chances to win, but punted the ball away each time.
"The second half was like watching something totally different," Coughlin said.
What most bothered Coughlin was the nine penalties assessed against his team, the most by the Giants in more than two years. They had incurred an average of 4.4 penalties per game before traveling to Washington. Many of the infractions were notably harmful, including a holding call on tackle Will Beatty that negated an 11-yard gain on third-and-10 on the Giants' final possession. Instead of a first down on the Washington 46-yard line, the Giants faced a third-and-20 on their own 33. They punted after a four-yard gain and never again saw the ball.
"We had nine penalties in the game, which made the game appear as if we were sloppy and careless," Coughlin said. "Kickoff return and punt return with the (three) special teams' penalties and six offensive penalties - two false starts, an intentional grounding, the delay and two offensive holdings, none of which ever come at the right time. Statistically, we do a lot of work on drives with penalties within drives and the percentage that scores occur. It's a very difficult thing to overcome a 10-yard penalty, as you can imagine."
Moments later Coughlin said, "The penalties are a natural thing, which, as a coach, just flat-out eats away at your gut. How in the world can a team with something this important be as careless as we were? Those are the things that still eat away at me today. The day after a game of that nature and I am one that goes toward the reasons for the... I try to balance it out, the good and the bad, but unfortunately when you lose, the bad kind of eats away at you and draws your attention to it.
"The lesson is pay attention, pay specific attention to the way in which games are lost in this league if you're sloppy with your penalties, if you turn the ball over, you don't give yourself much of a chance to win."
The Giants have much to correct and improve upon in a short work week. But they are still in the driver's seat in a division race they very much want to win and firmly believe they can.
"Win the games that are presented," Coughlin said. "The one that's right in front of you is a New Orleans team that has battled and played very well of late. That's what we'll focus on."
*The Giants have held fourth-quarter leads in two of their last three losses.
"That's not something that our goal is," Coughlin said. "We did talk about finishing this game last night. We didn't win the fourth quarter last night. They had seven (points), we had none."
*Coughlin did not offer specifics on the "serious" knee injury suffered by Sean Locklear, but said the tackle will undergo surgery and be placed on injured reserve. Locklear, signed as free agent to be a backup tackle, started seven games, including last night's. He was hurt in the fourth quarter.
"We feel badly for Sean," Coughlin said. "Here's a guy that's come in here not knowing our system and has played well for us. He's been there when we needed him. He's done a heck of a job and we all feel bad about this taking place at that point in time last night and it is a serious injury and we're very upset about that."
*Statistical leftovers from the Washington game:
--Joshua Morgan put the Redskins on the scoreboard when he caught Griffin's airborne fumble and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. He was the first Giants opponent to score an offensive touchdown on a fumble recovery since Nov. 20, 1988, when Philadelphia wide receiver Cris Carter fell on the ball in the end zone after tight end Keith Jackson fumbled it; Jackson had just caught a pass from Randall Cunningham.
--The Giants lost despite converting nine of 15 third-down opportunities (60 percent). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time they lost a game in which they had at least nine third-down conversions since Sept. 5, 2002 vs. San Francisco (nine). They had last lost a game with a success rate of at least 60 percent on Dec. 29, 2007, when they went six-for-10 vs. undefeated New England.
--Washington rushed for 248 and 207 yards in its two games against the Giants this season. The last division (actually then the Eastern Conference) foe with a pair of 200-yard rushing games in the same season was the 1965 Cleveland Browns, who ran for 243 and 232 yards in two victories over the Giants. The Redskins' 455 rushing yards is the most by a Giants opponent in one season since that Cleveland team had 475.