The end of the third quarter of a home game is a little bit late for the second best team in the NFC to be booed when playing one of the worst teams in the league, but that's what happened at the Meadowlands around 3:20 pm EST on Sunday. Plaxico Burress, the only legitimate deep threat, was out with back spasms, and the defense lost its third starter when Michael Strahan left in the second quarter with a foot injury. But that was still no excuse for the Giants to be down 10–7 to a team as awful as the Houston Texans (22nd in the league in yards gained on offense, 28th in yards allowed).
For some strange reason, Tom Coughlin waited until the final quarter to show that the Giants had other people besides Burress who could catch a football. Tiki Barber started things by taking a swing pass for 13 yards, and Jeremy Shockey finished them by making a leaping grab in the end zone for a two-yard TD to put the Giants ahead for good. Shockey, who had only one touchdown catch in his first four games, now has four in his last four. He caught a season-high eight passes against the pathetic Texans, but you still get the feeling that the Giants aren't using him nearly enough — and except for the short TD receptions, they're scarcely using him as a primary receiver. (His yards per catch average after eight games, 9.9, is his lowest in five NFL seasons, two full yards below last year's average and a whopping 3.8 below his career average.)
There would seem to be no rational reason why the Giants should have needed fourth-quarter heroics to beat Houston. Aside from Barber's 115 yards rushing and Shockey's catches, the Giants played slack, lusterless football all afternoon. Backup safety James Butler cost the Giants four points and very nearly the game with an asinine personal foul on Houston offensive tackle Fred Weary — a man who outweighs him by more than 100 pounds — after the Giants had stopped the Texans on a third down pass at New York's four-yard line. Houston would have been forced to try for a field goal, but the first down at the two enabled beleaguered Texans quarterback David Carr to scramble into the end zone two plays later for a 10–7 lead.
That was the dumbest play of the game for the Giants, but a handful of others combined to squander six more possible points. Leading 7–3 in the third quarter, Jeff Feagles mishandled a simple snap on what would have been a 38-yard field goal attempt, and in the second quarter, the Giants somehow managed to parlay a first-and-five at the Houston nine into a fourth-and-31, thanks to a holding penalty and successive sacks when guard David Diehl and tackle Luke Petitgout let Houston pass rushers through as untouched as a granola bar in a trick or treat bag.
Yes, I know, they pulled it out, and I know readers of this space are getting tired of "Ominous Warnings"about the Giants, but stick with me on this until I get something very wrong. Look at Eli Manning's numbers for the first four games of this season, and compare them to those of the last four:
Yes, I know, Burress was out yesterday; and the week before, against Tampa Bay, the wind played havoc with the passing game. But throw these and any other excuses you want into the mix: The numbers for the last four weeks are not good. The Giants' play selection has, on the whole, been unimaginative over the last four games, exactly the same kind of bad groove Coughlin and his staff got into the second half of the season last year, only this year it's happening earlier.
Because the defense has stiffened and only allowed about 10 points a game over this stretch, Coughlin is once again allowing himself to be lulled into a false sense of security, coaching as if the Giants defense is going to carry them through the playoffs. It won't. The Giants, at best, have a good defensive squad, one that is capable of carrying its share of the load, but no more than that. The increasing conservatism of the offensive play calling is going to put more and more pressure on the defense to come up with big plays, and there's no indication as yet that the Giants defense is capable of this. Worse, it's leaving the offense with more and more third-andlong plays that are a mathematical certainty to cut down on a team's scoring.
I have no idea what to expect from the Giants next Sunday night. I assume that the Bears' performance against Miami was an aberration, and that the real Bears, the ones who were unbeaten before yesterday, will show up with a terrifying resolve. I'm trying to convince myself that the real Giants can beat the real Bears, but I still don't know who the real Giants are.
Mr. Barra is the author of "The Last Coach: A Life of Paul ‘Bear' Bryant."