The Giants didn’t clinch anything on Sunday.
It just felt as if they did.
With a 17-6 win over the Lions, the Giants proved they are a playoff team in every way except the one that matters most: Mathematically.
They are poised to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2011 season after a second straight dominant defensive performance, a second straight win over a first-place team and their eighth win in nine games. It is the first time since 2010 that they have reached the 10-win mark.
Most importantly, it leaves them with a simple route to the tournament. Win in Philadelphia on Thursday night and they’re in.
But that will be down the Jersey Turnpike a bit. Because this was the Giants’ final regular-season game at MetLife Stadium and most likely the last time the home fans had a chance to see the team play live no matter what becomes of them in the coming month and a half, the game had a celebratory pop-the-cork atmosphere. It was like a sendoff from the 79,434 in attendance, one last ovation before the Giants hit the road for their championship push.
The players definitely noticed. Left guard Justin Pugh said he and center Weston Richburg acknowledged the excitement during the game.
“This is the craziest I’ve ever seen this stadium,” Pugh said. “It rubs off on us and we’re ready to go out there and keep this thing rolling.”
The Giants (10-4) had a convoluted chance to clinch this weekend that evaporated when the Packers beat the Bears. That didn’t stop the celebration, though.
“It’s been a while,” wide receiver Victor Cruz said of the vibe in the stands. “Even the year we won the Super Bowl [in 2011], it wasn’t the best season. We were 9-7 and we had to win out towards the end. It wasn’t necessarily a party scene, and I think the Giants fans expect us to win now and they’re excited and joyous.”
The Giants entered the fourth quarter with a 10-6 lead against a Lions team that had won eight games with fourth-quarter comebacks. They forced a punt early, though, and built a bit more cushion for themselves. Odell Beckham Jr. caught a 25-yard pass on third-and-10 from the Giants’ 39 to spark the drive, then snagged a one-handed catch at the pylon for a 4-yard touchdown with 5:47 left.
The defense, as it has all year, responded with a three-and-out. Then, after the Giants punted it back to the Lions (9-5) with 3:49 left, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie picked off a pass in the end zone with 1:58 remaining to seal the win.
The biggest defensive play of the game started out as one of the worst. Shortly after star cornerback Janoris Jenkins left the game with a back injury in the second quarter, the Lions went after Rodgers-Cromartie and Golden Tate caught a 67-yarder down the right sideline. DRC, trailing the play by about 10 yards, sprinted to make the tackle at the Giants’ 11 and save a touchdown. On the next play, Leon Hall forced a fumble that Olivier Vernon recovered in the end zone for a touchback. The Lions never got as close to the end zone again.
“They’re really good defenders,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Probably the best we’ve played all year.”
The offense? Not so much.
The Giants drove 75 yards on their opening possession and scored on a 6-yard fade pass from Eli Manning to Sterling Shepard to go ahead 7-0. For most of the rest of the game, though, that was it. The closest the Giants ever got to a touchdown for the rest of the half was when Shane Vereen took a short pass deep into Lions territory and fumbled into the end zone. Cruz recovered it, but that play was negated by a penalty against right tackle Bobby Hart and the Giants settled for a field goal.
“Shoot, we keep holding other teams to six points or less, we won’t need to do much to win games,” Cruz said of the offense, which did just enough a week earlier to beat the Cowboys, 10-7.
The Giants mostly downplayed the significance of Thursday night’s game in Philadelphia. It may be win-and-in for them, but they’re focused more on the winning, period. Which is why Cruz said he’s starting to feel the same kind of tingling he had in the last Super Bowl run.
“I think the energy around here is similar to 2011,” he said. “We’re confident going into every game. We’re not stepping into games just kind of praying to win or feeling the game along. We’re coming in confident from the first drive ready to make plays and win a ballgame.”
Giants fans probably will have to watch the rest of the proceedings from afar, but they seemed to experience the same kind of flashback on Sunday.