EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants' final game in 2018 was a microcosm of their entire season.
Saquon Barkley dazzled and thrilled. Eli Manning again demonstrated that, given time, he can throw the ball and move the offense. Aldrick Rosas was metronomic.
Oh, and the Giants lost a heartbreaker – again. They rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to take a take a seven-point lead with 2:35 remaining. The Giants seemed to clinch the game when Dallas receiver Cole Beasley was ruled out of the back of the end zone on a Dak Prescott pass on fourth-and-15 with 1:12 remaining. But a video review showed that Beasley got his knee down inbounds and the play was changed from an incompletion to a 32-yard touchdown. Prescott then threw the go-ahead two-point conversion to rookie receiver Michael Gallup.
The Giants had a final chance when they took possession at their own 48 with 1:05 left. But four Manning passes hit nothing but the ground, dooming the Giants to a 36-35 loss to the Cowboys. Coupled with a 28-27 defeat last week in Indianapolis, the Giants became the first team in NFL history to lose each of their final two games by a single point. They also continued a season-long pattern; the Giants lost an NFL-high eight games by seven points or less. Overall, they finished 5-11 and in fourth place in the NFC East.
"We kept fighting, as we have all year, and again, we fell victim to that thing we keep talking about, finding a way to win," coach Pat Shurmur said. "We were on the devil's doorstep of winning, and it slipped away.
"Close games, we've got to find a way to win them. That's my assessment. We've got to find a way to get a stop and in a couple of situations, we've got to find a way to get a score, that's just the way that works. That's it."
"We lost a couple of close games and in the second half (of the season) and we played a lot better offensively and got into a rhythm," Manning said. "We made plays and felt good about what we were doing. We made adjustments, but still had some close heartbreaking games, especially these last two. We just were not able to make plays at the end to win, but we had an opportunity at the end."
Manning overcame turnovers on the Giants' first two possessions to complete 24 of 41 passes for 301 yards, including touchdown throws of 21 yards to Cody Latimer and six yards to Evan Engram.
Barkley rushed for 109 rushing yards – including a 68-yard run - and added four receptions for 33 yards. He concluded his rookie season with 1,307 rushing yards and 91 receptions, both Giants rookie records (the latter tied with Odell Beckham, Jr.),
"Obviously, the season didn't turn out the way we wanted it to be," Barkley said. "But I learned a lot from those guys, from the vets, from my teammates and I feel like as a person, as a player, I'm definitely a better player on the field. I see the field differently and the speed of the game. I look forward to watching film of this game, watching myself from this year and figure out how to take it to another level."
Wayne Gallman and Barkley each scored on two-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter. Rosas kicked field goals of 48 and 38 yards to conclude a season in which he made 32 of 33 attempts, a Giants-record 97 percent that tied him with the 49ers Robbie Gould for the 2018 NFL lead.
But the defense again struggled to keep the opposition off the scoreboard. Dallas played without Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL's leading rusher who was inactive (the Cowboys were locked into the NFC's fourth playoff seed). Quarterback Dak Prescott played the entire game and threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns, including three to tight end Blake Jarwin, who had no career touchdowns entering the game, and the game-winner to Beasley.
The Giants trailed, 21-18, entering what became a wild fourth quarter in which the Giants twice seemed to be in a commanding position.
Gallman's touchdown – the first rushing score of his career – gave the Giants, who trailed 14-0 early, their first lead at 25-21 with 10:38 remaining. Rod Smith's one-yard run put the Cowboys back in front, but Barkley regained the lead for the Giants at 32-28 by leaping from the four-yard line and extending the ball over the goal line with 3:21 remaining.
On the first play of Dallas' ensuing possession, Amari Cooper fumbled after a three-yard reception and the ball was recovered by Giants linebacker B.J. Goodson on the Dallas 18-yard line. A touchdown would have all but secured the victory. But the Giants lost two yards on three plays before Rosas's 38-yard field goal increased the lead to seven points.
"We had an opportunity in this game to make it a two-score game at the end and didn't take advantage of that and had to settle for a field goal," Manning said.
The Cowboys took possession at their own 30 with 2:29 remaining. Jarwin again gashed the Giants, this time for a 30-yard gain on the second play of the drive. A seven-yard throw to Cooper gave Dallas a first down at the Giants' 27-yard line. Three incompletions and a false start followed. The Giants needed only to stop a fourth-and-15 play to enjoy a victory they could carry into the offseason. They seemed to have it when Beasley was ruled out of bounds, and everyone celebrated; well, almost everyone.
"I wasn't celebrating," Shurmur said. "It all goes to replay, and I had enough information upstairs to tell me that it might've been a score. I don't know what to tell you there. We're going to continue to play the game. Then we had another opportunity, they go for two and we didn't stop them. Then we had an opportunity to score a touchdown or a field goal, and we didn't."
With his team locked into a wild card date next weekend, Dallas coach Jason Garrett had no interest in extending the game. He ordered a two-point try that the Cowboys converted when Prescott found an open Gallup in the end zone.
But the Giants still had chance – a good chance – to win the game, thanks to Antwaun Woods, whose 15-yard taunting penalty forced Dallas to kick off from the 20-yard line. Latimer's return set up the Giants at their 48-yard line.
Rosas, who missed just one kick all year and had four 50-plus yard field goals this season, was eager to add another game-winner to his resume. But he never got the opportunity to try.
"We had good plays called, they defended us well," Shurmur said.
"We needed 15 yards to get in field goal range," Manning said, "and threw four straight incompletions."
And thus ended another agonizing loss in a season that was full of them. Next year starts tomorrow.
"As a team, there's a lot of really good stuff inside of them, we got it out in a lot of the weekends we won games, we didn't win enough," Shurmur said. "But we've got a heck of a lot to build on. The idea was always to go to the playoffs and compete and win the Super Bowl, but part of our deal this year was growing away from what was 3-13 and that locker room's got a different feel, because there's a lot of different people in that locker room. We've just got to keep building on that and we'll put ourselves in position to win these games next year, and be in a different situation."