EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In his 18th season as a head coach, Tom Coughlin is well-versed in the postmortem news conference and is rarely surprised by any question the New York media throws at him. When a reporter Monday noted the New York Giants’ season seems “pretty close to being over,” Coughlin interrupted.
“It’s not going to be over until the five games are over,” he said, the words popping from his mouth in rapid-fire succession. “The one thing that all of you would like to try and figure into this — ‘Oh, you don’t have anything to play for’ — we got a lot to play for. We got a lot to play for.”
Gearing up for Sunday night’s contest against the struggling Washington Redskins, the Giants spent the first half of the week still reeling from last weekend’s 24-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The last-second nail-biter knocked the Giants’ record to 4-7, meaning they’d likely have to win out to even hope to be in the playoff conversation one month from now.
“The only way to fix it is to get back to work and try to get another win,” quarterback Eli Manning told reporters Monday. “We’ve dealt with some losses here before and been able to respond.”
After starting the season 0-6, Manning & Co. seemed to finally stumble on a working formula in recent weeks. Before the Dallas game, New York had strung together four straight wins and seemed pointed in the right direction. The team prides itself in having a balanced offensive attack, and while the Giants still have their struggles in the red zone, they enter Sunday’s contest at FedEx Field markedly different than the squad that was a September laughingstock.
The Giants began the season with virtually no ground game. They enter Sunday night’s contest on pace to finish with 1,414 rushing yards this season, which would be their lowest total in 14 years — since Tiki Barber was a young situational back in 1999.
But a lot has changed since running back Andre Brown returned to the lineup. Brown suffered a fracture in his left leg in the team’s final preseason game and was sidelined the first nine weeks of the season. In three games since returning, he has totaled 308 yards, including an impressive 127 on 21 carries against Dallas.
As a team, the Giants topped 100 yards just once in the first half of the season — 123 yards against the Chicago Bears in Week 6. Last week, with Brandon Jacobs chipping in 75 yards on the ground, they totaled 202, by far their best mark of the year and something they hope to continue building on.
“We’re still going to go out there and fight,” Brown said. “You never know what’s going to happen at the end of the season. Go out there and get hot again. . . . Hopefully some things fall in our lap where we can play in the playoffs. There’s no giving up.”
On Sunday night, Brown will be facing a Redskins defense that’s giving up an average of 111 rushing yards per outing, not to mention a league-high 15 touchdowns on the ground this season.
Against the Cowboys, Brown had nine plays of at least nine yards, the kind of production that should open up the entire offense. “At times, you kind of say, let's just keep running it,” Manning said. “We were getting nine to 10 yards a pop, let’s just keep doing it.”
They have confidence in their skill-position pieces but are struggling to get them all working at the same time. While the ground game has improved, the passing attack was far from consistent against Dallas. Hakeem Nicks was inactive with an abdominal injury and Victor Cruz had just two catches, his lowest mark of the year.
The New York locker room still believes in Manning — and a good quarterback in the NFL can change a team’s fortunes in a hurry — but they also know that six-game early-season hole leaves no margin for error.
The Giants are averaging 19 points a game and on pace to post their lowest single-season point total since 2004 — Coughlin’s first season. They put together one win streak and know they likely need to string together another to salvage the season. Only two of their final five games are against an opponent with a winning record. (Two are against the 3-8 Redskins.)
“I think we know we have to win these next five games to give ourselves a shot,” Manning said. “It’s still just a shot. Nothing is guaranteed. But there’s still hope.”