At halftime, when the Giants were beginning to show signs of struggle, Ben McAdoo talked to his players about giving a "championship effort" in the second half. His point was to get them to play harder and better.
But they also went out and showed how championship teams are made.
The Giants (6-3) aren't quite at a championship level yet, but for the first time in what seems like forever, they showed everyone they have the ingredients. On display, in their 21-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, was an ability to finish a game that the Giants haven't had since their last championship in 2011. They showed they had an aggressive defense and a strong enough fourth-quarter rushing attack to put the game away.
Don't get crazy yet, though. This team still has some deep flaws and plenty of problems to fix if they really want to make a deep run through January. But right now they have the third-best record in the NFC with games against the battered Bears (2-7) and awful Browns (0-10) upcoming. Yes, they are two games back in the division and the wild-card race is tight, but the Giants are still staring at their best opportunity since 2011.
First things first, though. Here are my five takeaways from their emotional win on Monday night:
1. Steve Spagnuolo has the horses this year. There was a lot of understandable angst about McAdoo's decision to keep Spags around as defensive coordinator after the Giants' historically bad defensive performance a year ago. But as I said (often) last season, he just didn't have the personnel - any personnel, really - to work with. Now you're beginning to see what he can do when he actually has players, and why those players usually love playing for him. He trusts them. He listens to them. And as he again showed in the fourth quarter, he's aggressive by nature and very unafraid.
It makes a huge difference to have a relatively healthy Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon doing his pass rushing while Damon Harrison and a healthy Johnathan Hankins man the middle and he's got a bunch of trustworthy corners and safeties manning the back end. He absolutely had none of that last year, and what he did have got worse in the fourth quarter. They wore down.
Yes, the defense could be better. It's middle-of-the-road (ranked 16th) and ranks only 22nd against the pass. But it was dead last in 2015, so this is a vast improvement. And if the pass rush is really about to kick into gear, then this defense is probably only beginning to hit its stride.
2. The Giants still can't run the ball. I know we're all giddy because they had 122 rushing yards and picked up two big first downs on the ground late in the game and they actually ran out the clock, something I think they last did when I was 11 or 12. But pause for a moment and consider that while Rashad Jennings had a season-high 87 yards, he had just 53 before his final two carries. And McAdoo is still so afraid of his rushing attack that he called nearly twice as many passes (45 passes to 25 runs … and that ratio was actually 45-20 before the final series).
Now, that last series counts. It counts for a lot. But if the Giants can't get a more consistent push from the offensive line, more missed tackles from their running backs and more of anything out of their running game, this will prove to be their Achilles heel in January. This team remains incredibly one-dimensional. That's why it's so shocking that they were actually able to run out the clock. That was awesome, but it sure stands out as an anomaly from the rest of their body of work.
3. Eli Manning wasn't great, but the lack of support for him was alarming. Manning wasn't great, and I won't try to argue otherwise. He was 28 of 44 for 240 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. The last interception was awful, and really, his total of 10 through nine games is too high for a quarterback who is supposed to be elite.
But my goodness, his receivers and tight ends had at least four drops, including big ones by tight end Will Tye and Roger Lewis. Several times it was crystal clear that a young receiver ran a wrong wrote and a couple more times there were balls that maybe, with a little better effort, could have been caught (like one down the sideline where Lewis just stopped running).
And Manning was absolutely battered at times during this game. He was only sacked once and the Bengals were only credited with six quarterback hits, but it sure seemed worse than that. He always had defenders in his face. Bobby Hart, at right tackle, was abused at times by Geno Atkins, and he wasn't alone. I know there are stats out there showing that the Giants' line doesn't give up many pressures, but that's a product of Manning getting the ball out quickly. The pressure is there. A lot. And if it doesn't stop - and his receivers don't start holding onto the football -- this passing attack will never get in gear.
4. The Giants still need Victor Cruz. It was somewhat popular, especially on the internet, to cheer a little when Victor Cruz was declared out Monday night with an injured ankle because it gave the Giants a chance to move on to younger players like Sterling Shepard and Roger Lewis. So how did that work out? Not so well.
Shepard has been consistently good this season (39-426-4), but not great. His 10.9 yards per catch make him seem like a possession receiver when he was expected to be much more than that. With no Cruz to steal targets from him, he caught five of the seven passes thrown his direction for 42 yards. Fine.
But without Cruz, the one-dimensional Giants offense became even more predictable - despite McAdoo's attempts at creativity - because no viable third option emerged. Roger Lewis caught one of the four passes thrown his direction for just two yards and he had a huge drop. Tavarres King had one catch for six yards. Lewis might have potential if he can learn to hold onto the ball, but he doesn't have anywhere near Cruz's ability to move and get open.
It's no wonder the offense looked so out of sync after the opening drive, or why Manning threw for only 240 yards on 28 completions. This McAdoo offense is built on a three-receiver base, and even with diminished skills Cruz is a very valuable third receiver. They need him if they're going to have any chance of this offense performing up to expectations.
5. Ben McAdoo can be a fearless leader. I'll admit it. On fourth-and-goal from the 3 I thought McAdoo was crazy for going for it instead of taking the easy field goal and cutting the Giants' deficit to 20-17 (Related link: Fourth down gamble shows McAdoo's aggressive side). I also thought he was nuts for calling a run on 3rd and 6 in the fourth quarter, considering a six-yard run has seemed out of reach pretty much all year.
McAdoo doesn't care. And it would take too long to go back and show all the examples, but he didn't care much when he was Tom Coughlin's offensive coordinator either. He believes in going for the jugular, for touchdowns instead of field goals, for keeping the gas pedal on the floor on both sides of the ball. He believes in believing in his players and he refuses to coach scared, even if that leads to seemingly spectacular failures (Related link: McAdoo's faith in Giants' offense pays off in win over Bengals).
The players sure do appreciate that and everyone else should too. Yes, the difference between stupid and gutsy is simply whether a play works or not. But the fact that he's not afraid to look stupid is something Giants fans should embrace, and maybe even remember when those gusty/stupid choices go wrong.