ARLINGTON, Texas — The Giants had a chance to finish the game on offense. With a fourth-and-1 and 1:12 left, they probably could have converted and iced the win. Instead, Ben McAdoo decided to punt the ball and let his revamped defense stop the Cowboys. “That,” defensive end Olivier Vernon said, “tells us that we’re not the same defense as last year.”
Well, the fact that they came through probably says it better.
Still, the confidence to rely on a unit that was ranked 32nd in the NFL a season ago and made a habit of coughing up leads in similar situations showed a dramatic change in philosophy and faith.
A year ago, Tom Coughlin often coached knowing that his defense was vulnerable, and he made costly decisions based on that assumption. He probably would have tried to convert the fourth down, and maybe it would have worked.
McAdoo punted and told his defense to bring back a win.
“The confidence might be a little different, but the mindset is always that it will come down to us,” said defensive captain Jonathan Casillas, who led the Giants with 10 tackles. “The offense did what they were supposed to do getting that lead for us late in the fourth quarter, and it was our job to win the game.”
The Giants spent more than $200 million making sure that they could. Those investments paid off almost immediately, as big free-agent acquisitions such as Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins played well. Harrison was part of a front that allowed 101 rushing yards and only one carry by a running back of more than 10 yards (quarterback Dak Prescott had an 11-yard gain on a read option). Jenkins blanketed Dez Bryant most of the game, holding him to one catch. “We expected this,” Jenkins said, perhaps the biggest departure from a year ago.
There still was room for improvement. There were no sacks and no turnovers, and Dallas did come close to setting up a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. But the idea that the Giants stopped anyone — even if it was a rookie quarterback and a receiver who made a boneheaded decision to stay in bounds on the final play — was enough to leave them feeling good about what they accomplished.
“We’re still in the making,” Jason Pierre-Paul said. “It’s too early to talk.”
Yet they said plenty.
“We finished the game, that’s what we did,” Pierre-Paul said. “We finished. That’s all that counts. And it feels great.”