TOM COUGHLIN looked at the four-rung ladder that the 8-7 Giants must climb on Sunday to get into the playoffs, the first step being a win over the Eagles followed by three other favorable results in the NFC East and North. "Stranger things have happened," he said.

They did last year. And in 2007. But more and more, those seasons are the oddities, the outliers.

Perhaps it's time to conclude that the baseline for the Giants' team as it has been constructed is not a championship contender that sometimes falls short but a mediocre assemblage that can once in a while streak to the championship. The Giants have expressed this philosophy themselves hundreds of times, from top to bottom, stating the significance of "playing your best football at the end of the season." More often than not, they aren't.

This season began with whispers of a dynasty. The opportunity to be the first group of Giants players to win three championship rings was dangled in front of them. Having won two Super Bowls in 5 years, three in 6 would surely qualify them as dominant.

Now, though, they're on the brink of elimination from playoff contention. If they don't make it in, they would by dynastic in the other direction. Three of the last 4 years without a playoff appearance. Three of the prime years of the franchise's greatest quarterback without a chance to make a postseason run.

Consider that the Giants have won more than 10 games under Coughlin only twice. Neither of those teams even won a playoff game. Other than his first year in 2004 when the Giants were in transition toward the Eli Manning era and went 6-10, Coughlin has never had a losing season. But only half of those eight saw the Giants win 10 or more games. Two of them finished 8-8. Perhaps a third will on Sunday.

Aside from a stretch in the 2008 season before Plaxico Burress shot himself - plus a pair of confetti-strewn February days - the Giants have never been considered the NFL's best team.

Their genius, though, lies in this: They didn't have to be.

Don't crush the Giants for figuring out the secrets of the era of free agency and parity. For recognizing that it's more effective to throw Super Bowl haymakers and hope that one lands every so often than it is to consistently jab-jab-jab at the sport's ultimate title. Everyone's afraid of the loud, reverberating thunder that rolls across the land, but it's the flash of lightning that does the damage. The Giants have learned to grab onto those bolts that come from nowhere and ride them to the end.

The dominant teams that thunder through the regular season? The Patriots, Peyton Manning's Colts, even the 15-1 Packers of last season? The Giants have snuck into the playoffs and won the whole thing more often in the last six seasons than all of those teams combined during the same span.

Their key to winning it more times than any other team since 2007 is middling about on the fringe of elimination and knowing that sometimes mediocrity can suddenly be transformed into extraordinary. Waiting for those "stranger things" that Coughlin mentioned to take place, knowing that they won't always . . . but when they do, it leads to exceptional feats.

"You never know what can happen," Manning said. "It's a crazy game, it's a crazy sport."

He has two crazy rings to prove just how sane the Giants' philosophy really is.