The Giants had one offensive play for negative yardage Monday night. It was, they said, the happiest play of the game.
Sure, there were others that stood out on both sides of the ball. The stops on third down by the defense. The sacks that came, as they always believed they would, in bunches late in the fourth quarter. The game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a gutsy fourth-and-goal call from the 3.
But the one that made it all so real, brought it all together, was the final one. The last words spoken by Eli Manning in the huddle before he took a knee. The call that came after Rashad Jennings ran for 25 yards on the play after the two-minute warning.
“Victory,” Manning said. “On one.”
Just like that, the Giants sealed their 21-20 win over the Bengals.
“It’s the best feeling,” Jennings said of that 1-yard loss. “Better than any touchdown we could score.”
For an offense that had to rely on the defense to bail it out for most of this season, to be able to run out the final 3:01 of the game was especially gratifying. For a rushing offense ranked last in the NFL that had not run for 80 yards in five straight games for the first time in recorded team history, to do so on the ground was even more exhilarating.
It was the fourth straight win for the Giants (6-3) and allowed them to keep pace with NFC East-leading Dallas (8-1) while staying ahead of Washington and Philadelphia, which also won on Sunday. The win also pushed the Giants ahead of the Vikings, Saints and Falcons — all of whom lost on Sunday — in the wild-card race. With the next three games against teams currently holding losing records (Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh), the optimism of a first playoff berth since 2011 is becoming more realistic.
It’s the first four-game winning streak for the Giants since 2013 and the first time they have been three games over .500 since they were 8-5 in 2012.
None of it would have happened without Ben McAdoo believing in his offense at the most critical point in the game, going for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 3 early in the fourth quarter while trailing by six points. Some coaches might have kicked the field goal and hoped for another chance to score, but McAdoo decided to put the ball in the hands of Manning and a receiving corps that was without Victor Cruz (ankle) and had let Manning down with a series of drops and bad routes.
This time, though, Manning hit rookie Sterling Shepard for the game-winning touchdown 55 seconds into the fourth quarter. That 21-20 lead held thanks to a defense that registered an interception by Landon Collins with 11:22 left and notched two straight sacks inside four minutes to go.
“Eli and I talked about that exact same play just yesterday,” Shepard said. “The first look that we talked about, that was exactly what I saw. I’m just happy I have a smart quarterback in Eli.”
Shepard had dropped a third-down pass to end the previous drive. The play call at the goal line showed the Giants had not lost faith in the rookie, nor had McAdoo lost faith in the offense.
“We told each other earlier in the drive that it was four-down territory,” center Weston Richburg said. “I think that says a lot about the trust Coach has in us.”
The Bengals (3-5-1) scored 10 points in the first 6:08 of the second half to take a 20-14 lead. Tom Coughlin’s speech upon entering the team’s Ring of Honor at halftime had barely finished echoing through MetLife Stadium when rookie Alex Erickson returned the second-half kickoff 84 yards and the Bengals scored on a 9-yard run by Jeremy Hill two plays later. After a Giants three-and-out, the Bengals added a field goal.
The return and touchdown grabbed momentum from the Giants, who ended the first half by scoring a touchdown and batting down Andy Dalton’s pass in the end zone. Both plays were made by Odell Beckham Jr., who scored with 1:17 left in the second quarter, then lined up at safety for the final play and broke up the potential Hail Mary.
The teams traded touchdowns on their opening possessions but struggled after those initial bursts. Manning was intercepted by Dre Kirkpatrick with 5:13 left in the second quarter and the Bengals took over at the 7 and kicked a field goal for a 10-7 lead. The Giants answered with the Beckham TD on a stop-and-spin move against Adam Jones that was punctuated with a Michael Jackson “Thriller” dance.
For a team that has won six games by a combined 21 points, thriller is quickly becoming part of the weekly lexicon.