EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Tom Coughlin was blunt with the New York Giants in laying out his message for this week's game with the Cleveland Browns.
Don't be fooled by their 0-4 record, and the fact they have lost 10 straight regular-season games since beating Jacksonville on Nov. 20.
This is a young team has that has played hard every game. It hasn't lost by more than 10 points and it would have beaten the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this season had rookie linebacker L.J. Fort not dropped a pass by Michael Vick one play before the Eagles quarterback threw the winning touchdown with 1:18 to play.
The mention of the Eagles should get the attention of the Giants (2-2). Philadelphia beat New York Sunday night and it has owned the Giants in recent years.
If all that didn't impress the Giants, Coughlin had one other thought he shared with his veterans. Just remember the last time they played the Browns: in 2008 and New York was again the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Giants went into Cleveland that season undefeated and got waxed by the Browns. It would be their only loss in the first 12 games of '08.
"We better treat them like they are 4-0," said Victor Cruz, who goes into this weekend leading NFL receivers with 32 catches. "We just want to go in and understand this is a must-win game for us and we just want to prepare accordingly. We want to prepare for a football game and not go in there, and just because we are the Giants, they are going to lay down for us. We have to be prepared and ready to go."
The Giants have had issues with injuries all season and this week will be no different.
Center David Baas (hand) and guard Chris Snee (hip) are banged up but did get in some practice work. The receiving corps really is hurting with Hakeem Nicks (foot-knee) out and Ramses Barden (concussion) uncertain. The secondary has a new injury with safety Kenny Phillips nursing a sprained right knee, and fellow safety Antrel Rolle is bothered by a sore left knee.
Linebacker Michael Boley, who also has a hip injury but says he will play, knows the winless opponent and the injuries are a bad combination, one which could serve as the breeding ground for a letdown.
"It's been proven that teams, they seem to stoop down to other teams' level in all sports — basketball, baseball, football — especially if it's a game that everyone thinks you should win. It tends to be closer than normal."
Boley said the key is to treat every opponent the same.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur believes his team is close to reaching a higher level — or at least getting a victory.
"I think I have a group of guys here, they fight they're tails off and they respond to what I, and the coaches, tell them," he said. "They're just as determined as anybody to get a victory. I think once we have the taste of that, more will come. I think what's important is you focus on the process of winning and we all know that it's very difficult, and a good example is the Giants-Eagles (game). It's hard to win a game in this league."
Shurmur doesn't believe in moral victories. A loss is a loss to him.
"I understand what our record is," Shurmur said. "I understand what this team has and the character that we have. We're going to continue to keep fighting. What's important is that we amp up our effort even more, and each guy feels the pressure to make one or two plays better than the week before. That's the message here."
The Browns have some weapons. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has thrown for 300-plus yards in two of the last three games and rookie running back Trent Richardson has run for a touchdown in three straight games.
Defensively, the Browns' 13 sacks are tied for second in AFC. and their six interceptions tie for third in the league.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning insists he never looks at a team's record.
"I watch film, I see the situations, and see how they're playing, and I see a team that makes a lot of big plays," said Manning, whose 1,320 yards passing this season is second in the league. "They get turnovers, they get sacks, they have a good scheme, and they do some good stuff defensively that causes problems. So, we've got to be well-prepared, and it's going to come down to execution, and guys stepping up and making plays."
The key for the Browns this week might be exploiting the Giants' run defense. Philadelphia and LeSean McCoy piled up 191 yards on the ground, a 5.3 yard average.
If Richardson can be half as good, Weeden might not have to face too much pressure from the Giants' front four, which All-Pro end Jason Pierre-Paul says is not having enough fun this season.
"We aren't good until we win," Richardson said of the Browns' offense. "We're almost there, but until we start winning, that's when we'll be good. The offense is a big part of that. We have to put up points, catch the pass, run the ball hard, make blocks and we have to be on our right assignments. We have to know what we are doing when we run our routes or check-downs or whatever it is. We are going to come together and it's coming along. We are getting there."
The Giants are just hoping the Browns don't get there this week.
"They are 0-4 but if you look at them on film they are playing hard," Giants veteran defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said. "They have a lot of young guys with not a lot of experience. A team like that, they scratch and claw to get that first win. They are not going to back down from anybody."
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