EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants faced the Cleveland Browns Sunday night with a different play caller, different quarterback and different approach than they had last week against Arizona. But they could not get what they needed most, which was a different outcome.
After spotting the Giants an early lead, the Browns controlled the ball and the game and cruised to a 20-6 prime time victory in MetLife Stadium. The Giants, who dropped a 26-7 decision to the Cardinals on the same field last week, lost their second straight game after four consecutive victories. At 5-9, they are tied for second place in the NFC East with Dallas, one game behind Washington. The Giants play in Baltimore next week before closing the season at home against the Cowboys. If they win both games and Washington loses at least one of its final two games (vs. Carolina, at Philadelphia), the Giants will win the division because they twice defeated Washington.
"Our approach is still going to be the same," coach Joe Judge said. "It's going to be come back to work on Wednesday and put everything into it. We have two weeks left, but the reality is, the only thing we can do anything about is this week right here. So, we have to show back up on Wednesday. We'll have our best week of work as a team. We're going to need our best performance as a team next Sunday."
The Giants faced Cleveland with a former Browns coach calling the plays and a former Browns quarterback executing them.
Tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland's head coach in 2019, assumed play calling duties because offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is away from the team after testing positive for COVID-19. Daniel Jones was inactive with hamstring and ankle injuries, so Colt McCoy played the entire game at quarterback, as he did in a victory in Seattle two weeks ago. The Giants were also missing top cornerback James Bradberry, who is on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Julian Love moved over from safety to play his spot.
"We never make any excuses or explanations for anyone who is not at the game," Judge said. "We're focused on the guys that we have tonight."
But the Giants' reality was that they were shorthanded. Judge tried to compensate with an aggressive mentality. On the game's first series, the Giants faced a fourth down on the Cleveland eight-yard line, from where Graham Gano almost certainly would have put three points on the board.
But before the snap, the field goal unit motioned into a formation that included Gano split wide right and several linemen moving wide left. Holder Riley Dixon took the snap and threw a pass into the end zone over the head of his intended target, center Nick Gates.
"They did a good job," Judge said. "They obviously fell off and made the coverage. Mike (Priefer, the Browns' special teams coach) does a real good job of coaching those guys. They were situational - there was a little confusion at first, but they settled on down. We thought we had a chance at it. It was worth rolling the dice right there and playing to our defense. They made a play, we didn't."
Trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, the Giants advanced to the six-yard line. Again eschewing a field goal, Judge had the offense go for it. But Wayne Gallman gained only a yard on fourth-and-two.
"Field goals weren't going to win this game," Judge said. "I'm not afraid to call things aggressively. I'm not afraid if I think we have a good scheme in the kicking game to call a fake. I'm not afraid to run the ball on fourth-and-one. We'll play to our defense at times. If we don't get that, we have to go out there and stand up defense, our defense has done that consistently throughout the year. We're going to play to the strengths of our team. Look, I'm not afraid to call it aggressively. We went into that game with the mindset. We have to do a better job of making sure that we coach the right way, execute it the right way and come out with the results we want."
McCoy played his first ever game against the Browns, with whom he spent his first three NFL seasons after they selected him in the third round of the 2010 draft.
When the Giants won in Seattle, McCoy threw just 22 passes, completing 13, for 105 yards while the Giants ran for a season-high 190 yards on 31 attempts. On Sunday night, the Giants rushed for just 74 yards on 21 carries. They compensated by taking more deep shots. McCoy completed 19 of 31 passes for 221 yards.
"We tried, we tried," McCoy said. "I think that was a part of it, getting heavy personnel and running the ball and in the second half we just didn't run the ball that well. And some of our adjustments, some of the things we wanted to do in the second half as far as play-action, we never got to it.
"(We) just didn't finish drives. First half, I felt like we didn't even punt, so we were moving the ball, we just shot ourselves in the foot. You know, we went for it on fourth down and came up a half (yard) short, so those are huge plays in a game like this that we've got to make. If we want to go for it on fourth down with a fake field goal, we've got to convert it. You want to win football games, that's what you've got to do."
How was it receiving plays from Kitchens instead of Garrett?
"It was good," McCoy said. "You know, there were some ups and downs there, but I think Freddie did a really nice job there. It didn't change much as far as the plays we would've run with Jason."
The defense had its own issues. Cleveland twice drove 95 yards for touchdowns, consuming 13 minutes in the process. The Browns converted 69% of their third-down opportunities (nine of 13). Baker Mayfield threw 32 passes and only five of them hit the ground. The 27 completions gained 297 yards and two resulted in touchdowns. Cleveland ran for 196 yards but averaged just 3.5 yards a carry.
The difference in the game was in the crucial territory inside the 20-yard line. Cleveland advanced there three times and scored three touchdowns. The Giants matched them with trips to the red zone but scored only three points.
"I think our coverage was tight; they made some contested catches," Logan Ryan said. "We really loaded up to stop the run game, which we did, but we really weren't good in third down or in the red area, which is situationally how you win football games. I think James would've helped, but him missing wasn't the only problem tonight. Obviously, James affects things, but I don't think it's the reason we lost tonight, and it's definitely not an excuse you'll hear me make."
The Giants took an early 3-0 on Gano's 37-yard field goal. Between that play and his fourth-quarter 39-yard field goal, Cleveland scored three touchdowns (missing the extra point try on the second).
"I don't think anyone is down, I think everyone is just fine," McCoy said when asked about the mood in the locker room. "We know what's at stake, we knew this was a big game and we just didn't get it done. That's frustrating. I think frustration is probably the way everyone feels in there because we're well-coached, we work really hard each week, we had a lot of things go on this week that could've been a distraction and I felt like as a group and as an offense we really pushed through that. We moved the ball up and down the field and we just have to figure out how to score touchdowns, that's the bottom line. Our defense is playing well, they only gave up 20 points. I think if you want to point the finger at anybody, you can point it at me. I need to be better, I need to get us lined up right, I need to make sure I'm pinpoint with my throws down in the red zone, and we've got to score more points."
View photos from the Week 15 matchup between the Giants and Browns in primetime at MetLife Stadium.