Coughlin, Giants thrive under playoff pressure

Coughlin, Giants thrive under playoff pressure

Published Jan. 15, 2012 11:37 p.m. ET

GREEN BAY, Wis. – New York is the perfect place for Tom Coughlin. The pressures, the demands. It has something to do with the importance of living on the edge. Or in Coughlin's case, living on the ledge.

Five weeks ago, the New York Giants were a shambles and the Green Bay Packers were the ideal franchise. On Sunday, the Giants crushed the Packers 37-20 to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

It wasn't a fluke. If you have been watching Coughlin and the Giants all these years, you should have had one thought: It figures.

People will talk about momentum, and hitting your stride at just the right time. There is truth in that, but maybe it isn't just happenstance.

The Giants are not just handling pressure well; they are feeding off it. They are pushed by it. They are notorious for this, as is Coughlin, who surely was on the verge of being fired not long ago. He is about to fired nearly every year, and then pulls off the most amazing upsets: Green Bay twice now, and New England in the Super Bowl.

Coughlin has earned long-term security, but don't tell him that. Instead, Giants fans should plan on calling for his job every year. Not that they need to be given that advice.

Five weeks ago, Aaron Rodgers was the king of football. This was his league. On Sunday, playing for the first time in three weeks, he stunk.

Meanwhile, Eli Manning was ridiculed at the start of the year for actually suggesting that he, well, gosh, likes to think of himself among the league's elite quarterbacks.

Now, he might be two wins from the Hall of Fame, not to mention passing his brother, Peyton, in Super Bowl wins. Despite these years in New York, Eli has managed to continue looking like a ninth grader going to the prom. It's hard to believe he can even grow a beard. The stubble looks out of place.

But he is learning to be a killer.

"It is his mentality," Coughlin said. "It is his approach. He is a studier and a pounder. He is looking for every little advantage that he can get. He loves playing against the best competition, but it is just all about doing the best for his team."

The big moment everyone will talk about was the 37-yard Hail Mary at the end of the first half. Coughlin and several of the Giants talked about seeing the ball arching up in the air, and then coming down toward a pile of players.

And then, emerging above the pile, were red gloves. Receiver Hakeem Nicks' gloves. He pulled down the ball and couldn't believe he had it.

The Giants work on that play every Saturday, though they never actually throw the ball. It's all about being in the right spot at the right time.

"It's one of the few (Hail Marys) I've actually thrown up," Manning said. "I've never had one completed before . . . on our side."

It was a defeating moment for the Packers, who were down 20-10 at halftime. But really, there was no defining moment. The whole game, the Giants were just more solid, more complete.

A great thing about football is that no matter what the records are going in, you almost always feel that the better team won. There is no such thing as a lucky punch, or a starting pitcher just having the game of his life. Head-to-head is usually defining in football.

The Giants are better than the Packers. And yes, when the Giants lost to Washington on Dec. 18, it was their fifth loss in six games.

Coughlin sees that as the turning point.

"We started to believe and trust each other," he said. "Our defensive people got together and decided that they were better than the way we had been playing. Success breeds confidence."

Yes, but failure bred something, too.

To some people, aggravation is just a disturbing noise. To Coughlin, it seems to be a symphony. And his teams are so based on discipline that they always have a baseline to fall back on. Coughlin doesn't panic, and with his team in need, he still suspended starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw for the first half of the Dallas game for reportedly breaking a team curfew.

The Packers lost their only game of the regular season Dec. 18. It didn't seem to matter. They were still going to win the Super Bowl again. They were the ideal: Built the right way on scouting and draft choices and player development. No quick fixes.

On Sunday, they looked like a one-man team of Rodgers, who was off.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy shut everything down after the game on Christmas Day. Rodgers sat out the final game, as did several other top players. The idea was to keep them fresh, and free from injury.

But it was a mistake. The Packers then had a bye in the first round of the playoffs. So Sunday was the first time Rodgers had played in three weeks. And he and the Packers had their worst game at the most important time.

Someone asked McCarthy whether the team was rusty.

"No, no excuses," he said. "We practiced well."

No excuses. I don't think McCarthy understands. This is about blame.

A few weeks ago, with the Giants in trouble, and the defense and running games gone, and Coughlin in danger, he wasn't talking about running from the pressures. He wanted to add to them:

"We've tried to spell it out to our players and our players understand what's going on," he said at the time. "I think there is peer pressure. I wish there was more. I don't know that necessarily that's the way that it is in our league anymore, but I wish it was."

This isn't the way we are taught anymore. We encourage kids in sports, give them ribbons when they try really, really hard. When my son was younger, he once told me that was insulting. Kids know that losing is losing.

The truth is, that's good. But we try to blur the picture. Even with adults, we try to take pressures off at work.

And it's possible that some people just react differently than others.

But in the NFL, tension is going to be there whether people want it or not. The best players, coaches, teams are the ones who live for it.

Decades ago, baseball player Fred Lynn thrived in Boston, and then went to California and struggled. He complained that he missed being booed.

Some people need that. So if you want to do a big favor for Coughlin, Manning and the Giants, New Yorkers, then you might want to meet them at the airport . . . with nasty signs and catcalls. Push them out onto the ledge.