The New York Giants' schedule finally has theoretically gotten easier. Unfortunately for them, it's come too late.
With their playoff hopes essentially extinguished by a six-game losing streak, the Giants insist they are still focused on 2014, and they'll try for a desperately needed victory when they visit the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
New York (3-8) was unable to measure up to the NFL's best in its past six games, losing to Philadelphia, Dallas twice, Indianapolis, Seattle and San Francisco. The stretch exposed the Giants as a team with plenty of rebuilding left despite an offseason spending spree designed to get the club back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
Instead, the drought reaching three since winning their fourth Super Bowl title is a near certainty, as they were eliminated from the NFC East race with Sunday's 31-28 home loss to the Cowboys.
''Being with the same crew for a year, two years, or three years, it is going to make you stronger and more comfortable,'' Eli Manning said after passing for 338 yards with three touchdowns and one interception last week. ''We had some new guys on this squad and hopefully we will be able to stick together for a few more years and make something special.
"I think it can start right now. It can start at this time. I think we have made some improvement, we are doing some better things, but it is not too late to get on a hot streak, and get things rolling right now.''
New York's next four opponents - the Jaguars, Tennessee, Washington and St. Louis - have a combined 10-34 record.
The Giants have certainly had chances for a victory during their skid, and were on the verge of one last week. Manning directed a 14-play, 93-yard scoring drive to give them a 28-24 lead with three minutes left.
The embattled defense couldn't hold it, as Dallas responded with a drive capped by Dez Bryant's 13-yard TD catch with 1:01 remaining. New York's past two losses have come by a total of nine points.
Rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the biggest reasons the Giants have hope for the future. The emerging star's spectacular one-handed catch for a 43-yard TD on Sunday that garnered national attention was one of his 10 receptions for 146 yards and two scores.
He's caught 31 passes for 503 yards in the past four weeks and has five TDs on the season.
''I hope it is not the greatest catch because with time I hope I can make more,'' Beckham said.
Beckham and Manning could be in for another big game together against Jacksonville (1-10), which is 30th in the league in total defense at 388.2 yards per game - just ahead of the Giants at 396.5 - and near the bottom with 257.5 passing yards allowed.
The Jaguars were outgained 389-194 and are second-to-last in the NFL in offense at 304.1 yards. Blake Bortles played his worst game of the season, going 15 of 27 for 146 yards - 107 of those in the fourth quarter - and an INT.
''My hope is that fear hasn't entered in the equation for Blake, where he gets in there and he's going, `Oh, I made an interception' and, `Oh, I've thrown a couple interceptions. Boy I need to make good decisions and I'm going to hold onto the ball,''' coach Gus Bradley said of his rookie QB. ''We don't want that from him.''
Jacksonville also managed 80 yards on 23 carries.
Bradley's defense, however, should have a good chance to make life miserable for Manning and the Giants offense. The Jaguars, third in the league with 33 sacks, racked up five last week and recovered three fumbles.
That could spell trouble for New York's struggling offensive line. Manning has been sacked seven times in the past three games, and stopping Jacksonville's Chris Clemons (seven sacks), Ryan Davis (5 1/2) and Sen'Derrick Marks (five) should prove to be a challenge.
''Defensively, I thought we played very well. I was very pleased with our effort,'' Bradley said. ''I think some guys really stepped up, especially in the first half."
This contest will mark a seemingly appropriate milestone for the Giants' Tom Coughlin, who began his NFL coaching career as the expansion Jaguars' first coach in 1995 and will coach his 300th regular-season game Sunday. Coughlin led Jacksonville from 1995-2002, going 68-60 and reaching the AFC championship game twice.