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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Giants' roller-coaster season: Beat Browns and they could ride that big win to unlikely playoff berth

Giants head coach Joe Judge looks on before

Giants head coach Joe Judge looks on before a game against the Steelers at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 14. Credit: Jim McIsaac

If this were almost any other year or any other division or any other era, we’re not even having this conversation.

A 5-8 team in December? We’re talking next season, not playoff possibilities in the weeks ahead.

But in this year with this Giants team in this NFC East, there actually is a chance at reaching the postseason.

Which brings us to Sunday night’s game against the resurgent Browns at MetLife Stadium, a game that will either breathe new life into the Giants’ playoff chances or possibly extinguish the hopes that flickered after a four-game winning streak brought them from 1-7 to 5-7.

This is virtually a must-win game for the Giants, who need to beat the Browns and hope that 6-7 Washington, which will be without starting quarterback Alex Smith because of a calf injury, and 4-8-1 Philadelphia, which has been buoyed by Jalen Hurts’ elevation to the starting QB job, falter down the stretch.

Beat the Browns in a nationally televised game, and the Giants can remove the stench from last week’s no-show in a 26-7 home loss to the Cardinals.

A loss here could be close to a death blow, though, especially with a matchup in Baltimore against a talented Ravens team and quarterback Lamar Jackson up next before the regular-season finale against the Cowboys at MetLife.

If the Giants beat the Browns and Washington loses to Seattle, the Giants will be tied for first but will retake the lead in the division by virtue of having beaten Washington twice. They will have to do it without Daniel Jones, who is dealing with hamstring and ankle injuries and will be replaced by Colt McCoy.

The Browns clearly are a more talented team than the Giants, but they may be vulnerable after an emotional 47-42 loss to the Ravens on Monday night.

Either way, Joe Judge will have to produce one of his finest performances for the Giants to beat the Browns and somehow find a way to an improbable NFC East title and a place in history. No team has ever reached the playoffs after getting off to a 1-7 start.

Not only does Judge face issues at quarterback, but he’ll be facing the Browns without offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and his best cornerback, James Bradberry, both of whom will miss the game because of COVID-19 issues. Garrett tested positive for the disease and Bradberry was exposed to someone — reportedly an outside chiropractor — who tested positive, thereby making Bradberry ineligible to play.

Former Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens, now the Giants’ tight ends coach, will take over the play-calling from Garrett for Sunday’s game.

"Nothing is changing with our offense," Kitchens said. "Our offense is our offense, and we’re just going to try to execute on a consistent basis truly. I couldn’t be any more truthful than that."

It’s uncertain how the Giants will make up for Bradberry’s absence, although safety Logan Ryan and safety Julian Love have experience at cornerback.

"Definitely there have been some challenges thrown our way all year, but that’s no different from any other team in the league," Judge said. "We’ve all dealt with the same thing, same obstacles. Some in different doses or different timing, but this is not unique to the league what we’re dealing with this week. We just have to go ahead and plow through and move ahead."

It has been a refreshingly successful season for the Browns, who have been one of the NFL’s most tortured franchises the last two decades. Beset by frequent changes at coach and quarterback, the Browns finally may have found the right combination. Baker Mayfield has flourished under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who had been a longtime assistant with the Vikings, and the Browns are within striking distance of the Steelers, who have lost two straight after winning their first 11 games. Even if the Browns can’t win the AFC North title, they’re well-situated for a wild- card berth.

"This is definitely a physical team," Judge said. "This team runs the ball, this team is good on run defense, this team is good in the kicking game in terms of creating field position. They play with a good nasty edge."

The Giants will have to counter that despite their issues at quarterback and in the secondary. If they lay an egg the way they did last Sunday, their path to the playoffs will become that much steeper. Especially with a road game against a dangerous Ravens team awaiting next Sunday.

Despite their early-season struggles, the Giants still have a chance — but only if they can summon the form that led to their shocking upset of the Seahawks two weeks ago. If they can’t, the path will become much more treacherous.

And then a season that suddenly was filled with hope after a month’s worth of winning will descend into the disappointment of waiting for next season.

Le’Veon who?

Much was made of the Jets’ release of Le’Veon Bell in October after he publicly criticized the coaching staff over how he was used in the offense. The fact that Bell, who wasn’t even halfway through a four-year, $52.5 million contract, signed with defending champion Kansas City made the transaction even more difficult for Jets fans.

But Bell has been an afterthought in Kansas City’s offense. He looks a step slow — as he had with the Jets — and Andy Reid has barely used him since his acquisition.

In last week’s 33-27 win over the Dolphins, Bell had two carries and two catches. In seven games, he has 41 carries for 162 yards and one touchdown and 11 catches for 76 yards and no touchdowns.

In other words, he’s been a non-factor.

Bell might end up getting a Super Bowl ring because he plays for the league’s best team. But he’s 28 and well past his prime, and this year may be the last we see of him in an NFL uniform.

Winning on, off field

The Seahawks are tied with the Rams atop the NFC West at 9-4 and appear to be a lock to make the playoffs. Seattle also is experiencing success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. No player on the current roster has contracted the illness, making Seattle the only team in the NFL to avoid the virus.

One player on injured reserve, backup defensive tackle Bryan Mone, was the first Seahawk to go on the COVID-19 list. He has not been present for team activities in several weeks.

"Our guys have done a fantastic job of buying in," coach Pete Carroll said. "The leadership in the club with Russell [Wilson] and Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, Duane Brown, the guys that have carried the message for us. It has to be happening on that end of it.

"We have a very, very strict program here in every way. We try to max it out in every aspect of it, but that only goes as far as when the guys leave the building, and then they’re on their own. Our guys have obviously done a great job of buying in, and this isn’t by just luck. These guys have worked their tails off to get this done. They’ve sacrificed.

"What I think has carried them through this is the right attitude about being tough about it and being demanding on yourself and helping one another overcome and just human nature is wanting to go the easy way."

Carroll stumbled early in the season by not properly wearing his mask on the sideline and was fined for the protocol violation. He welcomed the sanction.

"It was a good reminder that I just got sloppy in that instance and I can’t afford to be, I can’t afford to represent that in an effort to try to do this thing better than anybody’s ever done this before," Carroll said. "I needed to get my own butt kicked, and I didn’t mind that one bit."

Mahomes-Brees matchup

Good to see Drew Brees back in action after missing four games with broken ribs and a punctured lung. The Saints get him back just in time for Sunday’s matchup against Kansas City and defending Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes had a rare off-game in last Sunday’s 33-27 win over the Dolphins with three interceptions — one more than he’d thrown all season leading up to the game. But he still looks like a good bet to win a second regular-season MVP award in the past three seasons.

Mahomes leads the NFL with 4,208 passing yards and ranks third with 33 touchdown passes. It’s his third straight season with at least 4,000 passing yards and he joined Peyton Manning and Dan Marino to reach that milestone in three of his first four seasons.

If Mahomes throws for at least 300 yards against the Saints, he will surpass Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner for the most 300-yard passing games in his first four seasons. Mahomes and Warner are tied at 26 games with at least 300 passing yards.

Around the league

Titans running back Derrick Henry has an outside shot of becoming the eighth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards. With three games remaining, Henry leads the NFL with 1,532 rushing yards. The last player to rush for more than 2,000 yards was Adrian Peterson with the Vikings in 2012 (2,097). Eric Dickerson of the Rams holds the NFL record for most rushing yards in a season (2,105 in 1984) . . . Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce leads the NFL with 1,250 receiving yards and is the first tight end with at least 1,200 receiving yards in three seasons in league history. He needs 128 receiving yards to surpass 49ers tight end George Kittle’s record for most receiving yards by a tight end (1,377) . . . Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald needs five catches to join Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with at least 50 catches in 17 seasons . . . What a remarkable season for Philip Rivers in Indianapolis. He has cut way down on his interceptions with nine — compared to 20 last season — and has the Colts in first place in the AFC South at 9-4 . . . Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins can go a long way toward rebuilding his image with a strong performance against the Seahawks. A first-round choice in 2019, Haskins was benched after four games in favor of Kyle Allen. Current starter Alex Smith, who replaced Allen, will miss Sunday’s game with a calf injury.

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