EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Early on the morning after the New York Giants won their most recent Super Bowl, Tom Coughlin stood in a hotel ballroom and mused that he would soon enough be back on the hot seat. It probably would happen the following season, he said with a smile, the Lombardi Trophy with his fingerprints on it gleaming just a few feet away, and he figured the speculation would have something to do with his age. As the oldest coach in the league, the then-65-year-old Coughlin surmised, something inevitably would prompt someone to say he had lost his touch with players.
Coughlin's prediction, made nearly two years ago, was off only in its timing, but on everything else that day, he showed as much of a knack for grasping the realities of being an NFL head coach in an overheated media age as he has for holding a team together under laughably difficult circumstances. That Super Bowl season, after all, included nearly constant questioning of Coughlin's job security, a four-game losing streak, a sleepwalking loss to the Washington Redskins that dropped the Giants to 7-7, and a victory in a win-and-they're-in regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys.
That now seems like it was a mere off-Broadway rehearsal for the klieg-lit drama the Giants already have endured this season, beginning with an opening-night loss to Dallas that Coughlin called devastating and continuing with the six-game losing streak that it begat, the speculation about whether the Giants would force him to retire and the four-game resurrection that has followed.
As the Giants (4-6) prepared for Sunday's rematch against the Cowboys (5-5), Coughlin -- off the hot seat yet again -- stuck to his usual routine of reviewing the standings with his team at the start of each week. This time, after more than two months of misery, that exercise must have stood out. A victory over the Cowboys would move the Giants only one game behind the NFC East-leading Eagles (who are off this week).
While all around them, other teams allow their trials to play out in public -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones noted right after a loss to the Saints that his decision to change defensive coordinators didn't look so good, and the Atlanta Falcons have the appearance of a failed contender that has quit in the face of adversity -- Coughlin kept his angst private.
"I shut the door and say, 'What have I gotten myself into this time?' " Coughlin said in an interview this week, laughing as he pretended to stare at the ceiling. "But not in front of anybody, in front of the players or coaches. The dog, I kicked so bad ... no, I don't have a dog."
The reality is that Coughlin's career had prepared him for precisely the moments when the Giants most needed him to be steady. That he bounded into team meetings with the same pep as always, that he kept drumming into players the importance of noticing the little things; these are lessons he has learned about consistency over his long NFL tenure.
It is no accident that one of the pivotal games of Coughlin's career was a statistically meaningless one: the 2007 regular-season finale, in which the coach decided the Giants would play all-out against the Patriots. New England was playing to complete an undefeated campaign, while New York, having already clinched its playoff seeding, had nothing but pride on the line. Coughlin, in the face of criticism centered around the injury risk, could not conceive of playing a game without trying to win. The Giants lost, but in trying so hard -- and giving the Patriots a scare -- they proved to themselves they were the Pats' equals, gaining confidence that was put to good use one month later, when they beat New England to win the first of two Super Bowls under Coughlin.
Decisions like that -- along with Coughlin's guidance through the meandering 2011 season that resulted in the next Super Bowl championship -- bought the coach tremendous credibility among his players.
"I don't know if there's a number for it -- it's through the roof," said linebacker Jon Beason, who, as an in-season acquisition, has the advantage of viewing Coughlin and the Giants through the eyes of both an outsider and an insider. "I've seen the way he interacts with the older guys here; everybody really trusts him. He tells them something, they trust him and he'll have your back. He's so consistent, he's so anal to time and his own point. You get it. Consistency is what it boils down to. How often can you do something the right way?"
Coughlin often is remembered for the time he screamed at a hapless punter during a game, but that strident image is misleading when considering what he was like around the Giants as they sank into their 0-6 hole. Quarterback Eli Manning said Coughlin was focused on keeping the energy and optimism up. He repeatedly reminded players they had to stay together (Coughlin noted this week that he enjoyed hearing that defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka had said the defense needed to carry Manning through his struggles, because of all the times Manning has carried the rest of the team).
"I draw on experiences we've had here, the people we have here," Coughlin said. "The strength of ownership, the strength of our front office. I try to maintain a level at least as close as I can to an even keel.
"I felt we were conducting ourselves the right way in the face of one of the worst situations you could be in and that there was no blame being extended. As a matter of fact, I took all the blame. I said, 'It's my fault. I'm in charge.' I just felt, as long as we handled it right and as long as they understood you're not going to be a failure unless you start blaming others -- if you start blaming others, you have no ability to evaluate yourself. Without self-analysis, you can't get better. And I didn't see that happening."
The Giants made very few personnel changes during that stretch, a fact that did not go unnoticed by players. Safety Antrel Rolle said it sent a signal that coaches and management still believed in the players they had.The turnaround, then, has been sparked by more subtle tweaks. Manning is using shorter drops to get rid of the ball quicker. The defense, in part because of Beason's arrival, is stopping the run more effectively. Last week, special teams -- a particular bane this season -- was improved. The Giants' defeat of the Green Bay Packers -- albeit a version of the Packers without quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the field -- was their most well-rounded effort of the season. Coughlin said it made him excited for the next game, and the one after that.
A few weeks ago, Giants general manager Jerry Reese gave Coughlin a strong vote of confidence -- though there wasn't really a need for one -- indicating that the two of them are in this together. Coughlin just shrugs at the suggestions that his age might have become a factor in the Giants' struggles.
"It's down the list -- what else can we come up with?" he asked. "Uh-huh. I didn't forget how to do this. Just do the right thing. Daily. That's all I've ever tried to do. I can't tell you I've always been able to do that. I try to be objective. I'm a better communicator than I've probably ever been, in that if I see something I don't like, I talk to them about it, instead of doing something that would harbor resentment. I just don't believe in that anymore. Unless there is evidence that someone is not performing their duty. If I feel there is someone who is not holding up their end of it, I would be upset and then I would talk to them perhaps in a different frame of mind."
In a diminished NFC East, it is impossible to predict, with less than two months to go, who will emerge in first place. But one thing already is clear: The Giants are back in the race after Coughlin steadied them through another crisis. Nearly two years ago, a few minutes after Coughlin put a timetable on his own hot seat, Brandon Jacobs -- who had yet to become the prodigal running back -- might have pinpointed this team's fundamental nature.
"I still don't think we'll be a team that does it cleanly, "Jacobs said. "We'll always be a team that causes stresses on ourselves. We are so much better a football team than doing it the dirty way."
Two seasons later, with Coughlin trying to straighten up the mess, the Giants are doing it the dirty way again.
And now, 10 more things to watch heading into Week 12:
1) Hey, have you heard that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are playing each other again, perhaps for the last time? The Patriots are one of the very few teams to have successfully foiled Manning, who is 6-10 in games coached by Bill Belichick and 2-9 in New England, with 21 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. The only game at New England in which Manning did not throw an interception was last year's matchup. Manning, who has thrown 34 TD passes and just six interceptions in 2013, has perhaps the deepest group of receivers in his career, representing a tough assignment for a banged-up Patriots defense that has injuries to its top three cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) -- and safety Steve Gregory (thumb). Still, Denver's offense, while leading the league in scoring, has slowed in the past five games -- not coincidentally, since Manning first suffered his ankle injury -- averaging 12.4 fewer points, with a third-down conversion rate that has dropped 19.5 percent from earlier in the season.
2) Can Geno Smith halt his personal skid in time to save the Jets' season? Jets-Ravens has significant implications for the final AFC wild-card spot, which New York currently holds. Smith, who has thrown one touchdown pass while giving up eight interceptions in the past five games, will face a Baltimore defense that has tightened up since being shredded by Manning in the season opener. After giving up seven touchdown passes to Manning, the Ravens have ranked first in red-zone defense, allowing 10 total touchdowns in their past eight games and only one rushing touchdown all season.
3) Will the Chiefs rediscover their dominant defense before facing the Broncos in Week 13? After notching 35 sacks in their first seven games, the Chiefs have had only one in their last three -- and none in their last two. And they've allowed two of their three highest yardage totals of the season in the past two weeks: 427 to Denver and 470 to Buffalo. This week, Kansas City gets a San Diego Chargers team that has lost three straight -- though quarterback Philip Rivers remains on pace to top or approach career highs in almost every significant passing category.
4) Which quarterback has regressed further, Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III? Comments from Redskins players suggest an unhappiness with Griffin's failure to take responsibility for his own play after losses. But Kaepernick is having the worse season, averaging the fewest passing yards per game among qualifiers at 180.2. The past two weeks, he barely has averaged more than 100 passing yards per game. He also has failed to reach 200 passing yards in eight of the San Francisco 49ers' 10 games. Griffin, though, has been plagued by slow starts -- he had the third-worst passer rating in the first quarter in the league heading into Week 12. Kaepernick was fifth. The 49ers have lost two in a row -- by a total of four points -- to imperil its wild-card spot. The Redskins have lost three of their last four and trail the NFC East-leading Eagles by 2½ games.
5) Can Carson Palmer and the Cardinals keep winning against Bruce Arians' old team? The Cardinals have captured three games in a row, and Palmer has dramatically improved during the streak, boosting his completion percentage by eight points and throwing six touchdown passes against just two interceptions. But Arizona also has allowed 77 knockdowns, third-most in the league heading into Week 12. Facing Indianapolis Colts pass rusher Robert Mathis will be a test -- he leads the league with 13.5 sacks.
6) Will the Dolphins' shredded offensive line be able to hold off Carolina's ferocious defensive front? Already down two starters (Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin), Miami's offensive line could be missing a third in Mike Pouncey (gallbladder). Charles Johnson's knee injury might keep Carolina's leading sacker out of Sunday's game, but the Panthers still have the top scoring defense in the league. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, meanwhile, has been sacked 41 times, the most in the NFL heading into Week 12. The Panthers have won six in a row.
7) Now that Reggie Bush doesn't have to be a mudder, can he rebound from his worst game as a Lion? Bush gained just 31 yards on 12 rushes on Pittsburgh's sloppy field. Against Tampa Bay's ninth-ranked rushing defense, Bush will try to return to the form that had him gaining at least 90 yards from scrimmage in six games this year. Detroit, which lost to Pittsburgh, is 5-1 in those games.
8) Will the Packers' freefall stop at three games? With Aaron Rodgers pushing to return for a critical Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, the Packers could help their playoff chances by beating the Vikings, who are vulnerable to the pass, this weekend. Green Bay's rushing game had been a strength until the Giants stuffed them last Sunday. Eddie Lacy is averaging 92.1 yards per game since week five, but the Giants held him to just 27 yards.
9) Can Josh McCown create a real quarterback controversy for the Bears? With the timing of Jay Cutler's return unclear, McCown, who is 2-0 with three touchdown passes and no interceptions as a starter, will make yet another start. A victory over the Rams and backup quarterback Kellen Clemens would help the Bears keep up with the Lions in the NFC North. One key: Can Chicago's offensive line, which has allowed the third-fewest sacks in the league (16), control Chris Long and Robert Quinn, who have combined for 18.5 sacks?
10) What will Tavon Austin do for a follow-up act? Austin provided a peek at what might be to come for the St. Louis Rams when he exploded in Week 10 against the Colts for a 98-yard punt return and two touchdown receptions that totaled 138 yards.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.