By Steve Silverman
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All should be well with the New York Giants three weeks into the season, but there’s something very unsettling about watching this team perform in the fourth quarter.
While they had enough of a cushion on the Washington Redskins Thursday night to secure their first win of the season, they could have booted away their third consecutive fourth-quarter lead if Eli Manning had not thrown a TD pass to Odell Beckham Jr. early in the final 15 minutes.
That gave the Giants a 25-6 lead, and despite the inability to play fourth-down defense, they managed to hold on to a 32-21 victory.
The finish was a painful one, because every time the Giants had the Redskins at the precipice and could have regained possession and (supposedly) run out the clock, they let them off the hook with a penalty or allowing an improbable conversion.
There are significant issues on defense that have come up in each of the first three games, and they may or may not be able to be fixed.
The Giants are seemingly able to play reasonably well on defense for three quarters, but when the game moves into the fourth quarter, they lose their cool, give up yardage and big plays in notable chunks, and give the appearance that they don’t know what they are doing.
This is not the way it works with most teams. The hard part is playing consistently for the first three quarters of the game and building a sizable lead like the Giants did against the Cowboys, Falcons and Redskins. Any team that can do that should have the confidence to finish the game in style.
But there’s a certain panic that has made its way into the Giants’ execution, and it has to stop now.
The end-of-game mismanagement from Manning also has to stop now. While they got away with the victory, Giants fans were shocked to see Manning come back from the two-minute warning and throw the ball down the right sidelines to Beckham Jr. on a third-and-10 play from their own 44.
The Redskins had no timeouts, and a running play there would have taken another 40 seconds off the clock and Washington would have gotten the ball back at 1:16 instead of 1:56.
That goes nearly unnoticed when they come out with the “W,” but it’s nearly as bad as the gaffes they had in the losses to the Cowboys and Falcons.
Based on his track record, Eli can indeed turn it around and play smart football for the majority of the season, but here’s another aspect that is really worrisome.
It’s Tom Coughlin on the sidelines. His fourth-quarter persona has been embarrassing. He is the oldest head coach in the NFL at age 69 and arguably its most experienced. He is a multiple Super Bowl winner and he ranks with the greatest coaches in the history of the game based on his knowledge and accomplishments.
But when you see him blowing his top on the sidelines and throwing his red flag on a play that he could not legally challenge, you have to wonder where his head is at.
He is sending a message to his team that he panics in difficult situations. Instead of keeping his cool and running the show smoothly and efficiently, Coughlin looks as if he’s overwhelmed by the factors that could go against his team.
It doesn’t matter that he had a good case when he threw his fourth-quarter challenge flag, since Chris Thompson never made it into the end zone after catching a short pass from Kirk Cousins. It looked like his shin was on the ground before the ball crossed the goal line.
But when the officials did not halt play, it was out of Coughlin’s hands. By throwing that flag, he turned into a panic-stricken teenager who had just brought his date home after curfew.
That’s not a good look for a 69-year-old head coach. He has accomplished more than enough in his career that he shouldn’t have to turn into a yapping hound any time something goes wrong. If he believes the sky is about to fall in, so will his players.
That’s what we have seen in the first three games, and his players have indeed taken his lead.
The Giants have a real opportunity from this point forward, unexpected though it may be. The Dallas Cowboys have devastating problems without Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, while the Eagles are shockingly unproductive and may remain that way Sunday against the Jets.
The Giants can take over this division in a few weeks because they are getting Victor Cruz back to go with Beckham and Rueben Randle in a very potent passing game. The running game is good enough that opponents must respect it.
The defense has to grow a fourth-quarter backbone, the quarterback has to stop making mistakes and the coach needs to show that he can remain calm despite late-game pressure.
If those things all happen, the Giants may just turn out to be an NFC force. If not, it will be the end of an era.