NFL

G-Men let themselves down in 2012

Tom Coughlin after the Giants beat the Eagles
Tom Coughlin after the Giants beat the Eagles
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Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner is a general assignment writer for FOXSports.com. Originally from Orlando, Fla., he previously covered the Orlando Magic for FOX Sports Florida and has also covered the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and MLB playoffs. Follow him on Twitter.

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.

The temperature gauge read 32 as the New York Giants plodded off the field following their 42-7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, but the steady winds that whipped through MetLife Stadium had it feeling more like the teens, especially once the sun began to dip below the horizon of the stadium lights, fading like the home team’s playoff hopes.

Most of the 80,657 fans who filled the bowl earlier in the afternoon had already left for their cars or for trains home — many doing so after Eli Manning’s career-high fifth touchdown pass of the day with 6:58 left to play. But those who remained until after the final whistle did so shivering and praying, eyes fixed the stadium’s four large video boards showing the end of a Bears-Lions game 600 miles away in Detroit.

With a Lions win, the Giants’ playoff hopes would have still been alive, even if the rest of the chain of events necessary to give New York a chance to defend its Super Bowl title seemed unlikely to pan out. So these faithful fans, a few thousand of them, at best, were going to stick around, bundled up, teeth chattering until the bitter end — until they knew, for certain, that another magical playoff run wasn’t happening.

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That moment came just before 4 p.m. ET, when Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler scrambled for 19 yards on third-and-3 with 3:28 left to play, the run rendering an audible sigh from the MetLife crowd. The Giants faithful groaned again when Matt Forte's 13-yard carry took the Bears to the two-minute warning just seconds after Detroit had spent its final timeout. Then most of the fans just stood frozen — by wind or, perhaps, by sadness — as Chicago kneeled out the clock on a 26-24 win that ended the Giants’ season.

Once the stunning disappointment had set in, the few supporters still in their seats turned and gathered their things and headed for the exits for the final time this year, while the Giants’ players and coaches did the same in the locker rooms below. And as the parking lots slowly emptied, you couldn’t help but think that everyone leaving the Meadowlands in their rearview mirror was doing the same thing — ruminating on the regrets of a season that ended too soon.

“It hurts,” said Manning, who threw for 208 yards, and played a nearly flawless first half as New York cruised to a 35-7 lead in the season finale. “Each year you want to make the playoffs to give yourself an opportunity to win a championship. 9-7 last year was good enough, but it wasn’t good enough this year, and we knew it wasn’t going to be.”

It really is hard to believe that this is how the Giants’ season ended, given the way it started for the defending champs. After a 38-10 destruction of the Green Bay Packers improved the Giants to 7-4 the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it was hard to believe that this team could possibly end up watching the playoffs from home.

But the month of December proved unkind to New York, and back-to-back road losses to the Falcons and Ravens in Weeks 15 and 16 knocked them out of the driver’s seat with one game left to play. In Week 17, the Giants did their part and turned in their most lopsided blowout of the Eagles in 40 years, but in the end, their destiny was in the hands of too many other teams who didn’t come through.

“It goes without saying that the first thing is you don’t ever rely on anybody else in this business,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “You’ve got to take care of your own business, and we certainly had our chances. That’ll be the No. 1 thing that I talk to the team about tomorrow, and I really do want to discuss with some of the players: ‘What in the world was the last two weeks about?’ Quite frankly, I’m anxious to find out if anybody has an opinion or an answer.”

It’s easy to explain the season away as having unraveled in Atlanta and Baltimore, as New York needed just one win in those two games to likely clinch a spot. But it’s really much more complicated than that, and the Giants’ inconsistency has been their bane all season long. As impressive as New York looked in blowout wins over San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans this year, they also looked equally inept in many of their losses — each of which was puzzling in its own way.

In addition to the back-to-back routs down the home stretch, there was the stunning home loss to Pittsburgh in Week 9, during which New York blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, and the shameful blowout in Cincinnati the following Sunday, when the Giants offense didn’t even muster a touchdown until it was trailing 31-6 late in the fourth quarter.

But the defeats that hurt the most — the ones that really kept New York out of the postseason just one year after winning the Super Bowl following an identical 9-7 season — were the three division losses, one to each of its NFC East comrades, by a combined 10 points. New York had a chance in every one of those games, and single win would have likely given them a division crown and a chance to defend their title.

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“There’s a lot of great football teams in this league, and you’ve got to win the ones you’re supposed to,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “That’s why the division games mean so much. Obviously if we’d won the division games, we’re still in the driver’s seat. It’s been a funny year.”

A humbling home loss to Dallas in Week 1 spoiled the Giants' Super Bowl celebration, and an offensive pass interference penalty was their undoing in Week 4 at Philadelphia, where they lost 19-17.

With 15 seconds left in that first Eagles game, Ramses Barden committed an offensive pass interference penalty that made Lawrence Tynes' game-winner a would-be career-long, at 54 yards, and then Tynes missed twice — once wide left, but negated by a timeout, and the other on target but just short.

In Week 12 on a Monday night at Washington, New York moved the ball well against the Redskins defense, but couldn’t seem to find the end zone. The result was a 17-16 loss for the Giants, who led 13-10 at the half and 16-10 after three quarters and had come into the game winners of 26 in a row on the road when holding a halftime lead.

Each of those division games was expected to go in the Giants’ favor, and there’s a case to be made that all of them could have and should have. Even from the outside of the playoffs looking in, it could be argued that New York had the most physically gifted roster in the division this season.

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“You don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to have to be on a team that has the talent to possibly win a championship — the talent to make the playoffs, to give yourself a chance to make it a special season,” Manning said. “We feel like we have that talent here on this team.”

But this game is about more than raw skills, and New York is proof positive of that. It’s playing with consistency and making the most of opportunities and never letting up, and the Giants’ season is now over, perhaps too soon, because they failed too often in those facets of the game.

“We had it in our grasp; we knew exactly what we had to do,” Coughlin said as he reflected on his team’s collapse. “We weren’t able to get that done, and then we came in and played today like we would have hoped we would have finished the season with. I’m sure that’ll be first and foremost on our minds throughout the entire offseason.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

Tagged: Bears, Giants, Eagles, Eli Manning

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