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Tom Coughlin's sliding Giants struggle to finish in fourth again

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- At the end, Tom Coughlin walked slowly from the sideline, past the kicker who had just missed for the first time all season and into his uncertain future. The Giants had just lost their fifth game in which they held a fourth-quarter lead, this time 23-20 to the Jets, their fourth in the final 13 seconds, and, most immediately, their third in a row. At 5-7, they remain alive in the playoff race only because the NFC East is abysmal, but the tight expression on team owner John Mara's face and bowed head of general manager Jerry Reese as they walked silently out of the press box and toward the locker room told the story of this season in all its gut-wrenching detail.

This has been an excruciating three months of near misses for the Giants, from the season-opening clock management fiasco in Dallas to blowing a 10-point lead to a Jets team so mistake-prone that it all but handed the victory to the Giants early in the fourth quarter. This was, somehow, even worse than the others because there was so much at stake, as the Giants were playing a team with at least as many issues and that produces at least as much unsightly football as they do. Coming off an embarrassingly somnolent loss to Washington last week, the Giants played with energy and emotion, if not exactly detail-orientedness, against the Jets. And it was still not enough.

That the Giants do not have the defensive talent to hold those leads is a topic worth discussing, and the blame for that falls at Reese's feet. But the harsh reality is that despite their shortcomings, despite not having defensive end Jason Pierre-Paulfor part of the campaign and despite the rash of injuries, the Giants were in position to win all but one game this season -- the pounding they took from the Philadelphia Eagles is the exception -- and a win in even three of those games would have the Giants cruising to the playoffs right now, poised to fashion another one of the remarkable January runs that gives Coughlin the best coaching resume this side of Foxborough. That the Giants could not close any of the five in which they held late leads surely falls in part on the players who have been unable to turn Coughlin's appeal to finish into action.

But collectively, it is the failure of the team, and head coaches disproportionally and perhaps unfairly pay the price for that, particularly when it happens again and again. The Giants surely have not wanted to remove Coughlin -- he remains deeply respected for the two Super Bowl runs he led and well-liked by both management and players for the dignity and intelligence with which he leads them. But the Giants have changed his offensiveand defensive coordinators around him in the past two years, and that leaves Mara to weigh whether he should make the biggest change of all whenever this season ends. Mara has learned not to make decisions in the heat of the moment -- he has, over the years, ignored some fans' desire for sweeping change, including in the months before the Giants won their two most recent Super Bowls -- but it is fair to wonder what he is thinking now, considering that after the Giants' season ended last year without a playoff appearance, he told reporters he was so upset about a second-half implosion against the Jaguars that he sat on the team bus wanting to fire everybody.

Coughlin admitted that the earlier collapses are informing his coaching decisions now, and that was obvious when he elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Jets' 4-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. A touchdown there would have given the Giants a 17-point lead -- three scores -- and would almost have virtually assured victory. A field goal would have given the Giants a 13-point lead, and the Jets could have won outright with two touchdown drives.

It was a gutsy decision -- and I still think it was the correct one at that time -- but it was also one that is hard to imagine Coughlin making if the Giants had not already experienced the losses they had this season. It was, somehow, painfully fitting that Eli Manning threw an interception on the fourth-down play, ending a drive that lasted 11 minutes and 13 seconds with nothing.

"Obviously, I have made a decision to be very aggressive at the end of the games," Coughlin said. "I've done it all year long. I don't have a lot to show for it. We've tried to do that. We try to take some of the pressure off of everybody and had we scored that touchdown, fourth-and-2, I think we would have taken a lot of pressure off."

It is this final bit of futility -- where Coughlin is trying everything, with everything still going against the Giants -- that puts the pressure on him. His players insist that the earlier losses are not dancing in the backs of their heads as the scenarios repeat themselves week after week like a horror film.

Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said that while the Giants are not worrying about blowing another lead, they are at least thinking, " 'OK, this is where we have to get over this hump. This is where we have to finish. This is where we have to close it out.' And we come in and we say it to each other at halftime, talk about it on the sidelines, 'Let's go out and finish, and let's go out and do this,' and we don't." he said.

Guard Justin Pugh said the Giants have learned from their earlier collapses, but there is no more room to say, "Oh, it's going to get better."

Pugh is right. It is probably already too late for it to get better for the Giants now. And if they miss the playoffs again, for the fourth year in a row, it may, in a few weeks, get much worse.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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