- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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BALTIMORE -- Tom Coughlin beat Bill Belichick not in one indelible Super Bowl, but in two. In a feat nearly as impressive, Coughlin beat all the credentialed critics who wanted him run out of town not once, but twice.
The head coach of the New York Giants beat the head coach of the New York Jets, Rex Ryan, after Rex's roaring mouth turned Christmas Eve 2011 into an all-or-nothing struggle for control of the market. Coughlin even beat the serious hamstring injury he suffered on a sideline hit in that game, dragging his leg out to midfield to meet the vanquished Ryan and hobbling all the way to another ticker-tape parade.
Coughlin has defeated a lot of opponents, most of them real rather than imagined, over his nine years leading the Giants. But this season he's run into an immovable force that will almost certainly cost him a chance to compete in the Super Bowl tournament, never mind win it.
Human nature. Coughlin tried to coach around it and through it and above it, and he never stood a chance.
"They're looking to me for answers," Coughlin said of his players after a devastating 33-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. "And the answers are not easy ones."
The Giants have been playing pro football for 88 years, and they've never won back-to-back championships for this specific reason: It's awfully hard to do. Freshly crowned athletes are forever saying they remain as motivated as ever in pursuit of a second straight ring, but what are they supposed to say for public consumption?
I'm good, I've got mine?
Coughlin nearly beat human nature in 2008, too, a season that notarized his greatness as a coach. Off his first upset victory over Belichick's Patriots in the biggest of big games, Coughlin had the Giants rolling toward a two-peat. "We were 11-1," he would say, "and I thought we were the best team in football. And then, all of a sudden, we're out in one playoff game."
They were out in one playoff game because Plaxico Burress had accidentally shot up his leg over the long Thanksgiving weekend, and the Giants simply couldn't replace him. So 2012 was supposed to be a mulligan for the core holdovers from that Plaxcident-waiting-to-happen season, the Coughlins and Eli Mannings, the Osi Umenyioras and Justin Tucks, the Corey Websters and Chris Snees.
"What I said to our team," Coughlin said in August, "and why it's so important that they believe in team, is that all it took was one selfish act."
Burress wasn't around to try to top that selfish act, and it didn't matter. In their bid to win two in a row, these Giants couldn't even measure up to the 2008 Giants, division champs who managed to finish 12-4 and earn a first-round bye.
These Giants didn't even bother to show up Sunday in Baltimore, a week after refusing to show up in Atlanta, where the Falcons beat them 34-0. The Ravens had already clinched a playoff berth and, therefore, had so much less to lose, and yet they still jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
The Giants had surrendered 48 consecutive points to the bad guys over eight days. They were tasked with managing two big road games on their way back to the tournament, and they responded by getting outscored by a 67-14 count. That's the very definition of a spent, uninspired team.
"I take full responsibility for this team," a somber Coughlin would say in his postgame news conference. "I am the head coach. What has happened over the course of the last couple of weeks is very difficult to explain."
Coughlin has to take the hit for this meltdown, of course, as a coach's chief responsibility is ensuring his team is prepared to play. The Giants weren't ready to play in Atlanta or Baltimore, and now they may not be asked to join Atlanta and Baltimore in the second season. The real season.
"If we get in the playoffs, we would deserve to make it," Coughlin said. "And that's very remote right now."
Some wild and crazy things need to happen on the final Sunday to bring Coughlin's team back to life, but the way things are going, the Giants beating the Eagles might represent the wildest and craziest of them all. The same team that dropped 52 points on the Saints two weeks ago suddenly looks like it couldn't beat the Jets.
"It's not a very confident group right now," Coughlin said. "It's one of those things in any profession that you have to earn the confidence. You just don't talk about it. Sometimes I get tired of talking, talking, talking. You do have to go on the field by yourself, the 11 of you out there ... and accomplish that. And we're certainly not doing that."
Coughlin admitted his team was emotionally drained, lifeless even. "We talk a lot about playing above the X's and O's," he said. "But we're flatlined right now."
Flatlined. This is what happens to a defending champ that can't tap into the same sources of inspiration that put those rings on their fingers in the first place.
Coughlin talked about the play that emboldened the Giants in last year's 15th game, Victor Cruz's 99-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the Jets. Where was that spark in Baltimore? Where was that opportunistic Giant who refused to lose the season?
"Obviously, I'd love to be the guy to make that play again," Cruz said. "But, unfortunately, it didn't happen."
In the days leading up to that same 15th game of 2011, Coughlin sat down with a battered and bruised Tuck and appealed to him to practice and play with his old intensity, a meeting the defensive end would cite as the reason behind his enhanced performance down the stretch.
In a symbolic scene one year later, Tuck was wearing a winter jacket and ski cap near Coughlin on the sidelines, ruled inactive because his injured shoulder was too sore to go.
Some of Tuck's fellow holdovers from the first championship run -- the ones healthy enough to face the Ravens -- were among the biggest culprits in the blowout. Webster was dreadful in the secondary, covering like a clueless rookie, and the banged-up Snee committed two penalties and was beaten by Haloti Ngata for a sack. Manning was sorely outplayed by another ring-free quarterback (Matt Ryan last week, Joe Flacco this week), and Umenyiora was among the pass rushers who couldn't get a sack.
"I have no explanation as to why we're in the position that we're in," Coughlin said.
His franchise quarterback offered one. "When you're not playing your best," Manning said, "teams can come out and embarrass you."
Manning called the Giants' collapse "shocking," though this really shouldn't come as too big of a surprise. Yes, Baltimore had lost three in a row and, yes, Peyton Manning had supplied Eli with last week's blueprint on how to outsmart the Ravens.
But as much as Coughlin called for his players to "build the bridge" from last year's six-game winning streak to this year's proposed sequel, the Giants just didn't have it in them to grind out one more improbable trip to the Canyon of Heroes.
In the end, these 8-7 Giants looked and acted like the 7-7 Giants of 2011, before those 7-7 Giants found themselves at Rex Ryan's expense on Christmas Eve. It's not the end of the world.
Tom Coughlin will still wind up in the Hall of Fame, right alongside plenty of coaching immortals who lost plenty of hangover seasons to human nature, the toughest opponent of all.
1dEric D. Williams