Justin Pugh #67 of the New York Giants; Victor Cruz...

Justin Pugh #67 of the New York Giants; Victor Cruz #80 of the New York Giants, Damon Harrison #98 of the New York Giants and Marshall Newhouse #73 of the New York Giants celebrate after the Giants beat the Dallas Cowboys 20-19 at AT&T Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. Credit: Getty Images / Tom Pennington

Shortly after the Giants held on for a dramatic 20-19 win over the Cowboys to open the season on Sunday, defensive end Olivier Vernon was asked if he thought this performance was different from the ones last year, when the Giants routinely would lose leads and games in the final minutes.

“I don’t know,” said Vernon, a former Dolphin who signed a free-agent deal in the offseason. “I wasn’t here, but so I’ve heard. Last year’s last year, and that’s in the past. It’s a totally new defense.”

That new defense survived a furious comeback attempt when time ran out after receiver Terrance Williams inexplicably didn’t try to run out of bounds to set up a potential winning field goal.

Call that a lucky break for a team that was desperate for one, but how many times in recent years would the Giants have lost this type of game? Almost too many to count. Last year alone, they lost five after leading in the final two minutes.

The defense was aided by general manager Jerry Reese’s $200-million-plus spending spree, which included signing Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Damon Harrison and drafting cornerback Eli Apple. It did a good enough job against rookie quarterback Dak Prescott to at least begin to change the narrative.

It doesn’t mean the Giants are guaranteed to reverse their fortunes and make a playoff run, but it does augur well. Which is why Eli Manning, who had three touchdown passes, including the game-winner to Victor Cruz, made it a point after the game and again Monday to accentuate the different vibe that comes with winning in Week 1.

“This is a big win for the team and for the guys that were here last year,” said Manning, whose Giants blew a late lead in spectacular fashion against Dallas in the ’15 opener. “Almost a year ago today in this same spot, we had a chance to win and couldn’t pull it out. The numerous ones after that were very similar. Moving forward, that’s going to be helpful.”

The psychology of results cannot be underestimated in this case, and Manning wants to make certain his teammates grasp the opportunity that lies ahead. And that means dealing with the inevitability of playing close games.

“We have to stay humble and we have to keep working,” Manning said. “Just to know we can win these tight ones is helpful, because we’re going to get more like it, and there’s going to be more tight games. The great teams have to be able to win most of them.”

Manning knows. During his two championship seasons, the Giants won plenty of close games, especially those two Super Bowls against the Patriots. It’s still way too early to tell if this year’s team is good enough to challenge for a championship, but it is noteworthy that each of Manning’s Super Bowl teams improved late in the regular season.

And if you can survive these early games and gain confidence with wins, even ones nudged along by lucky breaks like the one Williams created, you at least give yourself a chance down the stretch.

“It’s always great to get a win to start the season, especially in the division on the road,” Manning said Monday on his weekly spot with WFAN’s Mike Francesa. “I’m proud of the guys. We got down early but fought back and got the lead and went down again in the fourth quarter, but were able to get a big drive and get a key touchdown, and our defense made some great stops to hold on to it.”

It’s a scenario Manning wants to see again, and a reminder of why it’s unwise to judge him and this offense off its lackluster preseason. “My mindset in preseason is stay healthy,” he told Francesa. “My mindset in regular season is go win games.”

A winning mantra from a winning quarterback who desperately wants another championship.


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