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Grading the Giants: Defense leads the way again in win over Cowboys

Xavier McKinney #29 of the New York Giants

Xavier McKinney #29 of the New York Giants celebrates his interception late in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys with his teammates at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

OFFENSE: D

It would have been hard to imagine that grade when the Giants started the game with a crisp six-play, 77-yard drive, or when they took a 20-6 lead late in the second quarter on Daniel Jones’ second touchdown pass. But they scored just three points in the second half and had two turnovers — both credited to Jones but neither his fault as one interception went off Evan Engram’s hands and a handoff to Wayne Gallman was botched. Speaking of Gallman and botching things, that fumble he was lucky to recover in the fourth quarter could have become one of the lowest moments in franchise history, and that includes a play called "The Fumble." Jones was 17-for-25 passing for 229 yards (the Giants haven’t had a 300-yard passing game all season, the first time since 2004) and he also ran nine times for 17 yards. Not much came from those runs, but they at least illustrated that Jones is feeling better after hamstring and ankle injuries had plagued him for the past month. The Giants were 0-for-7 on third-down conversion attempts, the first time they won a game without converting a third down since the 1970 merger. Sterling Shepard, who has been playing hurt most of the season, practically willed the offense toward competence with eight catches for 112 yards and a TD and a 23-yard TD run.

DEFENSE: B

When it mattered most, the Giants made a stop. That was in the fourth quarter when they allowed the Cowboys to drive all the way to the 7-yard line with 1:53 remaining before Leonard Williams recorded his third sack of the game and two plays later pressured Andy Dalton on a pass to the end zone that was picked off by rookie safety Xavier McKinney. McKinney had an interception earlier in the game that was negated by a penalty and the Giants had two other potential interceptions go through their hands, one each by Julian Love and James Bradberry. The Giants sacked Dalton six times, their highest one-game total since they had six sacks in a loss at Washington in 2017. It was their highest sack total in a victory since they had seven at Cleveland in 2016. The bend-but-don’t-break defense that helped the Giants win four in a row earlier this season was back as the Giants allowed just one play of more than 20 yards and none more than 21. Dalvin Tomlinson had a sack for the second straight week, but of more significance he became the first Giants defensive player to begin his career and start each of his first 64 games in the league (four seasons’ worth) since the NFL went to 16 games in 1978. Former Giants offensive lineman David Diehl, a fifth-round draft choice in 2003, holds the club record with 120 straight regular season starts to begin a career.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-MINUS

Graham Gano’s 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter were some of the biggest points of the game and extended his streak of consecutive attempts without a miss to 30. That’s a new franchise record, surpassing the 29 that Josh Brown had from 2016-17. But Gano did miss an extra point on the opening touchdown. The Giants had two punts go into the end zone for touchbacks that probably should have been downed deep in Dallas territory, but Riley Dixon did put two others inside the 15. Jabrill Peppers had punt returns of 19 and 20 yards, which had been missing in recent weeks. The Giants didn’t have any killer mistakes, but they did have two special teams penalties against rookie Cam Brown that could have proved costly.

COACHING: C

It doesn’t really matter what the Giants' grade is here since the Cowboys get an F based solely on their decision not to challenge the clear drop by Dante Pettis that set up the 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, making it a four-point game rather than a one-point difference. "The way the receiver turned to me, and the information [available], we just felt it was too close," Mike McCarthy said. "We felt like it was kind of a bang-bang type situation. The fact of the matter that we were in a tight game and the three time outs was obviously of high value there. So, we just didn’t think there was enough information to overturn it." At the time he spoke, McCarthy had yet to see the replays of the catch. Joe Judge, for what it’s worth, said he probably would have punted had the play been called incomplete either on the field or under challenge. As for the Giants’ own business they were caught a little flatfooted by Dalton’s impression of Lamar Jackson and the other running quarterbacks they had faced over the past month. They made a defensive lineup change with Julian Love playing cornerback for Isaac Yiadom after Yiadom missed several tackles last week. Offensively they started great, especially on the first drive for a touchdown, but continued to have trouble after that early script. Their three points in the second half put them in some dangerous waters. It put Judge on the cusp of becoming the fourth Giants head coach since the 1970 merger to make the playoffs in his first year with the franchise. Dan Reeves (1993), Jim Fassel (1997) and Ben McAdoo (2016) did it before him.

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