When the Giants rumbled onto the field before their 52-27 win over the Saints at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, the Redskins and Cowboys were both trailing late in their respective contests, and, with a win over New Orleans, New York appeared set to take a commanding two-game lead in the NFC East with three games left in the regular season.
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By the time the New York Philharmonic Principal Brass Quintet strutted onto the field to perform the national anthem, however, both Dallas and Washington had rallied for victories of their own, each using last-second field goals to beat the Bengals and Ravens, respectively, to tie the Giants in the win column.
Most of the New York players said they had no idea that their division rivals had won, turning a game they wanted to win into a game they suddenly couldn’t afford to lose. But it wouldn’t have made a difference if they did, because, to hear them say it, they’d have approached the Saints the same way, regardless.
Head coach Tom Coughlin has preached a singular focus since his team’s loss to Washington Monday, New York’s third loss in four games, and challenged them to finish the season 4-0 regardless of what the teams behind them did to make up ground. There’s no fear of being caught, after all, if you just don’t lose.
“When we start the season off, I talk about winning 16, and when we had four to go, I talked about winning four,” Coughlin said Sunday night, after New York improved to 8-5 on the year. “It’s just about winning. You’re better off if you feel that you have to win each one of these games.”
It’s tough to say whether the New York players were motivated by Coughlin’s take-no-prisoners approach to the final month of the season — or, perhaps, the two embarrassing losses sustained in the last couple meetings with the Saints. But the Giants played like a team with no room for error and did themselves a world of good by maintaining their slim margin in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions.
"We came in all week knowing what this game meant and we needed to get a win," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw for 259 yards and tied a career high with four touchdowns in the game. "I think our concern, right now and for these next three weeks, is about the New York Giants and what we need to do. That’s all we can focus on."
In addition to Manning’s big day, which was aided by an eight-catch, 121-yard performance out of Victor Cruz, who surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight year, New York also got a career game out of rookie tailback David Wilson, who made his presence felt on both offense and special teams.
After fumbling the ball on his second carry of the season in the opener against Dallas, the first-round pick out of Virginia Tech spent most of the rest of the year glued to the bench behind Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown. But a season-ending injury to Brown gave Wilson another shot, and Wilson took advantage with a 97-yard kick return — the Giants’ first kick return touchdown since 2007 — 100 yards rushing and two rushing scores against New Orleans.
In addition to his 97-yard return, Wilson also had returns of 58 and 52 yards. With a total of four returns for 227 yards, Wilson broke a Giants team record that had stood since 1966, while also setting a new franchise record with 1,301 return yards on the season. Additionally, Wilson became the first player to ever have 200 kick return yards and 100 rushing yards in the same game, and joined Maurice Jones-Drew as the second player since the AFL/NFL merger to have two rushing scores and one kick return TD in the same game.
“Before the special teams meeting before the game, (Giants special teams) coach (Tom Quinn) hands out assignment sheets,” Wilson said when asked to explain his breakout day. “This game, he didn’t hand me one, so I went to ask him, ‘Coach, where’s my assignment sheet?’ He said, ‘You don’t need one — just run fast.’ So I think I’m done with the assignment sheets.
“When holes open up like that, I just thank God for giving me the speed to take advantage. You hate to be one of those guys that can just look at the hole and say, ‘Man, I could have taken that one if I was just a little bit faster.’”
On defense, New York was also aided by a Saints team that can’t seem to stop turning the ball over. One week after quarterback Drew Brees threw five interceptions against Atlanta, New Orleans turned the ball over four times against the Giants, with two fumbles and two more picks. At 5-8, it would appear the Saints are out of the NFC playoff race, and at best, they’re in a situation where they can’t afford to lose again.
“It’s really tough, but it doesn’t affect the way that we prepare and the way that we approach each week,” Brees said. “We have a lot of prideful guys. We’re not about to shut it down and feel like the season is lost. There’s still a lot that can be done.”
New York’s situation, however, isn’t as cut-and-dry as New Orleans’. With a one-game lead and three games left to go, the Giants might reach the postseason with one more win, but would probably serve themselves well with at least a 2-1 record down the stretch — and that might be asking a lot with trips to Atlanta and Baltimore still to come, along with a home game against the Eagles in the season finale.
As for Washington and Dallas, which are tied at 7-6, one game off the division lead, they play each other in Week 17 in Landover, Md., with the loser of that one in grave danger of watching the playoffs from home.
The Redskins would seem to have the weaker schedule of the Giants’ two challengers going forward, with games against the Browns and Eagles to play before the finale against Dallas, but their success will be largely contingent on Robert Griffin III’s status after injuring his knee against Baltimore on Sunday. Dallas will host Pittsburgh and New Orleans before hitting the road to play Washington, but home hasn’t exactly been friendly to the Cowboys, who are 3-3 at JerryWorld this season.
However it plays out, it’s refreshing and exciting to see these fierce NFC East rivalries so relevant again, and it should make for some compelling football as the season draws to a close — though the Giants would probably prefer that not be the case.
It’s been a roller-coaster season for New York, which has looked unstoppable this year in wins over San Francisco, Green Bay and Sunday against New Orleans, but has also looked pitiful in close losses to the Eagles, Steelers and Redskins — games that have ratcheted up the pressure over the final few games.
“For some reason we like to make it hard on ourselves, but we’ve also been the kind of team that can handle that pressure, and we do well under those circumstances,” Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. “However the shoe fits, wear it. We’ve created our own path, and we made it kind of hard for ourselves, but we’re a fighting team. We’re going to fight to the end, and we’ll be the last team standing.”
A 1-2 finish and a potential three-way tie at 9-7 could spell trouble for New York, and an early season loss to the Eagles could come back to bite them in the tiebreaker. But if you ask Coughlin, that’s not on his team’s mind — because not looking back has been the goal all along.
“The way you solve your own issues and your own problems it to take care of your own business,” Coughlin said. “How do you take care of your own business? You win.”