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New York Giants blow golden opportunity to seize ugly NFC East

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In 2011, the Giants were humiliated by Washington -- at home, no less -- in Week 15, bounced back on the road against the Jets the next week and started a run that ended with a ticker tape parade and a fourth Lombardi Trophy in the display case.

By Sunday night, Giants fans were clinging to that bit of history like a security blanket, into which they could otherwise have used to cry.

But while all the principles and the scenario are in place for history to repeat itself after Washington beat New York 20-14 to take the NFC East lead Sunday, the three quarters of sleep-walking coming out of a bye with an opportunity to all but bury the rest of the weak division portends bad things for the Giants. It sets up a must-win game against the equally desperate Jets next Sunday that should unleash enough collective angst among the teams' fans to keep therapists' sofas filled for the week. It raises the troubling possibility that the best week of the Giants' season was the one in which they didn't even play, because every one of their division rivals lost while the G-Men sat on their sofas. And depending on how the season ends, one of their worst efforts in years might be viewed in hindsight as the moment that Tom Coughlin's seat grew warmer once again.

The Giants remain one of the league's great enigmas this season -- fitting, considering that the NFC East has been a weekly riddle that no team seems capable of solving, with everyone starting the final month of the season below .500. The Giants are capable of breath-taking moments like Odell Beckham Jr.'s full-layout, left-handed 21-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter. And they are also capable of maddening talent mismatches like the one that had safety Craig Dahl in coverage on Washington's tight end Jordan Reed for the most important play of the game, a third-and-5 late in the fourth quarter. (Had the Giants made the stop, they would have had the ball down by six with more than three minutes to play. Instead, Reed went for 20 yards and time -- and maybe Big Blue's season -- ticked away.) The Giants have had just enough of the former to remain competitive in almost every game -- and to convince themselves that they are capable of putting a complete game together. And just enough of the latter to make it clear how unlikely a 2011-style run would be. They can do no better than 3-3 in the NFL's worst division. Jason Pierre-Paul described the Giants' effort, under the circumstances, as "terrible."

The NFC East has been a terrible tire fire since the season's first week, when Dez Bryant got hurt and Eli Manning suffered a game-costing brain freeze in the Giants-Cowboys Sunday Night Football bout. As the regular season winds down, the smoke is finally starting to clear: Washington is in the driver's seat to win the division -- blessed with the tiebreaker advantage and a very soft closing schedule -- despite failing to win two games in a row or even one game on the road this season. Fitting.

The league's most glamorous division, it turns out, is merely a snapshot of how much of the league has looked this season outside of Foxborough and Charlotte. Inconsistent performances -- even among those with winning records -- and uninspiring teams have created the sense that this is a down year for the quality of play in the league. For every scintillating game (like Steelers-Seahawks on Sunday), there have been clunkers (like the Thanksgiving routs in Detroit and Dallas). That is, almost certainly, in part due to the rash of injuries to starting quarterbacks. For instance, there is little question the Cowboys would have met a different fate if Tony Romo was healthy this season. But it doesn't explain why teams that have been fortunate to have their quarterbacks throughout the season -- like Green Bay or Washington and the Giants -- have been unable to steady their play. They haven't been alone. At the end of Week 12, 14 teams will be above .500, but seven of them are just one game over at 6-5. Thirteen teams are either 6-5 or 5-6.

Still, as the NFL enters the final month of the regular season, it takes only a quick glance to see what dangerous teams look like. The Kansas City Chiefs, after a 1-5 start, have won five games in a row to plunk themselves firmly in the AFC wild-card picture. The Houston Texans, who started 2-5, have won four in a row to take advantage of a down year in the AFC South -- does that sound familiar? -- and put themselves in position to win the division title. The Indianapolis Colts have won three in a row, two with Matt Hasselbeck at QB. And, incredibly, the AFC South would have two teams in the playoffs if they began right now. The Seattle Seahawks have won four of their last five -- including the offensive explosion against the Steelers on Sunday -- and would be a formidable playoff foe, given their vast postseason experience.

All started poorly and were on the brink of lost seasons before salvaging their playoff hopes. The NFC East should take note. And take heart.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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