When the Giants fell behind New Orleans 27-7 early in the fourth quarter Sunday, fans at Giants Stadium started flocking for the parking lot. Those who remained took up the chant that had started at halftime: “Fire Coughlin!”

Still, in the worse-than-mediocre NFC, New York under coach Tom Coughlin still holds the lead for the last wild-card spot despite a 7-8 record and five losses in the last six games. The way things are going, they could lose Saturday night in Washington and still make it, the first NFL team since playoffs started in 1933 to qualify for the postseason under .500.

The Giants are one of five 7-8 teams tied for the last wild-card spot going into the final weekend and there’s no guarantee any of them will win.

New York holds the final spot right now because it’s tied with Green Bay at 6-5 for the best conference record among the 7-8 teams and has played a stronger schedule. That could change because strength of schedule isn’t calculated until all the games are played next week.

“I didn’t expect them to cheer us,” Giants center Shaun O’Hara said after what turned out to be a 30-7 loss. “It’s Christmas and everyone wants to be merry. They are obviously upset with us and they have a right to be.”

The fans have a right to be angry with just about everyone in the NFC – even the Bears, at 13-2, have their problems.

But the Giants are the primary reason for the strange situation.

When they were 6-2, John Madden was promoting their upcoming game with Chicago by calling them “one of the two best teams in the NFC.” Yes, injuries hurt, but they also have a dysfunctional locker room, one of several reasons Coughlin could be fired after the season – even if they do make the playoffs.

Two of the other “contenders,” Atlanta and Carolina, also were highly regarded entering the season.

All are plummeting now. In addition to New York’s six of seven defeats, Carolina has lost four of five and Atlanta six of eight. The best way to resolve the mess might be to change the rules and give Tennessee, which has won six straight, one of the NFC slots; its chances of making it in the AFC are pretty remote.

A team-by-team look at the NFC’s 7-8 teams.

New York Giants

Once 6-2 with control of the NFC East and talent (albeit mismatched) that put them near the top of the NFL.

The slide started with injuries. Seven starters were out at one point, including 2005 Pro Bowl DEs Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. But the most important injury may have been the torn knee ligament that ended the season of WR Amani Toomer. Toomer’s loss coincides with the falloff of QB Eli Manning – Toomer was the only reliable wideout other than Plaxico Burress.

RB Tiki Barber’s announcement that he is retiring after the season turned into another distraction. The Giants won three straight after the announcement, but Barber, playing with a broken thumb, started to fall off, too, and spent more time talking about his future in TV than his present job. The key loss came in Tennessee on Nov. 23, when New York blew a 21-0 fourth-quarter lead.

Barber, Strahan, Burress, tight end Jeremy Shockey and injured linebacker LaVar Arrington contributed to a strange locker-room mix under Coughlin, a strict, “old-school” coach.

Both Barber and Shockey criticized the play calling at various times and Strahan publicly criticized Burress for quitting on plays. Right and right – Burress sometimes loafs and New York’s offense is very predictable – but it didn’t do much for team chemistry.

Carolina

One of the preseason favorites to win the conference title, the Panthers were hit early by injuries on the offensive line. Left tackle Travelle Wharton was lost for the season with a knee injury in the opener and center Justin Hartwig has been out most of the year. Rookie running back D’Angelo Williams missed three games, DeShaun Foster was mainly ineffective and the lack of a running game forced Jake Delhomme to pass too much.

Delhomme’s passer rating is almost 10 points lower than last season, when the Panthers reached the NFC title game. Then he injured his thumb. That forced the Panthers to go with Chris Weinke, 1-15 as a starter, at quarterback against the Giants and New York got its only win in the second half of the schedule. Carolina seemed out of it until Sunday’s improbable 10-3 win over Atlanta, in which Williams and Foster combined to rush for 182 yards, allowing Weinke to get by with only seven passes.

Only in this year’s NFC would the Panthers still be in contention.

Atlanta

As Coughlin is shaky with the Giants, so is Jim Mora with the Falcons, who started 5-2 and are 2-6 since.

Even his family is involved. Mora’s father, the former Saints and Colts coach of the same name, called quarterback Michael Vick a “coach killer” on his NFL Network show. And two weeks ago, the younger Mora – “with sarcasm and wit” he said in a later apology – told a Seattle radio station when asked about coaching at his alma mater, the University of Washington: “It doesn’t even matter if I’m available. I don’t care if we’re in the middle of a playoff run. I’m packing my stuff and coming back to Seattle.”

Well, they’re still in a playoff run.

Injuries have hurt. At one point, three-fourths of the starting defensive line was out and DE Patrick Kerney is lost for the season with a torn chest muscle. Brian Finneran, the most reliable receiver other than TE Alge Crumpler, was lost with a knee injury during training camp.

Meanwhile, teams seem to have solved the college style “option-read” offense featuring the running of Vick and Warrick Dunn. It doesn’t help that Vick’s receivers, former first-round picks Michael Jenkins, Ashley Lelie and Roddy White, are near Terrell Owens at the top of the league in dropped passes.

Green Bay

Up there with the Giants in the order of precedence despite a roster than includes 20 rookies – including three starters on the offensive line – and only Donald Driver as a reliable receiver for Brett Favre.

A pleasant surprise in some respects, but horribly inconsistent. The Packers haven’t beaten a team with a winning record, although they have a good shot at getting in if they win in Chicago against the archrival Bears (13-2), who already have clinched home-field advantage in the NFC. Four of their wins are against Minnesota and Detroit, two of their cohorts in the awful NFC North, and they have horrible home losses: 35-0 to New England and 38-10 to the Jets.

Still, they’re “hot” with three straight wins, although the home victories over the Lions and Vikings the last two weeks were anything but artistic. It might be nice to see Favre, at 37, get into the postseason one last time.

St. Louis

Another team that’s in contention only because it’s the “second best” in a very weak division. The “best,” defending NFC champion Seattle, backed into the NFC West title at 8-7 when San Francisco lost Sunday. The Rams are only a game behind the Seahawks, but can’t pass them because they lost to Seattle twice on late field goals.

Still, like the Packers, they are “hot” – two straight wins qualifies in this group.

These Rams are similar to stronger teams earlier this decade with much the same cast of characters: Marc Bulger throwing to Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce with Steven Jackson doing the running instead of Marshall Faulk.

But the defense, which was bad then, is awful now – if it wasn’t for Indianapolis, the Rams would be last in the NFL against the run. They are allowing nearly 150 yards a game on the ground, which is not a formula for winning.

In other words, just a mediocre team – at best. This season, that might make the playoffs.


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