Kerry Collins is like all the rest of them now, speaking in hushed, hopeful tones, painting optimistic pictures, explaining how to turn 6-6 into 10-6 in four easy steps. This is the Giants' current company line, this grasping for football miracles. There is no other choice, no other way to play it. "If we don't believe we can win four in a row," the quarterback said, "then who will?"
But Collins is also a realist, a pragmatist who no longer dabbles in denial. And there was something that hit him yesterday morning, as he made the short Jersey drive from his home in Far Hills to his office in East Rutherford.
"If I'm watching a playoff game in January and not playing in one, I'm going to remember these two weeks and it's going to kill me just as much then as it does now," he said in a quiet moment by his locker. "These were the 14 days that just may have killed our whole season. And it's hard to think about. You think about where we were, and where we are . . ."
He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, didn't finish the thought, didn't need to.
Collins recalled the very same commute exactly two weeks before. The Giants had just won their third straight game and had a batch of winnable games lined up neatly in a row, starting with the expansion Texans. The Eagles had just lost their franchise player, Donovan McNabb, were already staring at a road game at San Francisco, followed by a visit from the Rams, the hottest team in football at the time.
Inside his car that most blissful Monday morning, Collins shook his head, hardly able to believe the Giants' outrageous good fortune.
"It was almost too good to be true," he said. "It was too perfect. Things were falling almost too well for us."
On this most baleful Monday, 14 days later, Collins shook his head once more.
"I guess it was," he said.
Nobody could have foreseen the devastating parlay that awaited the Giants after their 19-17 escape against the Redskins. Just as the Giants were getting dressed that day, word began to filter around the locker room that McNabb's foot had gone one way at Veterans Stadium, and the rest of him had gone another.
And from that moment on, their world has spun upside down. They've lost two in a row. The Eagles have won two in a row, the latest with a third-string quarterback. A road once sprinkled with pixie dust has quickly become paved with nails. And Collins can already feel the weight of regret that will surely burden his whole offseason.
"When I look back at this season," he said, "I'll have a hard time not focusing on how everything looked after we beat the Redskins. I mean, it was all there for us, waiting for us. It's a hard lesson, man. A really hard lesson."
All around the locker room at Giants Stadium these last two days, the Giants have cursed the missed opportunities and close calls of a season that could have been.
They have lost six games; in none of those six were they out of the game before the midway point of the fourth quarter. In all of those six, there came a critical point where a mistake - a fumble, an interception, a botched kick, a lousy call from the sideline - stabbed them clear through the heart.
"Teams can make mistakes and still survive," Michael Strahan said yesterday. "But not when you're playing with the small margin of error that we've been playing with."
Collins agreed. "It isn't a small margin of error," he said. "It's no margin of error. I mean, there are Super Bowl winners who go through a season and lose one or two games by three touchdowns and they say, it's just one of those days. We haven't had one of those days. All of our losses have been killers."
Another shake of the head.
"But these last two . . . " he said. Again, he didn't finish the sentence. Again, he didn't need to. He knows what this team had. He knows what it lost. He knows where it is. And while he sounds like the rest of them sound, talking about saving their season, maybe rescuing their coach's job, the silent idioms of body language clearly speak a different dialect.
"Two weeks is all it took," he said. "Two lousy weeks."