EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants had all the pieces in place to repeat as Super Bowl champions except one: Plaxico Burress.
It's not a coincidence that the season-ending suspension of the talented but troubled receiver in December after he accidentally shot himself in the thigh can be tied directly to the Giants' late-season swoon.
New York lost four of its final five games, including a 23-11 decision to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC divisional playoffs Sunday.
While Burress arguably might have to compete with quarterback Eli Manning and halfback Brandon Jacobs for the team's best offensive player, there's no doubt his absence changed the Giants' dynamic down the stretch.
Burress was the player who made opposing defenses adjust. Teams had to play a safety deep to protect against his deep-ball threat, and the Giants had no one to replace him.
Even Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said game planning for the Giants was easier without Burress to worry about.
"I've said this before guys, Plax has a presence out there, and has an uncommon skill set, and you just don't replace that," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said Monday, hours after the players met with the coaching staff and cleaned out their lockers.
"We made some adjustments, but we didn't play well enough last night," Reese said. "Obviously, Plax gives you a presence out there. We didn't get it done."
When Burress was on the team, the Giants went 11-1 and looked very capable of repeating. Without him, they were a very good team missing a key component.
The Giants simply didn't get it done in December and January. They beat Carolina in the next-to-last game of the regular season to win home-field advantage, but also lost twice to Philadelphia in that span, with the offense scoring only 16 points in eight quarters.
After Burress was suspended, Manning threw three touchdown passes in five games. He had 20 in the first 12.
The nucleus is still there for another good season next year, but Burress' future both on and off the field is uncertain.
He faces charges of criminal possession of a weapon relating to the shooting, which could result in a prison sentence of 3 1/2 to 15 years if he's convicted. The 31-year-old, who caught the winning pass in the Super Bowl, is due back in court March 31.
Reese left the door open for Burress to return. He's still under contract to the Giants, but his future may very well be determined by the legal system.
"I want to see him be OK as a person more than anything else, and if we can see that and he is OK as a person and ready to turn over a new leaf in his life and take care of himself first, I think everything will take care of itself," Reese said.
The general manager said he has communicated with Burress and plans to talk with him again soon.
"I think he has thought about some of the bad decisions he has made and I think things will begin to change as far as making better decisions," said Reese, who said the Giants would protect themselves by looking into free agency and the draft in case they need a deep-threat receiver.
Jacobs, who had his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season, thinks Burress will return.
"He is not a criminal," Jacobs said. "He does not have a bad bone in his body. He made a bad decision and he should not suffer the rest of his career because of one decision. But that's the way life goes. You never know when you are going to get a second chance. I think he deserves a second chance."
For the rest of the Giants, this was a day to talk about what might have been.
Despite the absence of Burress, New York had its chances Sunday. The Giants were in the red zone three times and inside the Eagles 30-yard line five times. The net result was three field goals.
"It is disappointing," Manning said. "You look at the film and you see some opportunities. We played pretty good for most of the game. Just at times when we got down in the red zone, we didn't execute our best and we didn't convert those third downs to give us opportunities to score touchdowns. So that is what it came down to."
So on Monday, the players met with coach Tom Coughlin, had physicals and stuffed their belongings into plastic garbage bags instead of preparing for a home game against the Arizona Cardinals.
"It is not a good day, it is not a happy day," Coughlin said. "It is a long day, it is a tough day."
Reese has a number of decisions to make in the offseason. Jacobs and Ward, who also rushed for 1,000 yards, receiver Amani Toomer and kicker John Carney are among 12 unrestricted free agents.
Reese said there will be some changes.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is still in the hunt for a head coaching job, so the team might need a new coordinator.
When asked if the Giants had considered naming Spagnuolo a coach-in-waiting in the event the 62-year-old Coughlin decides to retire, Reese said the team considers all possibilities.
The one thing they didn't anticipate was losing in the divisional round after earning the top seed.
Now all they can see are four teams remaining: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Arizona -- all teams the Giants beat in the regular season.
"It's a different feeling," tight end Kevin Boss said comparing the end of last season to this one. "I didn't know what to expect today. We didn't have exit meetings last year. We won the Super Bowl and rode off into the sunset. This year we have to do the painful stuff, like clean out the locker.
"It's tough. It's something we didn't expect."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press