Kevin Johnson #28 of the Cleveland Browns breaks up a...

Kevin Johnson #28 of the Cleveland Browns breaks up a pass intended for Golden Tate #15 of the New York Giants during the fourth quarter of a game at MetLife Stadium on December 20, 2020. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

It was there for the taking.


With the NFC East continuing to offer opportunities rarely seen in a division — none of its teams will finish above .500 — the Giants had the chance to get back into first place with two weeks to play.

They entered Sunday night’s game against the Browns knowing that NFC East-leading Washington already had lost and that a win over Cleveland would make both the Giants and Washington 6-8 — with the Giants holding the edge after sweeping their longstanding rival.

All the Giants needed to do to hold up their end was to find a way to win.

But they couldn’t do it.

Not even close.

Browns 20, Giants 6.

It’s almost over.

With the Giants at 5-9, the chances for an upset run to the postseason in Joe Judge’s first year are about as nonexistent as the offense his team has produced the last two weeks.

Yes, the mathematical possibilities still exist. But with a game next week against the streaking Ravens, who have rediscovered their excellence since the return of Lamar Jackson, the Giants are quickly running out of time. Especially if they can’t do any better than what we’ve seen the last two weeks.

With Alex Smith’s injured calf creating uncertainty, Washington is still iffy, so it’s possible that the Giants’ regular-season finale at home against the Cowboys (5-9) still could have meaning. But because the Giants couldn’t deal with a Browns team that clearly was the better side, we’re about to be looking at what will happen next year more than what might happen next month.

That’s back-to-back home losses — awful losses at that — after a four-game winning streak breathed new life into a Giants season that began 0-5 and went to 1-7. Even if there still are scenarios in which the Giants can make the postseason, nothing will matter if they can’t play any better than they have the past two weeks.

"All three phases, all coaches involved, we’ve all got to do a better job," Judge said.

Players, too. That’s two straight weeks of miserable performances against the Cardinals and Browns, leaving the Giants’ season hanging by a thread.

Perhaps Judge himself could see the writing on the wall, because he coached this one early on as if he felt he needed to score touchdowns and not settle for field goals. That may have been because of his respect for Baker Mayfield, not to mention the fact that the Browns’ offense was in full throttle in last Monday’s 47-42 home loss to the Ravens.

Judge tried to be aggressive from the start, eschewing what would have been an easy field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Browns’ 5 and having holder Riley Dixon attempt a pass to offensive lineman Nick Gates in the end zone. The ball fell incomplete.

I like the idea of being aggressive, but better to settle for the points on that opening drive and save the trickery for later in the game.

Judge passed up another easy field goal — again from the 5 — in the second quarter on a fourth-and-1 call. This one made more sense based on the situation, but Wayne Gallman was stopped for no gain.

"Field goals weren’t going to win this game," Judge said. "I’m not afraid to call things aggressively. I’m not afraid to run the ball on fourth-and-1. We’ve got to do a better job coaching it the right way, executing it the right way."

Judge was willing to gamble, even though it didn’t work out.

"When you make calls like that," he said, "you let your players understand you have confidence in them and they can play aggressively. We thought we had a chance. It was worth rolling the dice."

After Gallman came up short on fourth-and-1, Cleveland drove the length of the field, with Mayfield completing the 95-yard drive with a TD pass into the back of the end zone from the 2 to make it 13-3 before halftime.

Giants tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens, the former Browns head coach who was subbing as offensive coordinator in the COVID-related absence of Jason Garrett, fared no better than Garrett. The Giants’ offense simply was not functional, with backup quarterback Colt McCoy unable to do better than a pair of field goals.

"We have to do better in the red zone," McCoy said. "That’s the bottom line. I think I can do a better job, but collectively as a group, we’ve got to do a better job of figuring it out. If we were better in that area today, things would be different."

And so the Giants went quietly into the night.

And, barring a miracle turnaround, into next season, too.


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