EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants have a clock, just outside their main locker room, that counts down the days until Super Bowl XLVIII will be played at the end of the season in MetLife Stadium. On Monday, it read 131 days, which might seem like an eternity, potentially one of suffering, for those who toil inside that locker room. But really it has gotten late very early for the Giants to right a season that suddenly has gone very wrong.
New York woke up to a football world turned upside down Monday. To the Jets -- the team that conducted one of the least-reassuring quarterback competitions in history, that isn't playing its first-round draft pick much to protect his confidence, that began the season near the bottom of every projection -- having a 2-1 record and an offense and a defense ranked in the top 10 in the NFL.
To the Giants looking so overmatched in a shutout loss to the Carolina Panthers that dropped them to 0-3 that Carl Banks, the former player who remains close to the team as its radio analyst, essentially questioned their heart during a blistering public assessment. To the Giants at the bottom of league rankings in a vision-blurring number of categories, from rushing yards to percentage of passes intercepted to points allowed. To the Giants as a circus, with cameras jostling for position, with Hakeem Nicks saying he can't throw the ball to himself. And Tom Coughlin admitting he doesn't know if the Giants can fix their problems before they play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
"There's things we can accomplish," the coach said. "Can we accomplish everything at one time? I'm not sure."
There wasn't so much panic -- although some Giants fans already have suggested that the game suddenly has passed Coughlin by, a mere 19 months after he won his second Super Bowl title -- as there was a dip into surrealism. One moment Monday afternoon summed up the through-the-looking-glass feeling. Jets coach Rex Ryan walked into his news conference, spotted just one camera where usually there is a horde and remarked: "One camera when we win, 15 when we lose."
If he missed them, he needed only to drive a few miles to the Giants' facility. The truth is not much more than geography separates the teams right now, and the distance between them is not nearly as great as their records indicate. After all, the only quarterback who has thrown more interceptions than Geno Smith (six) this season is Eli Manning (eight).
The fake smile -- all teeth, little sincerity -- that split Ryan's face Sunday night spoke volumes not just about the Jets' victory over the Buffalo Bills but about their place in the football pecking order after three weeks.
That Ryan could smile at all -- and summon some of his recently dormant sense of humor, too -- was a reflection of the Jets' record, of the defense he runs being good enough to keep his team in every game this season. It had eight sacks Sunday and generally befuddled EJ Manuel, the Bills' rookie quarterback. The defense is Ryan's baby, and if he eventually is fired by the Jets, he will be quickly snapped up as a creative and successful defensive coordinator.
While the winning record has quieted the roar that usually engulfs Ryan's team, there is little doubt he remains on a short leash. And what eventually might get him fired is the Jets' reality, the reason that smile was at least somewhat forced: They are nail-bitingly uneven, wildly undisciplined (20 penalties Sunday), prone to shake-your-head mistakes (Smith's two interceptions; Ryan's disastrous challenges) that are somewhat smoothed over by whiz-bang plays (Smith to Santonio Holmes for a 69-yard touchdown). The Jets aren't winning right now so much as they are escaping. They are the NFL's equivalent of the kid who breaks the neighbor's window with a baseball but gets away before anybody can catch him.
That is the bargain the Jets have made to start the season -- actually, it's the bargain the Bills have made with Manuel, too -- and they shouldn't apologize for it, not yet at least. Games are going to be messy -- the Jets are minus-6 in turnover margin, for instance -- but the glimmer of hope for the future is there each time Smith sloughs off a mistake to rifle another pass down field in a nascent vertical attack.
And yet the rest of the schedule lurks, and even in their happy postgame narrative, it was obvious the Jets know they can't keep living on a tight rope like this, because an opponent able to fully take advantage of their foibles would shove them right off. The Jets couldn't overtake an injury-depleted New England Patriots team less than two weeks ago. Teams develop over a season, and Ryan's Jets do not have a history for being penalty-laden. So when Ryan said Sunday night that it will be cleaned up -- by Monday, he was referencing his rule that everybody, including owner Woody Johnson, does push-ups when a player is penalized in practice -- there is reason to believe him. It is reasonable to think that when Smith has more than a handful of starts to his name, he will spot the Jim Leonhards of the world lurking in the deep middle of a defense and know better than to let a pass go anywhere near him.
"We've got a long ways to go," Smith said. "We've got to continue to improve and not worry about the outside distractions or trying to prove anyone wrong because that's when we'll get in trouble."
That, of course, could apply to the Giants, too. But it is the glimmer of hope for the future that is most absent from the Giants, who more than anything seem bewildered by their predicament. The offensive line is aging and injured, the pass rush non-existent, and when Manning isn't flat on his back, he has a good view of a running game going nowhere. The Jets' rebuilding began this summer. But before September is even done, there already were questions if the Giants are due for one, too.
Coughlin left the door open to some personnel changes, but he certainly knows the truth: There is not a holding pen of able offensive linemen and pass rushers waiting to be plucked in the middle of the season. The Giants started 0-2 in 2011 and won the Super Bowl, and because of the NFC East's mediocrity this season, they are unlikely to fall hopelessly out of the race for quite a while. Coughlin never has been one for public introspection, and on Monday, he explained that his philosophy of crisis management was simple -- and one that echoes what Smith said.
"Ours has always been 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,' " Coughlin said. "Basically the way we've tried to do it is to be more focused ourselves and more driven and try to transfer those objectives directly toward our players."
Even in the optimistic moments of training camp, there never really seemed to be a realistic chance that MetLife would be the first stadium to host a home team in a Super Bowl. The Jets and Giants were flawed then, as they are now, the difference between them more about the perception of their best-case scenario than anything else. The Super Bowl clock will keep ticking down, probably toward a quiet winter for the teams that are close enough to hear it.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.