EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Obviously, this is over now, this New York Giants dream of rising from the ashes of an 0-6 start to win their mediocre division.
There was some brave postgame talk, after Dan Bailey kicked their season through the uprights and into the trash can, about going back to work and trying to win their last five games to get to 9-7. But underneath it all, the Giants know the calendar and the math have them beaten.
"I mean ... I don't know exactly how it all works in terms of the playoffs and everything, but I know Dallas has four division wins and the most we can get is three," Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara said after a 24-21 loss to the Cowboys. "I would think that would put us out of the race."
He's right. With five games left in the season, the Giants are 4-7, two games behind a first-place tie between the 6-5 Cowboys and the 6-5 Eagles. They went 0-2 against the Cowboys and 1-1 against the Eagles, and the No. 2 tiebreaker in a division race (two-way or three-way) is the teams' record in division games. The Giants are 1-3 in NFC East games. The Eagles are 3-2 and the Cowboys are 4-0. So the Giants would basically have to make up three games, not two, in the final five in order to get in.
And they won't, because they're not very good and never were. The 0-6 start was a far more accurate indicator of what kind of team this is than was the four-game winning streak that followed. The Giants got fat on four teams that were using unprepared and/or unqualified quarterbacks. Sure, the Giants played better defense against the bottom-rung offensive competition. But while the offense cut back on self-inflicated damage, it never really clicked the way it's supposed to click.
It didn't click Sunday, either. The running game was tremendous, and Eli Manning made a few big plays late to tie things up. But with Hakeem Nicks inactive and the interior pass protection still a mess, the Giants amassed just 154 passing yards against a Dallas pass defense that came in allowing a league-worst 313 per game. No rhythm, no continuity, no point at which it felt as though Manning and the Giants were in control of the game's outcome. This is the story of the Giants' season, and all those four wins did was cover it up.
Sunday, when it came time for the defense to stop a real NFL quarterback, it couldn't. Banged-up in the secondary with cornerback Trumaine McBride out with a groin injury, the Giants shuffled people around, used three safeties and sat back in coverage instead of trying to pressure Tony Romo into a mistake. Romo didn't make a mistake. He made three killer third-down throws that put Bailey in range for a 35-yard field goal as time ran out on the clock and the Giants' season.
When it was over, the Giants claimed they'd played well. And within the context of their 2013 season, they had. They played about as well as they can play. Too many penalties, of course, but bad teams commit a lot of penalties, and when you spend the whole week talking about spilling blood and guaranteeing victory and winding yourselves up the way the Giants felt they needed to wind themselves up for this game, you're bringing dangerous levels of emotion into play.
"The one thing I think we can learn from this is, the bigger the game, the more you have to control yourself," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "More poise. We lost it a couple of times, and it cost us. You've got to control yourself."
Good teams aren't still learning those lessons in Week 12. Good teams don't have to be taught about self control. But the Giants are a bad team that has become a desperate team, and so Mathias Kiwanuka is out there hitting the quarterback in the head and Antrel Rolle is hitting the running back out of bounds, and the Giants are making bad-team types of mistakes that cause bad teams to lose games.
"We didn't play Giants football at all," said cornerback Terrell Thomas, who'd guaranteed a victory in a radio interview late last week.
But the thing is, they did. They played 2013 Giants football. They gave up points on a turnover. They committed 11 penalties. They failed to consistently protect the quarterback, who failed to make consistently good throws. It wasn't their worst game of the season by any stretch. May have been one of their best, actually. But they weren't good enough to win it, and that's the part that stings.
"Our season was on the line, and we lost the game," Thomas said. "We had to win that game. It's Giants-Cowboys, all from the heart. It's the will that's going to win this game, and the better team won today."
In the end, that is the simple story of the 2013 New York Giants' season. You can break it down a million different ways, and we all will. Enough has gone wrong to justify all manner of postmortem. But the basic takeaway from Sunday -- and from the season as a whole -- is pretty uncomplicated: They just weren't very good.