- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The idea that the Giants can't explain why they're in yet another late-season swoon has been a recurrent theme the past few weeks. They stand at their lockers and admit they're mystified, disappointed, even shocked at how they've lost four of their past five games after reeling off five straight wins at midseason. What's ailing them is either too stupefying or -- more likely -- too uncomfortable for them to publicly admit.
"We know," one Giants starter said Thursday. "But I'm not gonna be 'that guy.'"
So maybe it's time to look at them from the outside in.
If the current Giants don't have any answers, some former Giants think they do.
And they haven't been shy about expressing their opinions as the Giants head into their season finale in Washington on Sunday uttering four of the loneliest words in sports: "We're playing for pride."
The Giants know even if they do improve to 10-6 this weekend, they still need a Chicago Bears team that has already clinched its division title and a first-round bye to go into Green Bay and beat the Packers -- the same Packers who just trounced the Giants last Sunday under the same must-win scenario to get into the playoffs that the Packers will face again this week.
Twice in the past two weeks, the Giants knew if they won they were in -- but they weren't able to rise to the challenge. Now they may miss the playoffs for a second straight year.
But again, why?
Former Giants lineman turned Fox analyst Michael Strahan irked some of his former teammates when he said these Giants don't know how to finish -- as in finish off games, finish off opponents, finish off seasons.
Harry Carson took a few shots at the players Thursday, telling the New York Post that Michael Vick carved the will out of the Giants in the Eagles' comeback win over New York two Sundays ago and now, "It's very eerie. ... It's like they've fallen and they can't get up." Carson said when he watched the Green Bay loss what he saw was, "Some guys who want it and some guys who didn't want it quite as much."
Former Giants offensive lineman Roman Oben -- now a pregame and postgame radio show analyst for the team -- has wondered out loud if Coughlin's willingness to show a kinder side at owner John Mara's urging after a near-player revolt in 2006 has perhaps started to backfire over time and removed the fear factor or edge the team is missing.
Coughlin's supporters would bark back, what missing edge?
Didn't Coughlin bench Ahmad Bradshaw and start Brandon Jacobs, even though Bradshaw was still among the league leaders in rushing, because Bradshaw was fumbling too much? Didn't Coughlin also take some heat for getting in rookie punter Matt Dodge's face on the field just seconds after Dodge kicked the ball straight at dangerous Eagles kick returner DeSean Jackson with 14 seconds left two weeks ago rather than kicking it out of bounds, as Dodge was told to do? You know the rest: Jackson returned the kick for a game-winning touchdown as time expired. The Giants lost the NFC East title.
But Coughlin's critics would answer this way: Would the "old" Coughlin in Jacksonville have hesitated to cut an underperforming rookie punter weeks earlier so he wasn't even around to make that final, fatal mistake against Philly?
For weeks now, the Giants have said they knew their past history of late-season slumps and intended to avoid a repeat this year. Thursday, center Shaun O'Hara went into another passionate defense of Coughlin, saying the idea that his job is in jeopardy is "ridiculous." The Giants have shown this season that they can play better, even when short-handed, than they have the past two weeks.
So again, why can't they perform their best when it matters most?
Quarterback Eli Manning remarked Wednesday that he viewed Sunday's Redskins game as a chance to establish the character of the team and "see if the guys who were here last year learned something, if we remember that feeling of the [last] offseason" -- which would've been a fine answer for Manning to give in Week 1, but not now. Too late.
Manning has a league-high 24 interceptions this season. He's had a hand in more than half of the team's NFL-high 41 turnovers. Not good enough.
Giants star Justin Tuck, who was voted to the Pro Bowl this week in part for being the rare defensive lineman who not only leads his team in sacks but also tackles, was among those irked by Strahan's critique. Tuck retorted he was pretty sure the Giants blew some games when Strahan still played here, too.
Tuck has played his heart out this season, despite often being banged up. He's tried to rally the locker room. But Thursday, he wasn't giving any more paint-peeling speeches. He was low-key. A question about when he'll know the Giants are "on" this Sunday made him sigh, as if he'd given up trying to guess. He said he had no idea because, "If you asked me that question with nine minutes to go in the Philly game, I'd have said we're playing the best ball they played all year."
They were. And then?
Carson is right: Vick pulled their hearts out. The Giants fell. And they haven't gotten up since.
The hard truth is Strahan's "can't finish" observation was a bit reminiscent of what safety Antrel Rolle, who was also voted into the Pro Bowl, piped up and said less than a month into the season. Remember, Rolle, who played the previous five seasons in Arizona, brought a fresh eye to the situation, not a jaundiced one. And Rolle's assessment was the Giants didn't have enough "dog" in them when they played.
Dog. Will. The ability to finish. The lack of an edge. Important players underperforming.
"I don't want to be 'that guy' that says something," one of the Giants players I spoke to Thursday repeated. "But we know.
"We'll see what happens."
If the current Giants don't have any answers, some ex-Giants think they do.