EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The instant the Dallas Cowboys' victory over the Washington Redskins was official Monday night, Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara exhaled in relief, an act likely mimicked by numerous teammates.
"It was like, 'Whew, we're still in it,'" Amukamara said. "We still have a chance."
Indeed they do. The triumph by one of the Giants' NFC East rivals over another left them tied atop the division with Philadelphia and Washington with four games remaining. May the best team win the title.
The Giants believe it will be them, and they intend to seize the crown and the accompanying playoff berth, starting Monday night in Miami. They are 5-7 and have lost three in a row and four of their last five games, but not their confidence and faith in themselves. The Giants acknowledge this has turned into a down season for the NFC East, and they're thankful they're still in the race despite being two games under .500 with three-quarters of the season in the books.
"It's the craziness of the NFL," offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. "It really is an inch-by-inch league where you really can't take anything for granted, because one day you could be out of it. And just seeing the way the NFC East has been, every team at some point in the season, their whole fan base is giving up (and saying), 'Oh, this season is over.'"
Were it not for preferable results elsewhere, Giants fans would be in that group. Dallas and Philadelphia both lost on Thanksgiving Day. The Giants had a chance to seize control of the division three days later, but lost in Washington, 20-14. That put the Redskins in the driver's seat before they fell back to the pack by losing to the Cowboys.
But the Giants can't continue to rely on other teams to keep them in the race. They have to start winning, now.
"We just have to do our part," defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said. "It seems like everything around us is working in our favor, but we're just not doing our part. We just have to stay focused on that and go into this week and know that we have to win. The first thing we have to do is just get a win."
"As long as you're in the race, that's the most important thing," quarterback Eli Manning said. "Usually it comes down to December. What happens in December, who's got the best record, who wins these matchups."
The Giants would have at least a semi-comfortable lead had they not lost five games in which they led in the fourth quarter, including a 23-20 overtime defeat to the Jets last Sunday. But in the NFL, you are what you are, and right now, the Giants are a sub-.500 team struggling to stay afloat.
"You've got to have that mentality where you can't dwell on the past," cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. "But it hurts knowing that there are a few games out there that we definitely should have closed, and you don't close on them. So you definitely always have that in mind. But you still have an opportunity, you still have a chance, so you just have to move forward."
"I'm not afraid to say it, we wasted an opportunity," Pugh said. "You have three games where you take a (late) lead and if we just win one of those three, we're sitting at first place in the division, and we control our own destiny. But now we've made it a little bit harder on ourselves, so we've got to go out there and fight through this adversity and get a win. This is a huge game for us. We're going to know exactly where we're at going into Monday night. We're going to know where all the other teams are and what we have to do. I think it's important for us to go out there and put a full game together."
Keep an eye on these five players as the Giants face Miami this Monday Night
That's what Tom Coughlin has waited all season to see. He wants a rushing attack that is averaging just 88.1 yards a game to pick up steam as the weather gets cold (assuming, of course, that it actually gets cold in New Jersey). Coughlin expects a defense that has generated just 15 sacks, the league's second-lowest figure, to finally put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill will be the first target Monday night. And at the top of Coughlin's holiday wish list is for the Giants to finish a game when they have a victory within their grasp.
The players were well-aware of their standing after the game last Monday. But Coughlin leaves nothing to chance, so he had a typically pointed message for his players when they reported for work this week.
"Four games to go, we are tied for the division lead, we will win as soon as we deserve to win," he said. "And the deserving to win part of it, obviously it comes from being able to finish on a stronger basis than we have. And as you look around, you can find a million reasons why one play has cost us games. And if that's the case, then each one of us - coaches, players - examine your own conscience, come up with those things that are necessary for us to make improvement, and let's get it done now."
Consider the message received. Now the players must perform up to the standards Coughlin demands.
"I think each game has been a playoff game, or has had a playoff mentality," Amukamara said. "Even though we've been losing, we're still fighting like it's a playoff mentality. And we know that we've run out of strikes and we can't lose anymore."