EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants concluded the first half of their season just as they started it, facing one of the NFL's best teams in MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football.
On Sept. 14, they hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in Joe Judge's first game as head coach. The Giants jumped to a 10-3 lead in the second quarter but were eventually worn down by a team that won by 10 points and almost two months later still hasn't lost a game.
But the promise of that night devolved into an unfulfilling half-season. The Giants have lost leads, close games and, far too often, the ball. Those recurring elements were on display again Monday night in a 25-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Giants might have pulled the game out had it not been for a questionable non-call on a late two-point conversion attempt (more on that later).
The Giants' last three losses – to Dallas, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay – have been by a total of six points. And they held a fourth-quarter lead in each of them. In earlier defeats to Chicago and the Los Angeles Rams, they had a chance to win or tie the game in the final moments but came up short.
"I think any competitor that's playing in this league wants to win and wants to improve and show that by results," linebacker Blake Martinez said. "It's a results business. So yeah, it's definitely tough, and you want to go out there, after all the hard work, and come out with a win."
"You talk about closing out the games. To me, closing out the games starts at the opening kickoff," Judge said. "It's a culmination of everything you've done for 60 minutes. Again, it's never one player's mistake, it's everything collectively. There's a lot of things that go into it, it's a coach's call, it's how everything operates together on the offense or defense. It's never one play that eliminates you in a game. It's the effect of different plays throughout the game that add up."
On Monday, the Giants owned an 11-point lead in the second quarter and an eight-point advantage at halftime. But Daniel Jones threw interceptions on the second play of the third quarter (leading to a Bucs field goal) and early in the fourth (setting up Tampa Bay's go-ahead touchdown on Tom Brady's eight-yard pass to Mike Evans).
"I think those were costly mistakes for us that I have to continue to work on and improve," Jones said.
The second-year quarterback also overthrew Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton when they were open down the field.
On each of the picks, Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett had a fistful of Jones' jersey in his hand and the throws were short. The first was picked off by Carlton Davis, the second by Sean Murphy-Bunting. Jones was asked if it would have been wise to hold onto the ball and go onto the next play.
"I think that's certainly what I have to do is those situations," he said. "When you're out there competing and playing hard, you have to be able to understand that part of the game and understand when (the play) is over. I have to do a lot better job there."
Jones has thrown nine interceptions this season. In every one of his 20 starts, he has thrown an interception or fumbled or both and his 36 turnovers since the start of the 2019 season lead the NFL.
"We're just going to keep on coaching hard," Judge said. "We've got to find inventive ways coaching it and drilling it. Then, as the player keeps on working, he'll experience it through play, but there's a lot of things we have to improve on collectively as coaches and as an entire team to help take him out of some of those situations right there, and it starts with me and we've got to keep making sure we put him in the best position possible."
Of course, Jones has had his share of inspiring and uplifting moments and he was at his best on the Giants' final drive, when he put them in position to tie the game and perhaps pull out a thrilling victory.
Ryan Succop's fourth field goal of the game, a 38-yarder, stretched Tampa Bay's lead to 25-17. The Giants took possession at their own 30-yard line with 3:34 remaining and no timeouts. Jones twice converted fourth downs, including a fourth-and-16 on a 20-yard pass to Shepard. With 28 seconds remaining, he connected with Golden Tate for a 19-yard touchdown to lift the Giants to within 25-23.
A successful two-point conversion likely would have sent the game into overtime. Jones took the snap and threw to his right for Dion Lewis, who had caught his first touchdown pass of the night. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. seemed to collide with Lewis just as the ball was bouncing off his right arm.
An official threw his flag. But after a long discussion, referee Brad Rogers announced that no penalty had been committed. The Giants were two still two points shy of their second victory.
"I thought it was pass interference and was surprised when they picked it up," Jones said. "So, we'll watch it and learn from it and see what they say. Tough break."
"I thought (the official) made the right call when he threw the flag," Judge said. "I'm not sure why it got picked up, we had a pretty good view, I know they can't use the jumbotron to replay. We had a pretty clear view of that as well. I thought (the official) made the right call the first time, and I thought normally your first instinct is right. That's all I'm going to say about the officiating."
Rogers spoke to a pool reporter after the game.
"The side judge (Eugene Hall) had the flag thrown on the play and came to the down judge (Jerod Phillips) who was on that side of the goal line," Rogers said. "The communication between the side judge and the down judge was that the defender contacted the receiver simultaneously as the ball came in. And in order to have defensive pass interference, it has to be clearly early and hinder the receiver's ability to make the catch.
"You want to make sure that it meets the qualifications for pass interference. And in our communication on the field, the down judge and the side judge communicated about the action and believed that it was appropriate to pick that flag up."
The Giants got several solid performances, including Wayne Gallman's 62 yards from scrimmage, Shepard's eight catches for 74 yards and Jabrill Peppers' 10 tackles and two pass breakups.
But in the end, turnovers contributed to another lost lead and another close defeat.
"We were able to make some big plays tonight down the stretch," Judge said. "Ultimately, we have to overcome some mistakes, and we have to improve collectively as a coaching staff and as a team to give ourselves the best chance to be successful. We're not asking for moral victories. We understand the people of New York deserve better, so we got to keep working to be better for them."
They get their next chance Sunday in Washington.