It wasn’t even a question.
Even if conventional wisdom, if not simple logic, told you the smart play was to take the field goal rather than risk coming away with no points, Ben McAdoo was having none of it. With the game on the line and the Giants deep in Bengals territory, the first-year coach wasn’t looking to play it safe.
He was looking to win. Right here, right now.
“We knew it was going to take touchdowns to beat this team,” McAdoo said. “We were going for it.”
Fourth-and-goal from the Bengals’ 3-yard line, trailing 20-14 early in the fourth quarter, and a field goal wasn’t an option. In fact, McAdoo had taken the unusual step of telling quarterback Eli Manning before second down that this would be four-down territory, that only a touchdown would do.
“Coach McAdoo told me, ‘We’re in four-down territory, just so you know,’ ” Manning said.
Manning would need every down. On second-and-goal from the 9, Manning was off target on a throw to tight end Will Tye that was nearly intercepted.
“Second down, I had a little mental collapse,” Manning said. “I had a play called, we were looking for a certain coverage, didn’t get it. I checked to a play, but my mind and my hands weren’t on the same page. I screwed up.”
Third down, Manning was looking for his star receiver, Odell Beckham. But the Bengals had him well covered with two defenders, so Manning took the check-down route to Tavarres King.
“Maybe [King] gets in, maybe not,” Manning said. “But I know we have a chance to go for it on fourth down. Get a fourth-and-goal from the 2 [it was actually the 3], it’s a lot easier than fourth-and-7.”
As the crowd of 76,218 hushed in nervous anticipation of the play, Manning was set to hit rookie receiver Sterling Shepard, who was lined up to the left of the formation. He ran a short pattern over the middle, and Manning hit him in stride for the touchdown. Robbie Gould’s extra point put the Giants ahead 21-20 and they closed it out thanks to some fine defensive work and excellent inside running by Rashad Jennings to keep possession and secure the win.
Credit McAdoo’s aggressive play call with a huge assist in this one, as the Giants go to 6-3 and have an excellent chance to improve to 8-3 with games against struggling Chicago and winless Cleveland in the next two weeks. McAdoo made Tom Coughlin proud with the kind of risk-taking style that Coughlin frequently used when he felt conservative play wouldn’t be enough. With Coughlin on hand to accept his induction into the Giants’ Ring of Honor, McAdoo’s gutsy call led to a critical win that could set the table for a playoff push.
There’s still a long way to go, and the Giants still need to step up their level of play in most areas. But they’ve done what they must in winning four straight games and getting to three games above .500 for the first time since late in the 2012 season, when they were 8-5. They wound up at 9-7 that year and missed the playoffs, then missed the postseason the next three years and nudged Coughlin out after last season.
“I like the position we’re in, but we have to keep going,” Manning said. “We can’t slow down. We can’t relax for a second. Every game we’ve been playing has been tight, and we have to keep finding ways to win these close games. Obviously, we can play better football, but I’m proud of the way the team’s fighting and making plays in critical moments.”
Manning loves McAdoo’s aggressiveness.
“He tells me to be aggressive with my play and take shots when we get them,” he said. “We have to keep doing that.”
McAdoo made one other decision that proved critical — even before the game started. He elected to receive the ball after the Giants won the toss; McAdoo had deferred on the opening kickoff twice before this season. Not this time, and for a very specific reason.
“You’re playing against a veteran quarterback [Andy Dalton] coming off a bye week,” McAdoo said. “I just wanted to come out, jump-start the offense, see if we could get them to play a little slow defensively after a bye week. That was the thought behind it.”
Smart thinking. The Giants put together one of their best drives of the season, 80 yards in eight plays that culminated with Manning’s 10-yard touchdown throw to seldom-used tight end Jerell Adams.
A fine night for the first-year coach, but he knows there is much work to be done.
“This is one week,” he said. “We’re humble in victory. It was nice to go out and get a win, but we have to go out and get ready for next week.”
Easier to get ready with a win, one that was earned with some smart play and some gutsy play-calling by the head coach.