EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The words spoken by the Giants' players in the postgame locker room yesterday were variations on a theme they've expounded on several times this season.
We know we're a good team. We're close. We need to learn to finish games.
They came up short in that regard again in Indianapolis, first settling for a field goal when a touchdown might have been a game-clincher, not getting a first down backed up near their own end zone, and finally surrendering a late 53-yard drive that ended with Andrew Luck throwing a one-yard touchdown pass to Chester Rogers with 55 seconds remaining. When Eli Manning's pass moments later was intercepted by Malik Hooker, the Giants had lost, 28-27, a defeat that dropped the Giants to 5-10 heading into their season finale Sunday against Dallas, which clinched the NFC East title yesterday.
Seven of those 10 defeats have been by seven or fewer points, which ties the Giants with Carolina for the league lead in the unwanted category of narrow defeats. One of those losses was a two-point defeat to the Panthers on Oct. 7, when Graham Gano's 63-yard field goal – the longest ever against the Giants – with one second remaining accounted for the deciding points in a 33-31 final.
The Giants are convinced they're making progress, but it won't be evident in their record before 2019.
"There's definitely positives and it's tough circumstances," Manning said at his postgame news conference. "No one wants to be in a position where you're not in the playoffs. You kind of get questioned how you're going to play, but there's a lot of heart. We came out with the defense getting stops, offense moving the ball, and scoring two touchdowns on the first two drives. So just a lot of character in this group of guys and guys competing – missing a lot of guys, missing some key guys, but guys stepped up and made some plays."
Just not enough, particularly in the decisive fourth quarter.
The Giants led virtually the entire game – 14-0 after one quarter, 17-7 at halftime, and 24-21 entering the final quarter. On a conference call today, coach Pat Shurmur didn't dispute the notion the Giants must develop a collective mindset to enable them to win these close games.
"I think that's a fair assessment for our team," he said. "You've got to go out and take these wins, nobody gives you anything. So when you get to the position like we were at the end of this game, it's safe to say we've been in a handful of these this season where we've won a couple, and then we've let a couple get away from us. But nothing's given to you in this league, you've got to go take it, and so when you're close at the end, you've got to find a way to make enough plays at the end and take the victory. That's part of the mindset, certainly. In terms of the tactics, you always look at better ways to do things and better ways for the players to be in better position to win, but for the most part, it comes down to us coaching and playing in a way where we go take 'em."
Shurmur agrees with the players who believe the Giants are close to being a playoff team.
"I think we are and I think that's sort of where our conversation is going today is we are very close," he said. "But right is right - you've got to win. And I think as we start building and as the players get better, as we improve, as we understand situations and how to play each situation better, then eventually this thing pushes over the top. So I would agree with their assessment."
Roster change is inevitable in the NFL, but Shurmur hopes and expects to return enough players so the lessons from this season will carry over to next year.
"Like I said, I'd like to see all of our guys back next year, because I think we've learned a lot of things together," he said. "A lot of new players, certainly, I think we're down to about 12 guys that were on the roster (last year), and there's a lot of new going on everywhere. I've got a staff of coaches that, there's only one guy on the staff that I ever worked with (linebackers coach Bill McGovern). So we're battling through it, and we're doing some things that put us in a position to win.
"We've won some games, but we haven't won enough, so that's the growth that has to take place. And for those of us that aren't very patient, it's a painful process until we get to that point where we're winning all of these games at the end – not just a few of them, but all of them. We all know that it comes down to a drive or two at the end or the critical plays at the end of a game. There's things that we're doing that are good enough, but right is right. We've got to do it throughout the game and we've got to win them."
Of the 53 players on the roster, no one commands more scrutiny than Manning, who has one game remaining in his 15th season as the starting quarterback. Shurmur today offered the latest in a series of positive reviews about Manning, and they were very similar to his thoughts on the entire team.
"Eli has been doing some really good things," Shurmur said. "I think we as a team, and I think it's fair to say about the quarterback too, we're real close, and we've got to find a way to take these wins at the end. I think he's contributed in a really good way, so that's what I would say about Eli."
And yes, Shurmur confirmed Manning will start against Dallas. The coach has been unwavering in his conviction that Manning gives the Giants the best chance to win. And for a team still learning how to do that consistently, the veteran quarterback is an invaluable presence.
*Shurmur said the situation is "pretty fluid" regarding tight end Rhett Ellison and defensive lineman Mario Edwards, who left the game with a concussion and calf injury, respectively. "I can't tell you exactly what's going to happen there, but just like every game, anybody that's injured is doing everything in their power to get back and play this week."
Shurmur does not yet know if the players who were inactive yesterday – Odell Beckham, Jr. (quad), Alec Ogletree (concussion), Spencer Pulley (calf) and Russell Shepard (ankle) – will be ready to face the Cowboys.