They were almost there. They could almost peer up over the brim of that 0-6 hole they had dug themselves into and see daylight. All they needed was one play, one stop from the defense that had been the group to pull them up this far.
Some chasms are just too deep to escape, though. So when Dan Bailey kicked a 35-yard field goal with no time remaining to give the Cowboys a 24-21 victory Sunday night over the Giants, the time in the game wasn't the only thing that was expiring. The Giants' season most likely was, too.
The loss ended the Giants' winning streak at four games and dropped them to 4-7. They are not mathematically eliminated, but with five games remaining and no head-to-head games left against Dallas and Philadelphia, it's hard to envision a scenario in which they can leapfrog both the Cowboys and Eagles, who are tied for first place at 6-5. The Giants would have to get completely ahead of the Cowboys, too, after losing both games to them.
"We feel like we gave that one away,'' said cornerback Terrell Thomas, who on Friday all but guaranteed a Giants victory to punctuate a particularly boastful week for a team that could not live up to its chatter. "Our season was on the line and we lost the game, and who knows what's going to happen now?''
Most likely nothing in which the Giants can take solace. They usually trot out the old axiom at this time of year that the NFL marathon doesn't truly begin until Thanksgiving. This year, they didn't even make it to the season-defining holiday.
Just like their season, the Giants were able to climb back and at least make a show of it. They erased a 21-6 deficit and, with 4:45 left, scored on a 4-yard pass from Eli Manning to reserve receiver Louis Murphy Jr. to close within two. Andre Brown took a shotgun handoff and ran in for a two-point conversion to tie the score at 21.
"The crowd was into it, we got some stops, the offense made big plays to go down and get scores and get the two-point conversion to tie it up,'' Justin Tuck said of things going the Giants' way.
All the defense needed to do was give the ball back to the offense. But Manning never touched the ball again.
"You knew that something had to happen right away for us to get the ball back again,'' Tom Coughlin said. "We just weren't able to do it at that time.''
After converting only one third down through the first 56 minutes of the game, the Cowboys converted three on the final drive. Tony Romo hit Dez Bryant twice with safety Antrel Rolle covering him in the slot -- the Giants had to reconfigure their secondary on the fly because of an injury to Trumaine McBride -- and then completed a pass to Cole Beasley on which Rolle slipped in coverage to set up first-and-10 at the 15 with 1:17 left.
The Giants had no timeouts remaining, so after Romo took a knee on two snaps, Bailey came on to kick the game-winner. The 35-yarder split the uprights.
"We should have won,'' said Jason Pierre-Paul, who during the week compared the must-win game to the Super Bowl and stuck with that analogy Sunday. "Like any Super Bowl, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth for the losing team.''
When a team loses a Super Bowl, though, it doesn't have to play anymore. The Giants still have five games left.
What do they do?
"I think our mindset is we've got to win five,'' Manning said. "We've got five games left and we have to win every one. That's the only way that will possibly give us a chance. We don't know if that's going to be good enough, but that's the only way."
Coughlin, who had been imploring his team to "keep the dream alive'' during the four-game winning streak, did not concede that the Giants have been eliminated from playoff contention. But he did seem to adjust his goal for the season when he said he wanted to win out to "give ourselves a chance to hold our heads up high.''
Yup. The Giants are playing for pride in the final month of the season.