By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

There were several disappointing team-wide performances this season but one of the most high profile was that of the Giants, who started 5-0 but finished 8-8 amidst a firestorm of late-season blowout losses. Their defense was overwhelmed almost all year but never as much as in their last two games, in which they lost by a combined 85-16, offering exactly zero resistance to either the Panthers or the Vikings in either contest. Overall, the defense allowed 40+ points five times over the course of the season and gave up an average 27.6 points per game, third worst in the league.

With Eli Manning nursing a nagging foot problem all year and bruising runner Brandon Jacobs seemingly falling off the aging running back cliff, the Giants offense couldn’t cover for the awful D, even with the emergence of (the other) Steve Smith at receiver. First-year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan has already been let go along with his defensive line coach, but it’s not just the coaching that needs fixing. Too many players on that side of the ball don’t seem to have their priorities in line, starting with insufferable loudmouth Osi Umenyiora, who did nothing in the Carolina loss (which just so happened to be the final game for the G-Men in Giants Stadium), then spent his entire postgame interview session talking about himself, his contract situation and how poorly treated and put upon he is by the organization. Things haven’t been the same for Umenyiora since the Super Bowl win over the Patriots a couple years ago. After having a great game that day, Umenyiora went on a radio show during the off-season and called Pats QB Tom Brady overrated and not such a good athlete despite his record-setting 2007 season, then blew out his knee in the 2008 preseason, missed that entire year and returned this year a shell of himself, managing just seven sacks and being taken out of the starting lineup for five games.

And therein lies one of the biggest problems for the Giants. There doesn’t seem to be any accountability, especially on defense. After the embarrassment of the Carolina game, Giants legend Harry Carson called out the D only to be publicly scoffed at by free agent/mercenary linebacker Michael Boley . Hey Michael – the guy won two Super Bowls and is in the Hall of Fame. You might want to pay attention. Injuries played a huge role in the Giants downfall. Defensive lineman Justin Tuck, safety Kenny Phillips and linebacker/captain Antonio Pierce all missed time and their replacements didn’t do much to distinguish themselves. But injuries happen to every team; the ones who are best prepared and toughest mentally survive them. Even the owner, John Mara, could tell that the players’ heads weren’t in the right place, saying after the season finale that he was angry regarding his team’s mental toughness and lack of a consistent effort. He also said that the 8-8 record felt a lot more like 2-14. Yikes.

The Giants are not even two years removed from a championship and still have talent, starting with Manning, Smith, rookie receiver Hakeem Nicks, Tuck fellow D-lineman Mathias Kiwanuka and corner Corey Webster. Obviously, head coach Tom Coughlin knows what he’s doing – he led the team to that Super Bowl win and the best record in the NFC last year. This could have been just one of those years. But it’s clear that moving forward, the Giants had better make sure they improve their depth as well as their general attitude. Given the amount of equality across the NFC East (assuming the Redskins are competitive again next year under new coach Mike Shanahan), getting back to the top of the heap may be as easy for them as it was to plunge to the depths they wound up in this year.

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. San Diego: That’s 11 straight, and counting. It’s up to the Chargers to now break through to the next level and make it to the Super Bowl, but given how well they’ve played since mid-October and the fact that they’ve knocked on the door two years in a row now without actually getting in, it’s hard to bet against them, especially given how wide open the AFC has become thanks to the Colts and their inexplicable actions over the past two weeks.

2. Dallas
: Once a laughingstock in December, the Cowboys made many (including yours truly) look stupid in running off three straight December/January wins to clinch the NFC East and earn a home playoff game this weekend. The keys have been a defense that has closed out the year with two straight shutouts and QB Tony Romo, who passed for 909 yards, four TDs and completed over 65 percent of his passes over the three-game winning streak.

3. Indianapolis: Gotta love the Colts. They further displayed their twisted priorities in having Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark stay in the game long enough for all three to set individual marks while a blizzard raged in Buffalo last week. So being perfect doesn’t matter but keep Manning’s consecutive games started streak alive and getting Wayne and Clark each their 100th catch of the season does? Oh yeah, and don’t forget that according to head honcho Bill Polian said, if you don’t follow their “football logic,” you’re a moron. Nonsense all around.

4. Green Bay
: The Packers stayed sharp in playing their guys for about three quarters in last week’s destruction of their wild card opponent, the Cardinals. Arizona proved last year that they are incredibly dangerous come playoff time, but the Packers are sort of the NFC’s answer to the Chargers and look the most dangerous ones this year.

5. New Orleans
: 13-0 and the ass-whipping of the Patriots seem like years ago at this point. The Saints didn’t even try last week at Carolina and ended their regular year on a three-game losing streak. The number of teams to ever win the Super Bowl when entering the playoffs having lost three in a row? Zero.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. St. Louis: Hard to imagine things getting much worse for the Rams, who were last and second to last respectively in total offense and defense, and have now won exactly five games in the past three seasons. Hopefully, having the No. 1 overall pick will help my favorite bad team, but they had better rebuild their offensive line and find a quarterback too. Shouldn’t be too hard.

2. Detroit: There’s optimism in Detroit after yet another 2-14 season. Hey, it’s a lot better than 0-16, right?

3. Washington: The Jim Zorn era mercifully came to an end and you have to wonder whether tyrant owner Daniel Snyder actually believed it when he said that he “knew it was an extremely tough day for Jim and his family,” the day of the firing. I’ll bet Zorn was thrilled to finally be out of such a loony bin. In other news, the Mike Shanahan era has now officially begun and his next playoff win will be his second in the past 12 years.

4. Seattle: What do the Seahawks and whomever becomes their new general manager need to focus on most? Let’s see – a new quarterback, a new running back, at least two, probably three new offensive linemen, at least one new defensive lineman and a totally revamped secondary. At least they have a bunch of wide receivers who think they’re awesome.

5. Tampa Bay/Kansas City: Two bad teams who finished strong, even the Bucs who lost last week but had won their previous two, saving coach Raheem Morris’s job in the process. The Chiefs overcame adding to their league leading 50 dropped passes thanks to running back Jamaal Charles, who exploded for a franchise record 259 yards in their win over the Broncos and ran for 1,120 yards on just 190 carries in only eight starts.

What’s Trendy

– Chris Johnson, Titans: Congratulations to Johnson, likely the trendiest of any player/coach/team to make the What’s Trendy list this season, for setting a new record for total yards from scrimmage with 2,509 and becoming just the sixth back in league history to reach the 2,000-yard rushing plateau, finishing the year with 2,006.

– The Browns: It’s still unclear whether or not Eric Mangini will keep his job as head coach. But after such a brutal first three months in his first year with the Browns, he has led them to a season-ending, four-game winning streak, Cleveland’s first such run since 1994.

– The Falcons: One of the oddest milestones in the entire NFL was broken when the Falcons beat the Bucs last Sunday, giving them a 9-7 record and their first back-to-back winning seasons in the 34-year history of the franchise.

What’s Not

– The Broncos: The collapse was completed with the excruciating home loss to the Chiefs, making Denver just the third team in NFL history to start the season 6-0 and not make the playoffs. Given that one of the reasons Shanahan was fired last January was the string of late-season meltdowns in his final few years, one wonders how much that really had to do with him now that it’s happened to his successor, Josh McDaniels.

– JaMarcus Russell, Raiders: Way to end the year, JaMarcus. After entering a tight game against the Ravens, Russell added another pick, fumble and a few more sacks to his astronomical season totals, costing the Raiders the game. Then, in true JaMarcus fashion, he skipped the team’s final meetings of the year the next day in favor of a trip to Vegas. What an absolute bum.

– The Eagles: Wait, the Eagles had another huge game and choked, costing them a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game? You’re kidding! Look, it’s been written here before and it will be written here again. As long as Andy Reid is the coach and Donovan McNabb is the quarterback, the Eagles will never, ever win. Apparently, given the contract extension he just handed Reid, owner Jeffery Lurie must be OK with continuing to be just good enough to lose when it matters most.

And finally…

It wouldn’t be a year-end Around The League column without one final shoutout to our favorite blithering buffoon, Jets coach Rex Ryan. Two weeks after a brutal loss to the Falcons after which he expressed dismay at being out of the playoff picture even though his team wasn’t, Ryan has stated that he thinks the Jets should be the favorites to win the Super Bowl. That’s the Jets, the same Jets who have not won a meaningful game in 41 years.

Of course, Ryan isn’t going to step to the podium and say he doesn’t think his team has a chance. But perhaps he should take a deep breath and consider saying… nothing. Why put more undo pressure on your team? There’s already a strong sentiment that the Jets don’t belong since their final two wins that got them into the postseason came against teams that didn’t try to beat them. And by going further and noting that his team has the best running game and best defense in the league, while he is speaking the truth, he is leaving out the fact that teams must also throw the ball to win in the NFL, which by the transitive property could be seen as discouraging to already fragile rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.

It has been noted again and again this year that it is in Ryan’s personality to be blustery, defiant and loud. But look where that act got him. After the Jets initial three-game winning streak to start the season, they went into a prolonged funk that only made Ryan’s constant chest-thumping (as well as that of his players) look lame, poorly thought out and embarrassing . Now that his team has somehow defied enough odds to make the playoffs, he’s at it again. The Jets are not going to win the Super Bowl – if they beat the Bengals in Cincinnati this weekend, that will likely be their only playoff win. But the fact that Ryan is again calling unneeded attention to himself will only make it look worse when they lose. It’s one thing to be confident, it’s quite another to be as brazen and even impudent as Ryan is and has been. I don’t know about you, but one of the things I’m looking forward to the most this off-season is not hearing Rex Ryan huff and puff and blow a lot of gassy, hot air.