EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - They were a bad joke.
"Woe and Two," the Star-Ledger carped after the New York Giants opened the season with two straight losses.
"Indefensible," the Daily Record whined.
"We Are All Embarrassed," the Daily News concluded.
Eli Manning, their unproven quarterback, still had former teammate Tiki Barber's knife in his back (Barber had hyped his new broadcasting career by calling Manning's attempts at leadership "comical"). Star defensive end Michael Strahan was playing as if he had extended his preseason holdout to games that counted. And the clock was ticking to embattled coach Tom Coughlin's trip to the gallows.
Worse, Big Blue, looking as effective as Little Boy Blue conked out in a haystack, started Game 3 of the improbable quest for glory by falling two touchdowns behind the Washington Redskins by halftime.
Then it happened. Faster than a hysterical Giants fan could shriek "Paulie Walnuts," Coughlin & Co. turned it around, seizing a 24-17 lead after the break and waging an electrifying goal line stand in the final minute to effectively save the season.
There would be more drama over the next 16 weeks - inexplicable losses, ugly victories, brutal injuries, rousing comebacks, glimpses of greatness, priceless postseason memories - as the Giants charted one of the unlikeliest routes to the Super Bowl in NFL history.
But none of it may have been possible without the goal line stand in Week 3, the first pivotal twist for a franchise seeking its first Super Bowl victory since 1991. The Giants play the Patriots next Sunday in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz.
"That really turned our season around because there's a huge difference between being 1-2 and 0-3," said Chris Snee, the Giants guard and Boston College alumnus who married Coughlin's daughter. "That's when we developed the concept of winning in the fourth quarter. For the most part, from there on out, if we were in a game in the fourth quarter, we found a way to win it."
Saving Coughlin's job, the Giants turned their comeback against the Redskins into a six-game winning streak, a stretch in which Manning managed to dislodge Barber's shiv from his back and the Giants defense established itself as one of the league's most fearsome.
The slow start, it turned out, had more to do with adapting to new coordinators on defense (Steve Spagnuolo) and offense (Kevin Gilbride) than chronic ineptitude.
"We had a lot of things that had to be worked out," Coughlin said. "Moving forward, we stuck to our guns and just tried to improve, and guys have gotten better."
Manning, the top pick in the 2004 draft who had been plagued by inconsistency his first three seasons, already had impressed his teammates by publicly standing up to Barber, suggesting it was Barber himself who lacked leadership qualities.
"It was good to see [Manning] shoot right back at him," defensive end Jason Tuck said. "That situation was something that definitely brought this team together because we really rallied behind our quarterback. We love him for what he's done here."
They rode their love through the winning streak, even as others among them struggled. The week after their memorable goal line stand, the Giants silenced the Eagles, 16-3, as they sacked Donovan McNabb 12 times, with Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora leading the way with six takedowns.
Kicker Lawrence Tynes, however, nearly lost his job when he missed a 34-yard field goal and an extra point, prompting the Giants to audition two other kickers before they grudgingly stuck with him.
All Tynes did after that was connect on 16 of his last 18 field goal attempts in the regular season and - after missing two in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game in Green Bay - boot a 47-yarder in overtime to send the Giants to the Super Bowl.
"It was good we decided to see this through," Coughlin said, straight-faced, of sticking with Tynes, one of the great understatements in recent days.
After beating the Eagles, the Giants rallied from a 24-14 deficit to beat the Jets, 35-24, Oct. 7, then rode their defense to victories over the Falcons (31-10) and 49ers (33-15). They capped the run with an ugly 13-10 victory over the Dolphins Oct. 28 amid a downpour in London's Wembley Stadium as they became the first NFL team to win a regular-season game beyond North America.
Then came trouble. At 6-2, Coughlin's crew proceeded to go winless the rest of the way at the Meadowlands, beginning with a 31-20 loss Nov. 11 to the Cowboys (they also had lost the season opener in Dallas, 45-35).
While the undefeated Patriots surged toward perfection, the Giants managed an uninspiring victory in Detroit, 16-10, Nov. 18 but lost linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka to a season-ending broken leg. Then Big Blue got bruised by the Vikings, 41-17, Nov. 25 at the Meadowlands, as Manning threw four interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns.
Only when the Giants rallied for two late touchdowns to overtake the Bears, 21-16, Dec. 2 in Chicago did they appear to have regained a pulse. Yet the victory took another toll when running back Derrick Ward went down for the season with a broken leg.
After they eked out a 16-13 victory Dec. 9 in Philadelphia, the Giants returned to Exit 16W and laid another egg in a 22-10 loss to the Redskins. Manning completed only 18 of 53 passes. Worse, the Giants lost their big tight end, four-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Shockey, for the season, also with a broken leg.
Two weeks later, the 10-5 Giants, having mustered a playoff berth while failing to convince many analysts that they ranked among the NFL's elite, ended the season at home against the 15-0 Patriots. The Giants had nothing to play for but their dignity, and so they did, giving the Patriots all they could handle before they let a 28-16 lead slip away in a 38-35 defeat.
The Giants gained dignity and more, despite the outcome.
"I was pretty upset after we lost but, looking back, it gave us a lot of confidence to go through the playoffs in the manner in which we did," wide receiver Amani Toomer said. "I feel that we were really close to beating [the Patriots] and I think they know it."
Underdogs throughout the playoffs, the Giants dispatched the Buccaneers (24-14), Cowboys (21-17), and Packers (23-20 in overtime) to extend their winning streak on the road to 10 games, the longest in a season in NFL history. As the NFC's fifth-seeded team, they are the lowest in the conference to advance to the Super Bowl since the NFL began seeding teams in 1990.
But they reduced Terrell Owens to tears, sent Tony Romo back to Cabo, and stunned the Cheeseheads by touching off Brett Favre's annual retirement watch. Manning established himself as a leader while throwing 85 passes in the postseason without an interception. And Coughlin's job is safer than ever.
Now, only the Patriots stand between the Giants and a once-improbable Super Bowl victory. Considering how far they have come, Toomer said, "I think we've got a great shot."