EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The scoreboard watching already has begun.
This practice usually does not start until December, when the playoff spots are being doled out, picking up urgency as the desperation grows. But on Wednesday, Giants coach Tom Coughlin reminded his winless team that if the Broncos beat the Cowboys and Big Blue gets its first victory of the season over the Eagles on Sunday, New York will be -- incredibly -- only one game out of the NFC East lead.
Until last year's 4-12 debacle, the Eagles had not closed a season below .500 since they went 6-10 in 2005. The Giants haven't finished last in the division since 2004 -- Coughlin and Eli Manning's first year with the franchise -- and that was a season in which New York, Washington and Dallas all posted 6-10 marks, so it also was a three-way tie for second. But the Eagles and Giants have one win between them right now, and just one half of impressive football -- that belonged to Philly in its Week 1 victory over Washington -- to show for the first month of the season.
The standings in the depressed NFC East are helping to forestall panic, at least for now -- the Dallas Cowboys are in the lead at 2-2 -- so this isn't quite the Save-the-Season Bowl that the records otherwise would indicate. The NFC East is so bad -- its win total is four, or the same number as five teams have individually -- that it is dragging down the rest of the conference. The AFC is 15-7 in games against NFC opponents. Seven of those AFC victories were over NFC East squads.
The edge that always accompanies this game has been reversed. The result usually determines how far the winner will go. This time, it likely will determine how steep the loser's plummet will be. And so the week began with Antrel Rolle insisting he thinks his Giants can go 12-0 from here on out. It included Chip Kelly tartly joking with his team about calling the league office to inquire about a potential trophy should the Eagles exit Sunday tied for first (which would be the case with a Philly win and a Dallas loss).
"It doesn't matter if you're in first place in the first week of October," Kelly said to reporters in Philly. "What matters is, are you in first place after Dec. 29?"
Coughlin cut through all the bluster with his own bracing dose of reality. The coach has endured rough patches in New York before. There seemingly are annual calls for his job, some of them coming mere weeks before the Giants and Coughlin won their two Super Bowls together. But they have not gone through anything like this stretch of futility, getting outmuscled and outmanned and wildly outscored (146-61, to be exact). So maybe it was not surprising that Coughlin let slip a bit of candor when he was asked about the state of confidence on his team.
"Obviously, a win would help a lot," he said. "Success would help tremendously."
There wasn't much poetry or cheerleading there. But when a coach doesn't give a predictable answer about the mental state of the team, it says something. That the confidence is a little shaky. That when Rolle said he wasn't sure everybody in the locker room believed they could win out, he probably was telling the truth. Playing football requires tremendous fortitude, to continue through the physical pounding and pain of nearly every play. To play at the NFL level demands breathtaking self-belief. But it is ephemeral, and a few bad games can be enough to shatter the veneer of swagger.
Intellectually, the Eagles and Giants might know that their seasons remain alive because the rest of the division is inadequate, too. Emotionally, they would just like to have a nice day for a change.
"I'm desperate," Rolle said. "I'm extremely desperate. Desperate to put greatness on the field."
Then, he added: "Play football and have fun playing football. It lightens up the weight a whole lot. We could all use a picker-upper at this time."
The Giants got a small one Thursday, when guard David Diehl -- one of the avalanche of injured offensive linemen who have stalled the Giants' offense -- said he will start Sunday, a bit of good news for a team that listed 15 players on its Wednesday injury report. Then there is this: Since 2004, the Giants are 30-6 under Coughlin in October. That's their best record in any month.
And at the outset of October, the end of the season still is a ways away, but no further than first place will feel for the loser of this game.
Now, let's go around the league. Here are 10 more things to ponder entering Week 5:
1) How will the Patriots' defense do without the big man, Vince Wilfork, especially against the run? Wilfork had not been as effective as usual this season, presumably because he was struggling with injuries before suffering the season-ending torn Achilles. In four games, opponents averaged 4.2 yards per rush against New England when Wilfork was off the field, versus 4.0 when he was on it. But since 2010, the difference is much greater -- 5.2 without Wilfork, 4.0 with him. Wilfork was an important deterrent, too. Opponents ran up the middle less often -- and converted fewer third-down rushes -- when Wilfork was in the game. Can the Cincinnati Bengals -- whose running game was entirely ineffective against the Cleveland Browns in Week 4, gaining just 63 yards on 20 carries -- capitalize against rookie Joe Vellano?
3) Will Philip Rivers' renaissance continue in Oakland? The San Diego Chargers quarterback ranks behind only Peyton Manning in completion percentage, touchdowns and passer rating. And Sunday night on NFL Network, Rivers faces a Raiders defense that gave up 30.5 points per game in the last two weeks, after surrendering just 30 points total over the first two weeks.
4) Which super sophomore will prevail when Russell Wilson's Seahawks visit Andrew Luck's Colts? Through 20 career regular-season games, Wilson leads Luck in wins, completion percentage, touchdown throws and passer rating. Luck's bigger concern? While Indianapolis has the ninth-best scoring offense, that unit must go up against Seattle's No. 2 scoring defense.
5) Can the New York Jets halt an alarming two-game defensive slide on "Monday Night Football"? In the last two weeks, Rex Ryan's defense allowed nearly twice as many points and 84 more yards per game than it did in the first two weeks. Gang Green also failed to log a single takeaway over the past two games. This week's opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, has turned over the ball just five times (tied for fewest giveaways in the NFC).
6) Have defenses really figured out the read option? So far this season, read-option plays are averaging 1.1 yards per play less than they did last season. And this might not be the week that difference gets made up. Robert Griffin III, whose knee surgery clearly has impacted this trend, is on a bye. Wilson is facing the Colts, who all but shut down Colin Kaepernick when they played the 49ers two weeks ago. San Francisco has deemphasized the read option, running it just 16 times in the first three games of the season. Kaepernick and the 49ers play the Texans, who have the league's leading defense. Cam Newton, who ran 127 times last season, has rushed just 16 times in the first three games. The Panthers visit the Cardinals, who currently boast the NFL's second-best run defense.
7) When the Titans and Chiefs play, who drops the ball? Tennessee and Kansas City are tied for the league lead in turnover differential at plus-9. The Titans haven't had a single turnover this season. But Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tennessee's QB while Jake Locker recovers from a hip injury, has averaged more than one interception per game in his 75 career outings.
8) How much will the slow track at Soldier Field -- and the Bears' defense -- slow the Saints' offense? New Orleans is fresh off a 465-yard, 38-point blistering of the Miami Dolphins. Meanwhile, Chicago's defense is allowing 11.2 more points per game this season than in 2012; when the unit doesn't create turnovers, it gets exposed.
9) Can Dallas' defense contain Peyton Manning? The Cowboys do have 14 sacks. But cornerback Morris Claiborne, struggling with a shoulder injury, lost his starting job this week. Does that development actually help keep Manning from becoming the third quarterback to throw for at least 400 yards against the Cowboys this season?
10) Can Matt Schaub and the Texans recover from a devastating loss? Houston built a 20-3 halftime lead over Seattle last Sunday ... only to lose 23-20 in overtime before a shell-shocked home crowd. The second-half flare-out highlighted a two-week offensive regression in which the Texans scored fewer than half as many points as they did in the first two games of the season. Oh, and Schaub has thrown a pick-six in three consecutive games. Next up: A trip to Candlestick Park for a date with the reigning NFC champions.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.