CLEVELAND — When it came to playing the winless Browns, forgettable was far more preferable than regrettable.
The Giants won. That’s the most important element. Facing a team with a record worse than any opponent in franchise history, style points should not matter. The Giants may have stooped to near the Browns’ level of play, but they never dipped below it and held on for a 27-13 win Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
That said, this was not the way the Giants wanted to head into the final five games that will define their season as a success or failure.
The Giants (8-3) have won six in a row for the first time since 2008. They remain two games behind the Cowboys (10-1) in the NFC East but have a two-game lead in the race for an NFC wild card. The schedule gets much more difficult in the final month, though. It begins with a trip to Pittsburgh next week, followed by games against four other NFC playoff contenders: Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington.
“We have to pretty much look at December as playoff games, basically,” defensive end Olivier Vernon said. “December is going to determine our destiny.”
And they all recognized that what they showed against the dregs of the league will not be good enough to compete against the elites.
“I believe we have to get better,” linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said. “We’ve won six in a row and we realize that, but I don’t think anybody around here is jumping for joy and acting like we’ve arrived or done anything.”
“We have to pick it up,” running back Rashad Jennings added. “It’s exciting to win, but we still ain’t done it how we want to yet. We have the talent to do it and we know that. It’s going to happen. We need it to happen ASAP.”
It wasn’t there on Sunday as the offense struggled and the defense looked wobbly. Even when the Giants appeared poised to put the game away early in the fourth quarter, they couldn’t do it. Johnathan Hankins hit Browns quarterback Josh McCown and the ball fell right into the hands of Jason Pierre-Paul, who returned the fumble 44 yards for a touchdown to make it 20-6 (Robbie Gould missed another extra point, his third in two games). But Cleveland answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive to close it to 20-13 with 8:17 left.
It wasn’t until Odell Beckham Jr. caught a 5-yard pass in the end zone with 5:10 remaining that the Giants were able to exhale. Beckham, who left the game early with a thumb injury but returned, had six catches for 96 yards and a pair of scores.
“I don’t think we took a step back today, but I definitely think we could have taken a bigger step forward,” Beckham said. “We have time. We have a couple more games left. Now it’s time to progress this week.”
Neither team scored until midway through the second quarter, when Damon Harrison forced a fumble by Browns running back Isaiah Crowell that was recovered by Devon Kennard at the Cleveland 31. Two plays later, Eli Manning hit Dwayne Harris on a 13-yard fade in the left corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead. Manning hit Beckham on a 32-yard touchdown pass on a drag route in which he outran Joe Haden across the field, turned the corner, and won a race to the pylon with 1:13 left in the second. It was 14-6 at halftime.
After the game, there was no grand celebration. The players somberly walked through the tunnel between the field and the locker room, with the only one in the team’s traveling contingent showing any signs of euphoria being Mike Murphy, the team’s security officer.
“We have to get better,” Ben McAdoo said. “We need to get better as the season goes on.”
That’s what happens when it’s a struggle to beat a team that is now 0-12 and has lost 15 straight. Whether it’s a harbinger of doom or a footnote on the road to the postseason has yet to be determined.
“We earned everything to be in a position to fight for something in December,” Jennings said. “We’re in the driver’s seat for our destination. And the only way to keep it that way is to keep throwing effort at issues, keep staying humble, and keep fighting four quarters every single game.”
Asked to describe the tenor of the locker room after the game, Vernon looked around.
“Hungry for more.”