EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sunday's game against the Panthers in Carolina is a must-win for the New York Giants, if only because everyone's expecting them to win it.
With the Giants, we expect things to go a certain way, and the reason is that they generally do. They win the games they have to win. They don't start 0-3. At least they haven't since Dan Reeves was their coach, Dave Brown was their quarterback and Bill Clinton was wrapping up his first term as president of the United States.
Sunday feels like a game the Giants will win, and honestly, I think a lot of people around these parts have been proceeding all week under the assumption that they will find a way to do just that.
But what if they don't? What if the Giants lose and they're 0-3, with their next three games taking place in a 12-day span in three different cities and featuring two opponents who haven't yet lost?
"Obviously," veteran defensive end Justin Tuck said, "no one in this room is thinking about being 0-3."
No one would want to, because 0-3 is practically a death sentence to the playoff hopes of NFL teams. Since 1990, the first year of the current playoff format, 115 teams have started 0-3 and only three of them reached the postseason. They are the 1992 Chargers, the 1995 Lions and the 1998 Bills. It has been done three times in 22 years and not at all in the past 14.
But that shouldn't be an issue, right? Because starting 0-3 is not conceivable to the Giants, or probably to their fans. This group of Giants has an air of competence that swats away such ideas. These Giants don't start 0-3. They contend, every year, right up until the final two weeks. Sometimes they don't make the playoffs, but when they do, they're a threat to win the Super Bowl. The Giants and their fans count on these things to be and remain true.
They do so because of another Week 3 that happened six years ago. In 2007, the Giants gave up 80 points in their first two games and lost them both -- a season opener in Dallas and a Week 2 home game to Green Bay. They went to Washington and fell behind 17-3 at halftime before the defense clamped down and held the Redskins to 83 yards in the second half while Eli Manning led the Giants from behind for a 24-17 victory.
It was a turning point not only for that season, which would end with the Giants' third Super Bowl title in stunning fashion over the unbeaten Patriots, but for the franchise. Had the Giants not won that game, they likely would not have recovered to qualify for that year's playoffs. It's possible that Tom Coughlin, whose regular-season record as the Giants' coach would have been 25-26 with a loss to the Redskins that day, could have lost his job at the end of that season. Manning would still not have had a playoff win, and fan discontent over his erratic play would have lingered through another disappointing offseason.
Without the 2007 experience on which to draw, the 2011 Giants might not have rallied from their 7-7 low point and won all of those playoff games. They certainly wouldn't have had as many minted champions in prominent positions when it came time for that kind of thing to matter. If not for the Week 3 comeback in Washington in 2007, it's entirely possible that the Giants right now would be a franchise with two Super Bowl titles instead of four, and none in 22 years.
There are lots of ifs, but that's the point. You don't always know when a franchise-fulcrum game is going to arrive. Certainly no one around the Giants was thinking, on the morning of Sept. 23, 2007, that everything in those last couple of paragraphs might be on the line. All they were thinking about was trying to get their first win of that season. And these Giants who head to Carolina this weekend are thinking only that same thing.
And if they win it, they will accurately say that nothing is fixed and they still have more work to do but that they're happy to be back on the right track, and everyone will feel as though things are progressing the way they're expected to in the Giants' world.
But if they lose Sunday? Well, then the territory is unprecedented, for this group at least. If they fall to 0-3, there are only two ways they can go. They can buck history and become the first team in 15 seasons to reach the playoffs after such a start, maybe even the first to win a Super Bowl after such a start. Or they can languish through their worst season since Coughlin's first and head into an offseason of change and overhaul -- bidding farewell to cornerstones such as Tuck and Corey Webster and Antrel Rolle -- thinking about who forms the core of the next potential championship Giants teams.
Oh yes. Sunday is a must-win game for the Giants. Their season rides on it. And to some extent, so does their entire self-image.