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Rolling Giants set this tone in December
Defense is back? Or do you win in the NFL with an explosive offense?
I can not keep it straight. I have read both during this championship week. What I know is neither is exactly right.
You want to know what wins in the NFL? They are the same things that win in life — smart and resilient. The smartest companies are continually innovating, taking the advice of Wayne Gretzky and skating not to where the puck was but where it is going to be. They do not fall in love with a style or their own genius. They like to win, more than they like just about anything else, so they figure out what it is going to take and do that repeatedly. And when they stumble or fall or outright fail, they dust themselves off and get right back at it.
This is what wins in the NFL. And this explains everything about who is still playing this weekend, and why.
The Giants are in the NFC Championship Game this weekend because they do not know how to stay down. Never was this trait more apparent than on Dec. 11, when they stumbled into Dallas like an already over-served patron back to the bar for another round. The Cowboys were 7-5. The Giants were 6-6. All it was going to take was one more Dallas win.
The crushing blow looked to come with 5:41 remaining in the fourth quarter. Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant went in for an easy touchdown, a 34-22 lead and what almost assuredly looked to be a vice-grip on the NFC East.
Game over. Season over. Playoff hopes dead.
It was at this point, as the Giants prepared to come back onto the field, that Giants coach Tom Coughlin told them all they needed was a touchdown. "We'll figure out what comes next once we handle that bit of business" was the message.
It is speech in name only, and barely worth mentioning, except his players did so in the locker room afterward. They talked about how calm Coughlin was, which is even more impressive when you remember everything that was floating around them coming into that game.
A little bit of back story on the state of the NFC East back on Dec. 11, because it is pertinent.
It was a mess, a hot mess that looked to be the Cowboys' to win by default. The Redskins were their awful selves, the Eagles had cratered and the Giants had somehow found a way to lose to Philly and were riding an ugly four-game losing streak. There was some thought that Coughlin might not survive the season.
This may actually be one of the most genius parts about Coughlin, his ability to do his best work when most people think he is on his way out. This could not have been comforting in this moment, though, all of this hanging over a team trailing by 12 with less than six minutes to go, the season likely at stake.
It did not show on the ensuing drive.
Cruz again, a Cowboys offsides, Nicks, and then an eight-yard touchdown.
It took them less than three minutes. Not that the odds were swinging in their favor. There were not even three minutes left on the clock and the Cowboys had the ball.
The first two plays were runs. Then Cowboys coach Jason Garrett went for it all, calling for a go route to Miles Austin down the sideline.
It was just barely beyond his reach. He would say later, after watching replays, that he probably should have dove for it. It is one of those moments that probably haunts the Cowboys this offseason.
Seasons are long, moments easily forgotten.
We forget how razor thin the line between the NFC championship and not making the playoffs really is, not simply in the inches on this play. It was also the feeling among the Giants that they never doubted they were going to win, and the feeling among the Cowboys that they were never quite sure if they were.
It is not always a talent thing in the NFL. It is very much about attitude. And the Giants take theirs from Coughlin, an expert in motivation and focus.
He finds buttons and pushes. He goes hard and then backs off. He has them believing that what ended up happening on Dec. 11 was always possible.
New York's final drive was a mixture of Cowboys screw-ups and the Giants making plays. If Coughlin screwed up anything on that drive, it was allowing his team to score too quickly. It gave the Cowboys just enough time to drive into position for a field goal they had blocked on the second try. The first one was good, but Coughlin called a timeout just before, requiring the re-kick.
It was not defense that carried them, though Jason Pierre-Paul was an absolute beast. Nor was it the offense, though, Manning did what he had been doing all season. He was brilliant.
Why the Giants won and extended their season, why they are still playing is because they are smart and they are resilient. And San Francisco would be wise to remember this, even if they get a big lead.