For most of the season, the New York Giants have been sitting snugly in one of the NFC wildcard spots. Until now, I have been hesitant to embrace them as a likely playoff contestant. After an uninspiring 2-3 start, the Giants pushed themselves into contention with a 6-game winning streak that came at the expense of some fairly suspect opponents. They squeaked past Baltimore at home (27-23) before Baltimore figured things out and started playing well. They eased past a bad Rams team, 17-10. They just got past a fading Philadelphia team, 28-23. They finished the winning streak against three straight sub-.500 teams – Cincinnati (21-20), Chicago (22-16), and winless Cleveland (27-13).
Now 8-3, New York faced a quality opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers – and fell quietly 24-14. Still 8-4, the tie-breakers didn’t favor them at 9-7. To earn their playoff berth, the Giants would have to go at least 2-2 down the stretch. As the stretch drive included games against Dallas, Detroit and a road game in Washington, this under-performing team seemed unlikely to squeeze two wins out of this schedule. Somewhere in this stretch, they would have to “find” a win against a better team.
They found that win Sunday night when they fought their way past the Dallas Cowboys 10-7.
Even in this moment of triumph, the Giants managed to be mostly unconvincing. While scoring only ten points, they left two other touchdowns on the field when Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a sure touchdown pass and when the ball slipped out of Eli Manning’s had as he had a receiver breaking open behind the defense. Eli also threw at least three other passes right into the hands of would-be interceptors (all dropped) – so the Giant offense continues to invite concern.
Defensively, the Giants dominated the Cowboys. It’s hard to say that when Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott ran for 107 yards, but make no mistake. Dallas was dominated on offense.
After a dominating early season, the Cowboys finished their eleven-game winning streak with wins that were 3 parts grit and determination and 2 parts luck. Since they went into their bye with a 5-1 record, the Cowboys’ defense has been frequently exposed. Three times in the first five games after their bye, Dallas surrendered 23 points or more. Even though they held Minnesota to 15 points in a Week 13 win, the Vikings still kept the Cowboy offense on the sideline as they ran 69 offensive plays and controlled the clock for 33:17. Blessed with better red-zone execution (and, perhaps, a roughing-the-passer call on a two-point conversion attempt) the Vikings would have won that game.
The Giant’s lacked enough offense to take advantage of the Cowboy defense, but they did provide something of a blue-print for dousing the Cowboy offense – if there’s another defense out there that can do what they did.
First and most importantly, they competed with the Cowboy running game for the whole sixty minutes. Elliott had his moments. He had four rushes of at least 13 yards. Those rushes accounted for 55 of Elliott’s yards. His other 20 rushes accounted for just 52 yards. In fairness, the Cowboys made it easy on the Giants in this regard. After Elliott carried 15 times for 86 first-half yards, the Cowboys only gave him 9 second-half carries, only once giving him the ball on consecutive plays. Thus Dallas never gave the Giants defense a chance to wear down, preferring instead to place their fortunes on the arm of quarterback Dak Prescott – who struggled to a 17-for-37, 165 yard game that featured three sacks and two interceptions.
Conventional wisdom might hold that defenses are adjusting to Dallas’ intriguing rookie quarterback. That’s not what I saw Sunday night. What I saw was a Giant defense that blitzed relentlessly – a risky strategy that worked because the New York defensive backs were spectacular in covering the Cowboy receivers. Whether it was Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley or Jason Witten, none of the Cowboy receivers had any success in gaining any separation. In the absence of the consistent running game, Prescott was faced with persistent heat in the pocket and covered receivers – conditions that would challenge the best and most experienced quarterbacks.
At 11-2, Dallas is still two games ahead in the chase for the top seed in its conference. With three games left, it would take an impressive collapse for them to fall out of that position. But Dallas has been scuffling lately, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the playoffs.
In the meantime, the Giants now need to win just one of their last three to pretty much assure their playoff berth. This is a disappointing development for Tampa Bay, who had recently fought their way into serious playoff contention. After surviving New Orleans last week, Tampa Bay is now 8-5. But 9-7 will probably not be enough to get them in. At 10-6 they would probably get a tie-breaker in conference record, but their closing schedule is daunting. They have consecutive road games in Dallas and New Orleans followed by a home game against Carolina. Finding two wins in those three games will prove a challenge. They will now have to do what the Giants did – find a way to win a game they probably shouldn’t.
Houston or Tennessee?
Also last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans came up big against the Denver Broncos (a 13-10 win). This leaves them tied for the lead in their division. Unfortunately, in spite of the win, their playoff stock diminished as the Houston Texans came through with a surprising 22-17 road victory over Indianapolis. Both Houston and Tennessee are 7-6. Tennessee will host Houston on the last game of the season. Before that game, Houston will have winnable home games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati. If they win both of those games, they will head into that final showdown with a 9-6 record and a 5-0 division record. The best the Titans can do in the division is 3-3 if they beat both Jacksonville and Houston.
This means that 9-7 will likely not be good enough. Tennessee will pretty much need to win out to take the division title – their most realistic path to the playoffs. That places Tennessee’s real playoff hopes squarely on this Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Chiefs. In Kansas City. If the Titans are going to make it, they will certainly earn it.