Pat Shurmur wanted Eli Manning to be able to take a knee in victory formation to close out a win over the Cowboys. No special ceremony, no contrived ovation in what might wind up being the quarterback’s final game with the Giants. Just a line in the final stats that indicates a run for a loss of a yard.
For a moment on Sunday, it looked as if that wish might come true. Dak Prescott’s pass for Cole Beasley in the back of the end zone with 1:12 remaining was ruled incomplete, and the Giants began celebrating their apparent seven-point victory. All they had to do was run out the clock and head into the offseason on the crest of victory.
But this still is 2018, at least for a few more hours, and that means it’s still the year that breaks the Giants’ hearts. So that incompletion was reviewed, overturned and ruled a touchdown to trim the Giants’ lead to a single point. Then Prescott hit Michael Gallup for a two-point conversion to give the Cowboys a one-point lead.
Just moments after the Giants’ sideline had exploded in euphoria, it was the Cowboys’ turn — theirs and the thousands of their fans who helped fill MetLife Stadium.
That meant the Giants still had some work to do, but Manning, who already had led a pair of go-ahead touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, threw four straight incompletions and the Giants lost to Dallas, 36-35. It was their second one-point loss in two weeks and the fourth time this season they held a lead with two minutes or less remaining but were unable to hang on.
“A hell of a ballgame,” Shurmur said with a deep exhale, having seen a number of them play out in similar fashion this season. “Again, we were on the devil’s doorstep of winning, but it slipped away.”
Saquon Barkley scored the go-ahead 2-yard touchdown on an amazing superhero leap that looked more like a Michael Jordan dunk than a football play to give the Giants a 32-28 lead with 3:21 left. Manning had extended the drive with a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 and a 31-yard pass to Cody Latimer, who made his second one-handed grab of the game to bring the Giants to the 7 (his first was for a 21-yard touchdown with 15 seconds left in the second quarter). Kerry Wynn then forced a fumble by Amari Cooper that was recovered by B.J. Goodson and returned 6 yards to the 18 to set up a 38-yard field goal by Aldrick Rosas for a 35-28 lead with 2:35 remaining.
That looked as if it would be enough until Prescott — on fourth-and-15 from the 32 — hit Beasley as he dived out of the back of the end zone to make it 35-34. The two-point conversion — designed to avoid overtime, win or lose, for a team already secured in its playoff spot and seeding — dropped the Giants to 5-11. Eight of those losses were by a total of 29 points, including five by a total of 10 points.
They had a two-game improvement over last year, but their 24 losses over a two-year span are the most ever in franchise history, one more than 1973-74, when they went 4-23-1. It’s enough to overshadow even the accomplishments of Barkley, who on Sunday became only the third rookie in NFL history to surpass 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
Asked what the most challenging aspect of his first season was, Barkley thought for a moment before answering with one word: “Losing.”
But Shurmur and many of the Giants believe this season was not a continuation of last year, nor the fruitless years that preceded it dating to the last Super Bowl title in 2011. Instead, he said his first season at the helm of the team was about departing from that misery.
In that regard, he thought it was a success.
“What we’re going through, trying to grow away from 3-13, this really is not about football,” Shurmur said of the season. “This is about leadership. People in control. People in the locker room. This is about team-building. It just so happens that we play football. When we tip those first couple of things over, we’ll start to see the results we’re looking for.
“A lot of people get tired of hearing about the process of things, but we have to flip the tables over on what wasn’t good around here and make it happen,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.”
So maybe it is appropriate that the season ended this way, with a thud, so close to the end of the calendar year. Maybe it’s significant that the Giants didn't wrap up 2018 with a sweet taste but with a bitterness that will linger and potentially drive them.
The players will clean out their lockers on Monday before welcoming 2019 with its renewed perspective and promise. And its possibilities.
“Our mindset coming back is going to be, hey, we’re going to the Super Bowl,” said safety Michael Thomas, whose role on the team slants more toward the non-football areas that need improvement than the on-field aspects. “And if you’re not buying into that, if you don’t believe that, you probably won’t be here.”