When the Giants left the field after their 23-19 win over the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon, Logan Ryan was so sure they would make the playoffs that he immediately sent a text to an old teammate and opponent.
He wanted to let Tom Brady know he was coming for him. "I envision it happening," he said.
The rest of the Giants did, too. Buoyed by the win, they immediately began preparations for a potential wild-card game against Tampa Bay, which had clinched the fifth seed by beating Atlanta. Joe Judge even crossed the parking lot from MetLife Stadium and spent the evening in his office breaking down film of the Bucs.
"We want to make sure we are prepared that if something goes our way, we are ready to go ahead and play next week," he said.
That something they needed to happen, though, did not.
The Giants’ win over Dallas lifted them to 6-10 but merely put them on the standby list for a return to the postseason. When Washington beat the Eagles on Sunday night, 20-14, they got bumped off that flight.
Judge had been calling the possibility of making the playoffs "hypothetical" as a way to keep his team focused on the present. Just when he started to treat it as an empirical, it was taken away from him.
Washington (7-9) won the NFC East title and will host Brady’s Bucs on Saturday.
There were 256 NFL games played in the 2020 regular season, and although the Giants won only six times, they were able to remain in contention through the end of 255 of them. That last one, though, was the one that determined they would be showing up at their facility on Monday morning to clean out their lockers rather than continuing preparations for a 17th game.
The fashion in which the Eagles lost, with coach Doug Pederson seemingly tanking by pulling Jalen Hurts for backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter of a three-point game, left the Giants feeling bitter. "This is sickening," wide receiver Darius Slayton tweeted, and other Giants joined in with messages of disbelief.
Ultimately, though, the Giants know they had their chances to close out the division long before Sunday. While their frustrations were aimed at the Eagles in the immediacy of their elimination, their own defeats — including a 22-21 loss to those Eagles and three straight after leaving Seattle on Dec. 6 with an upset win and a hold on first place in the division — were the real culprit.
"We had opportunities for 16 weeks," said Judge, whose team will have the No. 11 pick in the 2021 draft. "We came in with a meaningful game to give ourselves a chance. The guys came in and took care of business."
Ryan said after the win that whatever the outcome in Philadelphia turned out to be, he felt as if the Giants were the best team in the NFC East . . . especially considering their two-game sweep of Washington and 4-2 record in the division.
"We won our last game. We did everything we could," he said. "I’m not going to hang my head if it doesn’t happen . . . It’d be great to have a division banner, and we’d accept it, but I’m not going to think of this team any differently based on the results."
The game against the Cowboys had plenty of excitement on its own merits. With the Giants ahead 23-19, the Cowboys had first-and-goal from the 7 with 1:53 remaining. Leonard Williams recorded his third sack of the game to push them back 10 yards, and after a dropped pass by CeeDee Lamb, Andy Dalton — under heavy pressure from Williams — rolled to the left, threw the ball up for grabs and was intercepted by Xavier McKinney in the end zone with 1:15 left.
Even that wasn’t enough to give the Giants the win, though. While trying to run out the clock, Wayne Gallman fumbled with 58 seconds left. The ruling on the field was that he recovered it himself and was down by contact. After a review that would have made Joe Pisarcik sweat, the ruling stood and the Giants kept the ball.
After three straight losses, the Giants found a good cure for all the ills that had been hounding them: another NFC East opponent.
They opened the game with a six-play drive that went 78 yards and ended with Shepard scoring on a 23-yard run. The Giants missed the extra point but went ahead 13-6 when Shepard caught a 10-yard pass from Daniel Jones.
The Giants took a 20-6 lead in the final minute of the first half when Jones hit Dante Pettis for a 33-yard touchdown, with the pass hitting Pettis in the facemask before finding his hands. Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal as time expired made it 20-9.
After Jones’ pass went off Evan Engram’s hands and was intercepted on the first possession of the second half, Ezekiel Elliott scored on a 1-yard run to make it 20-16 midway through the third. The Cowboys had a chance to take the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Kyler Fackrell, just returned from injured reserve, sacked Dalton on third-and-9 from the 10. Dallas settled for a field goal to cut it to 20-19.
The next Cowboys possession also ended with a sack, this time from Williams, and the Giants responded with a 50-yard field goal by Graham Gano that put them up 23-19 with 6:27 left. That put the Cowboys in the position of needing a touchdown to win, which proved important.
It also put the Giants in the odd position of rooting for the Eagles.
"I wouldn’t be caught dead in an Eagles hat," Shepard said. "But I will be rooting for them."
It didn’t work. Neither did Ryan’s text to Brady, which, at the time the safety spoke on Sunday evening, had yet to garner a reply. He even checked his phone during his news conference to see if Brady had responded. Nope. "He’s a busy man," Ryan joked.
Yup. Busy preparing to face Washington.