By Don Banks
November 12, 2009

The realization that the world can turn upside down with remarkable speed in today's NFL is hardly a novel observation. But as I surveyed the landscape this week at the league's halfway point, I was struck by just how quickly a season -- even a really good season -- can completely fall apart.

Just ask the New York Giants. All it takes in the NFL these days to change everything is a bad month, and boy, are the G-Men having one.

Four weeks ago, the Giants were preparing to travel to New Orleans to take on the 4-0 Saints in a Week 6 battle of NFC unbeatens. New York was 5-0, had beaten its past three opponents by an average of 24 points, and looked like the smoothest running machine in the league.

You know what happened. The Saints jumped on the Giants early, scoring touchdowns on five of their six first-half possessions, and cruised to a shockingly easy 48-27 win. And New York still hasn't recovered. The loss at New Orleans begat an equally disturbing defeat at home to the Cardinals, which begat a rout in Philadelphia, which begat Sunday's late-game meltdown against the visiting Chargers, who somehow got out of the Meadowlands with a 21-20 win.

In the proverbial New York minute, everything about the Giants has seemingly changed. They've forgotten how to run the ball downhill. They've forgotten how to rush the passer and play their typically tough-minded Giants defense. And despite being perhaps the most confident team in the league in the opening five weeks, they've forgotten how to hang tough when games get close and make the plays that make the difference.

Consider this: Starting with their unforgettable playoff drive of 2007, a run that strangely enough was sparked by that widely saluted Week 17 loss to undefeated New England, the Giants went 21-5 through Week 5 of this season, the best record in the league over that span. And then, almost out of the blue, came these four straight losses, nearly matching their entire total of defeats from the burst of dominance that included parts of the 2007-2009 seasons.

Quarterback Eli Manning, who's playing hurt but says he's fine, is taking heat for his inaccurate passing and failing to make enough big plays when the moment demands. Running back Brandon Jacobs is taking heat for tip-toeing into holes instead of thundering through defenders as has been his custom. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is taking heat for his play-calling, especially in the red zone. New Giants defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan is taking heat mainly for not being Steve Spagnuolo, the successful and well-liked former Giants defensive coordinator who is now head coach in St. Louis.

None of it works right now, and this week, head coach Tom Coughlin, with his team's downward spiral paused but not stopped by its bye, came out and attempted to draw the bull's-eye on his own back. It's too soon to know if the attempt at deflection was successful, but it was admirable and set a nice example in terms of accountability.

"I thought it was perfectly clear, but let me express it so no longer does anyone else receive any type of blame,'' Coughlin said on Monday. "Let me start out by saying that I'm responsible for all of the decisions that are made with our football team. "The [red] zone decisions are my responsibility. They are nobody else's. No one else made a mistake. The quarterback did not make a mistake. The decision was mine.''

Maybe, and it's a big maybe, the Giants' swoon wouldn't be quite so painful were it not for the corresponding rise of the Cowboys in the NFC East. While New York hasn't won in a month, Dallas hasn't lost in a month, going from 2-2 to 6-2 and in sole possession of first place in the division. The teams' Week 2 matchup in Dallas, won by the Giants, 33-31, on the night Jerry World opened, seems so disconnected to today's reality that it might as well have been played in September 1999.

But that's the NFL. A month can change everything, and the Cowboys have experienced the happy side of that story. Dallas was 2-2 and being buried after its 17-10 Week 4 loss at Denver. The Cowboys barely survived in overtime at Kansas City the next week and haven't lost since, going from third place, two games behind the Giants, to first place, 1½ games ahead of New York.

Sunday evening in Philadelphia, I sat at Lincoln Financial Field and watched the end of the Chargers-Giants game on TV while preparing to cover the Cowboys-Eagles showdown. In a span of about three and a half hours, the NFC East race got tossed around like a summer salad. The Giants scored 13 fourth-quarter points to take a 20-14 lead, but gave up a Philip Rivers touchdown pass of 18 yards to Vincent Jackson with 21 seconds to go, falling to 5-4 when it looked almost certain they had righted themselves and would head into their much-needed bye at 6-3 (which is leaps and bounds better than 5-4).

Then the Cowboys went out and won a tough, low-scoring game on the Eagles' home field, vaulting themselves into first place in the division and completing the stark juxtaposition of Dallas and New York at midseason.

Unbelievably -- but then again, maybe not -- a check of some of the Giants blogs this week showed New York fans whipped into a frenzy by the dispiriting four-game slide. Some went as far as to say Coughlin and Giants general manager Jerry Reese just don't have it any more, and the G-Men's ownership should be on the phone to Bill Cowher's people -- like yesterday.

It was as if the Giants' whole 21-5 run of dominance never happened, and the Super Bowl glory of just 21 months ago was meaningless ancient history. That's the extent of the damage a bad month can wrought in the NFL. Somewhere I read this week that no eventual Super Bowl champion has ever had a four-game losing streak, so I suppose the Giants might as well fold up shop for the year upon hearing that.

It may not feel like it today, but here's a reality check for the anxious and agonized Giants fan: New York played a pretty good game against the Chargers until the final three minutes, and at 5-4, it is very much alive in the NFC playoff picture.

For starters, being 1½ games behind the Cowboys with seven games remaining (Dallas and Philly have eight left) is hardly insurmountable. Especially given that New York already owns a win at Dallas and can sweep the Cowboys and earn the head-to-head tiebreaker at home in Week 13. Also, New York plays four of its final seven games at Giants Stadium, and it still faces all three division foes once more, with Dallas and Philadelphia coming to New Jersey and the Giants traveling to woeful Washington.

It's true New York's remaining schedule is no picnic. The Giants play five more games against teams that currently have winning records, and those include Atlanta, at Denver, and at Minnesota, in addition to the Cowboys and Eagles. But in all likelihood, the Vikings will have everything wrapped up in terms of their playoff positioning by the time they host New York in Week 17 and won't have much to play for -- which is the exact opposite of when the NFC East champion Giants lost 20-19 at Minnesota in Week 17 of last season.

But don't lose sight of this key development: If the playoffs opened today, the Giants would be out of the money as the seventh team in the six-team NFC field, but they're just a half-game behind the wild-card leading Falcons and Eagles (both 5-3). In fact, with seven of the NFC's 16 teams having three wins or fewer, there are only nine teams still legitimately vying for the conference's six playoff berths. And NFC North members Chicago and Green Bay (both 4-4) look like they're in a race to eliminate themselves.

So in this season's NFC playoff picture, a 5-4 record leaves you anything but buried. In New York's case, a 9-7 record, providing it includes a win over the Falcons next week at the Meadowlands, might be enough to ensure a fifth consecutive postseason berth in the Coughlin era.

For what it's worth, that would continue the longest such streak in the NFC, and trail only league-leading Indianapolis in that department. But in New York, this is probably a bad month to bring that up.

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