EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Sitting atop the NFC East with a 5-7 record and four games remaining, the Giants have an opportunity to secure a postseason berth by winning the division title, and they could potentially do so finishing under .500.
Graham Gano is here to tell you the last part of that sentence is irrelevant.
The Giants' kicker was on the last team that was a division champion with a losing record, the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers of 2014. Like the other three teams that finished first without a winning record since the 2002 division realignment, those Panthers won their wild card playoff game.
"It doesn't matter what anybody says about a losing record," Gano said this week. "At the end of the day, everyone has the same goal, and that's to make the playoffs."
If the Giants do that, Gano will be a big reason why. The 11-year veteran and first-year Giant has been one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL this season and in franchise history. He has made 26 of 27 field goal attempts, a .963 percentage that is the third-highest among kickers with more than 16 tries. He has missed one of 18 PATs – last week in Seattle – and scored 95 points.
"Graham has really done a great job for us with the field goals, with the kickoffs," coach Joe Judge said. "This guy has a great temperament. He's a competitor. I'm glad he's here. He's obviously made a lot of big kicks for us."
Gano has made 25 consecutive field goal attempts, a streak that is the second-longest active in the NFL (Seattle's Jason Myers has made 27 in a row) and in his career (he made 28 straight attempts spanning the 2017-18 seasons).
"I think I've been in a pretty good groove," Gano said. "A lot of it has to do with the people you're surrounded by. I was fortunate in Carolina and I'm definitely fortunate here to be surrounded by good specialists. (Snapper) Casey Kreiter and (holder) Riley Dixon, I can't say enough great things about them when it comes to our operation. From the coaching to the linemen that are protecting for me, those guys do an incredible job of making me feel very comfortable back there. I owe a lot to them. I feel like we're in a really good place right now."
Gano is particularly thankful that place is a football field. He underwent surgery and missed the entire 2019 season because of a fracture to his left (plant) leg that he suffered on Nov. 29, 2018. The Giants signed him on Aug. 19. His transition to a new team was eased by rejoining familiar faces from Carolina, including general manager Dave Gettleman, cornerback James Bradberry, linebacker David Mayo and Thomas McGaughey, his special teams coach in 2016-17.
But he had to prove he could still be a reliable NFL kicker.
"There were a lot of questions just personally going into playing again for me," he said. "Can I still do it? Am I ready? I honestly had to lean back on my preparation and the people that have taken care of me. … I knew that this season was going to be like a year of maintenance for me, because I didn't have a full offseason to really train. Just managing my strength and working on weaknesses here and there. This staff here, this medical staff, is some of the best in the whole world at what they do. I think it's been great. I feel like if I step outside and kind of look at myself, I have a lot of people to thank for where I'm at right now. From thinking I might not play again to playing at the level that I have been, I'm just very blessed and feeling very fortunate to just be given these opportunities."
Gano has been both spectacular and consistent. His only missed field goal attempt was his second of the season, a 57-yard try in Chicago. On Oct. 11 at Dallas, Gano tied an NFL record and became the first player in Giants history to kick three field goals of 50 or more yards in a game. He hit from 55, 50 and 54 yards, plus a 28-yarder. He was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking field goals of 38, 48 and 42 yards in a victory in Washington on Nov. 8. Gano kicked four field goals when the Giants won in Cincinnati.
But to Gano, his most significant kick was his shortest – a 21-yard field goal in the opener against Pittsburgh, because it was his first.
"I hadn't played in a game in a long time," Gano said. "Even though there were no fans in the stands, there was still that pressure of a primetime game. Just being able to get that first kick over with, it's one of those things you realize, 'Oh, I can still do this.' That was the moment I realized, 'I'm back and I can do this.' It took a lot of hard work to get to that point. Every time I go out on that field and I'm wearing the New York Giants jersey, I feel so lucky and so blessed to be able to still do this. It's what I love to do and I'm passionate about it. I just enjoy playing this game."
Despite his success, the season has presented challenges. Most notably, Gano was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list during the bye week and wasn't activated until the day before the Bengals game.
"I never left the (hotel) room," Gano said. "If I needed something, the team would help facilitate and drop it off at the door. It was tough. But at the same time, I understood that leaving the room, I could potentially make somebody else sick. You just deal with what you have to deal with. But I was definitely going stir crazy and was ready to get out of that room."
One of the deliveries was a kicking net, which enabled Gano to practice his form in a location not normally used for football.
"I knew it was a good possibility that I could play in Cincinnati, but I wasn't going to be able to kick with the team before then," Gano said. "I wanted to stay on top of my reps and make sure I was still working the little muscles that you have to work when it comes to kicking a ball. I wanted to know mentally that I was doing things to stay on track to come back. Even though I couldn't go out of the room, I just wanted to make sure I was preparing. I feel like preparation is key to success, so I wanted to make sure that I was doing all of the things that were necessary to be successful for the team on Sunday."
Like just about everything else Gano has done this season, it was successful.
View photos of Giants kicker Graham Gano in action