Tom Coughlin was asked about these losses feeling like punches to the stomach.
“Sometimes lower,” he said.
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Sunday’s 38-35 loss to the Panthers certainly was one of those. The Giants came back from a 35-7 third-quarter deficit and tied the score at 35 with 1:46 remaining, only to have the unbeaten Panthers march down the field for a 43-yard field goal as time expired to bring them to 14-0.
Compound that loss with Washington’s win over Buffalo to move a full game ahead in the NFC East, and the Giants were left doubled over in agony and on the verge of elimination from postseason contention.
The Giants (6-8) had to wait until late Sunday night to learn the full grimness of their state, with a chance that their next game Sunday in Minnesota will be meaningless.
If the Eagles beat the Cardinals, the Giants are alive by only the barest of threads, needing to win their final two games and have Philadelphia and Washington play to a tie on Saturday night to remain in contention.
Even if the Eagles lost, the Giants are a game behind Washington with two to play. They split with Washington this season and trail in almost every tiebreaker scenario, so the Giants would need to win out and have Washington lose to Philadelphia and Dallas.
Six of the Giants’ eight losses have come by a total of 15 points; seven have come by a total of 21. This loss was the third in which the deciding play occurred on the final snap of the game, and the sixth in which the Giants’ defense allowed tying or go-ahead points to be scored in the last two minutes of regulation.
The Giants have faced two unbeaten teams with at least eight wins this season, and they lost both — by a combined four points with a combined one second left.
“This one was a little different than normal,” defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said, referring to his team’s thrilling comeback, only to be unable to stop Cam Newton and the Panthers on the final drive.
New route. Same heartbreak.
“There’s no doubt we’ve lost some close ones and had opportunities,” said Eli Manning, who threw four touchdown passes. “We’ve had several that were very similar to this one. It comes down to final minutes and seconds of the game and a last-second field goal.”
“I don’t want to say I’m almost numb to it,” cornerback Prince Amukamara added, “ we’ve been here. You have no one to blame but yourself.”
The Giants certainly had many chances to stay stride-for-stride with the Panthers in the first half but wound up trailing 21-7 at the break.
On the fourth snap of the game, Odell Beckham Jr. beat Josh Norman but dropped what would have been an easy 52-yard touchdown pass.
“It’s unfortunate I let an opportunity pass,” Beckham said. “Right through my hands. You blow by the defender, Eli puts it exactly where it needs to be. Couldn’t have asked for a better ball. Couldn’t have asked for a better play. I just let the opportunity go.”
With the score tied at 7 in the second quarter, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie dropped what would have been an interception and most likely a 50-yard return for a touchdown. Then Rashad Jennings fumbled and Carolina scored on a 37-yard pass to Greg Olsen on a third-and-1 pass.
“I really did think that before the half was where the damage was most inflicted,” Coughlin said.
There was more in the third quarter. Carolina scored two touchdowns and it seemed the game would end in a rout. But the Giants scored 28 straight points with the help of a blocked field-goal attempt by Rodgers-Cromartie and a fumble recovery by Kerry Wynn.
Beckham, who seemed to be in the middle of everything both positive and negative for the Giants during the game, was hit with three personal-foul penalties. He was held without a reception until 5:19 remained in the third quarter but grabbed the tying 14-yard touchdown pass with 1:46 remaining on a fourth-and-5 play.
The Panthers never even faced a third down on their final drive. A 10-yard scramble by Newton to the 25 got them securely into field-goal range and Graham Gano kicked the 43-yarder.
Coughlin praised the Giants for fighting back from their large deficit, calling it an “outstanding tribute” to the players and coaches.
And given the outcome, joining the list of last-second miseries, perhaps a fitting tribute to this season as well.