EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — For the first time in three seasons, the New York Giants control their playoff destiny heading into the home stretch of the NFL season.
All they have to do is finish strong in the final six games.
While it sounds simple, it’s the one thing Tom Coughlin’s team hasn’t done this season: finish. Blowing fourth-quarter leads has been the Giants’ trademark. Four times they have let late leads slip away, three times with 7 seconds or less left to play. The other was with a whopping 1:14 to go.
Their 5-5 record easily might have been 7-3 or 8-2. They could be relaxing during their bye week, knowing they had their first playoff berth since 2011 all but locked up in the weak NFC East.
The Giants have a half-game lead on Philadelphia and Washington heading into the bye and a tough schedule the rest of the way, with games against division leaders Carolina (9-0) and Minnesota (7-2) and one with the local rival Jets (5-4). The others on tap are the Redskins (4-5), the Dolphins (4-5) and a season-ending game at home against the Eagles (4-5).
“In this league, the close games, you have to win the close games,” general manager Jerry Reese said. “There’s not many blowout games in the National Football League. You have to win the close games. For whatever reason, we’ve come up short a few games at the end of the game. So these last six games, we want to win those close games at the end.”
If there is a positive for the Giants, this team has played hard for the 69-year-old Coughlin, who came into this season seemingly needing a postseason berth to keep his job. It’s just mistakes have damaged them.
In the season-opening loss to Dallas, Eli Manning and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo mismanaged the clock and gave Tony Romo time to rally the Cowboys.
A third-quarter Manning fumble when New York was about to expand a 20-10 lead against Atlanta hurt the following week.
The defense was a no-show against Drew Brees in the wild 52-49 loss to the Saints, and several red-zone failures and a special teams mistake allowed New England to remain undefeated in the final-second 27-26 loss last weekend.
So what has to change?
The offense, which is getting a career year from Manning and a super second season from wideout Odell Beckham Jr., needs to improve the running game and in the red-zone. New York is 26th in rushing, averaging 95 yards. No individual runner has gained 100 yards this season and there have been only three rushing touchdowns, the lowest total through 10 games since 1996.
The problem was never more noticeable than against New England in the closing minutes. The Patriots put in six defensive linemen when the Giants had first-and-goal at the 5-yard line. Manning threw three passes and New York settled for Josh Brown’s fourth field goal.
It was another red-zone failure and it gave Tom Brady a chance to set up a winning field goal. New York is 28th in the league in red zone efficiency, converting 44.4 percent of its chances.
Quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said the Giants will determine whether it’s the scheme, the opponents’ play or self-inflicted mistakes.
On defense, Steve Spagnuolo’s unit needs to buckle down in the fourth quarter. The Giants have given up 153 points combined in the first three quarters. Opponents have scored 100 in the fourth.
The one area improving in recent weeks is the pass rush. It coincides with the return of two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul two weeks ago following his rehabilitation from a July fireworks accident that cost him his right index finger and injured other fingers.
“When he is out there, they know he is out there and it helps everyone else,” defensive line coach Robert Nunn said. “He has had some really good pressures and he had the sack that was taken away (Patriots) on a tough call. But if he continues to do what he is doing right now, things are going to work out.”
The defense has scored four touchdowns and should also benefit from the return of starting cornerback Prince Amukamara. He has missed the last five games after injuring a pectoral muscle against San Francisco.
New York also needs to continue winning the turnover battle. It leads the NFL in turnover differential at plus-13.
“We have to be playing our best football at the end of the season,” Manning said. “We are in a position where if we can do that, if we can start playing our best football and finding ways to win these close games, we are right where we need to be. We can be a tough team going into the playoffs.”
Veteran defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins noted the Giants have been in every game with the exception of the 27-7 loss in Philadelphia.
“This team needs to understand that we can play and we can beat anybody,” Jenkins said. “We are so close to having something special here if we can figure out how to make that extra play and finish out games.”
The Giants will have six weeks left to figure it out.
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