DETROIT - The Giants had let a 10-point halftime lead evaporate, had come to town without their best offensive player, were down to a fourth-stringer at right guard for most of the game, lost their only experienced running back to a concussion and turned the ball over twice in the span of 1:18, both times as they were closing in on a chance to win the game.
What else could go wrong?
"On this football team, you try not to say stuff like that,'' defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "Because when you say it, the 'what else' happens.''
Fortunately for the Giants, on Sunday they found a team with a much longer track record of hard luck and futility than their measly little dry spell of two seasons with no playoffs.
The Lions -- the only original franchise in the league not to appear in a Super Bowl, the team that was at the top of its division several weeks ago when the Packers and Bears had to turn to backup quarterbacks, the team that needed a win to stay in the NFC North race -- can out-Murphy anyone else's laws.
So despite all of those disadvantages, and after being reminded for the last several weeks that these last few games are meaningless, the Giants still were able to leave Detroit with a 23-20 overtime win. It was their first victory since Dec. 1 and their first since they were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention on Dec. 8.
"For us, man, it's just warriors, continue to fight,'' Tuck said. "Whoever we got out there, just keep going out there and expect them to pick up where the last guy left off. That's kind of how the season went for us. The next guy has to be able to step up.''
Josh Brown kicked a 45-yard field goal with 7:32 left in overtime. It was his first game-winner as a Giant and it came in a game in which he also kicked a season-long 52-yarder.
"Nice to win,'' Tom Coughlin said with an almost audible sigh. "[The players] took a lot of shots this year. Quite frankly, they deserved a lot of the criticism. I don't think there's any doubt about that . . . We've been able to touch on some real deep values that get overlooked when people are telling you that you have nothing to play for. You've got everything to play for. I think the way they played tonight was a good demonstration of that.''
The win improved the Giants' record to 6-9, meaning they can finish no worse than the 6-10 record posted by the 2004 team, their worst (and first) season under Coughlin.
More importantly, it gave the Giants a chance to feel good about something in a season in which they've had few opportunities for that. "It'll be a good memory,'' Eli Manning said. "There haven't been a lot of those this season, for sure.''
"That was a fun game,'' added Mathias Kiwanuka, who had two sacks. "It's still fun to play football no matter what the circumstances are.''
As long as you win, of course. And it looked as if the Giants might not. After taking a 13-3 lead, they went three-and-out on their first five possessions of the second half and the Lions (7-8) scored 17 straight points to take a 20-13 lead on a pair of touchdowns, a safety and a two-point conversion.
The Lions clawed to within a point of the Giants when, on third-and-13 from the 9, defensive tackle Nick Fairley came around the end on a stunt and swooped past Will Beatty to sack Manning in the end zone for a safety with 1:01 left in the third quarter. After getting the ball back on the free kick, the Lions drove 63 yards and took a 20-13 lead on Theo Riddick's 2-yard touchdown run and Stafford's two-point conversion pass.
But Will Hill broke the Giants out of their stupor, intercepting a pass off the hands of Joseph Fauria and returning it 38 yards to tie the score at 20 with 4:57 left in regulation.
"We were getting stops, but we needed to put the ball in the end zone,'' Kiwanuka said. "Seeing Will Hill's feet chopping up and down, it felt good. It felt like we were doing our job on defense.''
The offense certainly wasn't. And it seemed to have little to do with Dallas Reynolds replacing Brandon Mosley at right guard early in the game after Mosley broke his hand. Reynolds held his own against Ndamukong Suh, who had one tackle.
"You just got to go out there and do what you're told and do what you've practiced and try to do the best you can,'' Reynolds said. "You got to stay within your technique when you're going against players like that.''
After going 59:37 without a turnover, their longest stretch in any game this season and within 23 seconds of their first turnover-less game, the Giants coughed the ball up twice in a span of 1:18, including Manning's interception in the final minute of the fourth quarter (his team-record 26th of the season) and Andre Brown's fumble in the first minute of overtime, a play on which he suffered a concussion. Fairley's tackle caused the fumble, which was recovered by Willie Young.
That negated Michael Cox's 56-yard kickoff return to open the extra period and gave the ball to the Lions when the Giants likely already were within field-goal range (although a field goal on the first possession of overtime would not have automatically won the game).
On the Giants' second overtime possession, one of their replacements came up big. Jerrel Jernigan had caught his first career touchdown pass earlier in the game, and the Giants turned to the player who replaced Victor Cruz on their most significant snap of the game, a fourth-and-7 from the Lions' 42 midway through the overtime period.
"I had a little in-route, pretty much just read the coverage,'' Jernigan said. "I saw the 'Mike' backer out there, so I stopped and Eli stopped me in the hole right there. He threw a great ball right there. Either I was getting it or nobody else.''
Jernigan made the sliding catch, his 13th in the two games since Cruz injured his knee, to get the team into field-goal range. After a few minor adjustments on the next three snaps, the kick was good.
"That was a huge play," Coughlin said.
The Giants haven't had many of those this season. They'll cherish what they can get.