Retiring Barber powers Big Blue to virtual playoff reality

LANDOVER, Md. -- The New York Giants are going to the playoffs unless Green Bay, Arizona, Detroit, Miami, Minnesota, and San Francisco win Sunday, Carolina, Houston and Tampa Bay lose, and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders stop by my house to ask if their latest Spandex tube tops are too tight.

In other words, the Giants are all but in, thanks to a 34-28 victory Saturday against the Washington Redskins that left perspiration marks on tortured G-men followers, including team general manager Ernie Accorsi and VP of player evaluation Chris Mara, who sat right in front of me in the FedExField press box.

Say what you want about the Giants -- and they deserve much of the abuse -- but they won on the road. . . won without their best tight end, best defensive end, best offensive tackle, and most reliable wide receiver. . . won with a new offensive coordinator. . . won with the Tom Coughlin Job Death Watch in full operational mode. . . and won with every New York tabloid headline writer salivating over the chance to bury them on the back page.

The Giants are all but guaranteed the sixth and last NFC seed because they have the greatest lame duck tailback in league history. In the final regular season game of his 10-year NFL career, Tiki Barber rushed for a career- and franchise-high 234 yards and scored three times, on runs of 15, 55 and 50 yards. Is that any good?

"I figured his last regular-season game he'd break some kind of record and lead us to a win," said fullback Jim Finn. "And that's what he did. . . It's just what he does. He's Tiki Barber. It's just an average game for him."

Really? Is that why Mara pumped his arms in the press box when Barber scored on the 50-yarder late in the fourth quarter? Is that why Accorsi, who also is retiring at season's end, looked like he needed an antacid vending machine? And is that why Barber put on his Super Bowl XXXV ring and fist-bumped his teammates before the game?

"This is what it's all about," Barber said.

He was talking about Super Bowls, but for now the Giants should be thrilled with even reaching the postseason. They're 8-8 and have won only two of their last eight games, so this probably isn't the time to start planning ticker tape celebrations. But at least they have a chance, which is more than you could have said about this team a week ago, when the New Orleans Saints were doing a Mardi Gras parade on them.

Of course, this being the Giants, it was bound to get a little testy in the postgame interviews. And it did, courtesy of a questioner who reminded the embattled Coughlin that the five-win Redskins scored 28 points and were within a touchdown of winning the game.

"Is that supposed to be a negative?" said Coughlin. "We won a game and we got in the playoffs. Is that good enough?"

Depending on the rumors, Coughlin is either dead man walking, needs a playoff run to save his job, or is history if the Giants think they can lure Jersey guy Charlie Weis from Notre Dame. I think he's gone -- Coughlin, not Weis. This team isn't good enough to save anybody's job.

"I don't think the team even thinks about that," said Coughlin. "I don't even think about it either. I hope that's the last question I'm asked about that."

It won't be. How could it be? Nothing is more exciting than a playoff appearance and the possibility of a firing. It's not fair, but that's the reality of the situation.

Here's the other reality: if Barber hadn't had the game of his professional career, the Packers would be playing for that last NFC playoff spot tonight and Coughlin would be packing up his office. Instead, Green Bay is on postseason life support and the Giants are talking bravely of maintaining "the momentum," as they refer to their one-game winning streak.

"I think it's a sense of accomplishment," said quarterback Eli Manning of their likely playoff appearance.

I think it's one and done, but as long as they have Barber, who knows?

With quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride calling the plays instead of demoted coordinator John Hufnagel, Barber got the ball early and often. Makes sense, since six of the Giants' eight wins have come when Barber rushes for at least 100 yards.
This time he had those 234 yards and another 24 receiving yards. He squirted through tiny openings. He broke tackles. He even guaranteed TD runs, like the 55-yarder in the second quarter.

Earlier in the game the Giants ran a lead draw that didn't do much because Finn got a little overanxious on his block. Barber told him to stay more patient. Then he told Gilbride they should run the same play soon, especially if it looked like the Redskins were going to blitz.

"He said, 'If they [blitz], it's going to be a touchdown,' " said Finn.

They did, and it was.

"People may not agree with me all the time, but I know what it takes for us to win as a team," said Barber, who has been critical of past Giants' game plans. "I know when I get an opportunity to do my job that I'm damn good."

Now the Giants need to be damn good too, or else Barber and Coughlin's New York careers will be wheat toast in a week.

"Hopefully, I have four more games left," said Barber.

Four more games would put him in Miami and Super Bowl XLI. That's nice. So is my dream of the Cowboys cheerleaders dropping by. But, sigh, neither one is going to happen.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.