They did it again. The New York Giants started out 6-2, talked about avoiding a second-half collapse again, and then collapsed. Unlike 2011, 9-7 likely isn't good enough to get into the NFC playoffs.
Oh, there is a scenario for the Giants to still get into the playoffs. They need four specific results Sunday. But this team is not recovering from being outscored 67-13 over the last two weeks. They've morphed into a bad team, and they know it.
What went wrong
We all handed the Giants the NFC after half a season. They were cruising to a 7-2 record before a fourth-quarter comeback by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 9 sent the season into a tailspin. Last-minute losses are one thing. Blowout defeats to the Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, and Baltimore Ravens showed huge cracks in the armor.
The team never put together an effective pass rush this season. Sacks can be overrated, but it's incredible that defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul leads the team with ... 6.5. Defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are big-name stars that played like replacement-level guys. Top cornerback Corey Webster had an awful season. Safety Kenny Phillips couldn't stay healthy. The linebacker positions rotated and looked very slow.
Nagging injuries were an issue throughout the team. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and running back Ahmad Bradshaw rarely practiced. Eli Manning noted this made it difficult to get in synch as an offense. The offensive line gave up way too much pressure on Manning, who had his own dips in play, especially before the bye. Rookies like wide receiver Reuben Randle, running back David Wilson and cornerback Jayron Hosley weren't ready to be quality starters.
Manning's performance fell back into the "very good, but not quite great" category. He has 21 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and far fewer big plays. The 2011 season was undeniably the high point of his career so far, and he didn't quite hold on to the gains. The offense's December collapse is surprising, but it isn't the focus of the Giants' stuggles.
The defense was 30th in net yards-per-pass allowed. It was 28th in yards-per-carry allowed. Either the Giants' defensive talent was overrated or they massively underachieved.
What went right
The Giants still rate ninth in Football Outsiders' numbers because they beat up some excellent teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. They've won eight games against the NFL's fifth-best schedule. The Giants trounced the New Orleans Saints as recently as Week 14. They're fifth in turnover margin and scored 50 more points than their opponents despite the recent losses. There was a good team here; there's just no figuring out what team will show up in a given week.
It looks like the Giants found a long-term answer in tackle William Beatty. Pierre-Paul and wide receiver Victor Cruz might have been slightly off their 2011 pace, but they are franchise cornerstones to build around (Paul-Pierre became a fierce run stopper). Despite the two Super Bowls, the Giants still are consistently just better than average. The franchise wins 8-10 games a year and this season was no different.
What still matters
A win on Sunday over the Philadelphia Eagles would salvage a bit of dignity for the defending champs. A win tethered to losses by the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, and Chicago Bears would put the Giants into the playoffs.
What changes are coming
Only one season removed from a Super Bowl title, it's hard to imagine there will be changes to the Giants' coaching staff (although defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's chances of getting a head coaching job have not been improved). Umenyiora is right that "wholesale changes" probably are coming. Umenyiora and Tuck top the list of potential big names that could be let go. The team needs to upgrade from Chase Blackburn at linebacker. Tackle David Diehl has seemingly reached the end of the line with the team.
The Giants need to improve in a lot of areas, but they have enough core young pieces to build around. Improvement from the 2011 draft class and a strong draft next year by general manager Jerry Reese should put the Giants in position for another second-half collapse again next season.Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.