Coming out of the bye week, three of the league's top five tight ends in receiving yards came up on the Giants' schedule in consecutive weeks. "One of the answers is Landon [Collins]," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said of the two-time Pro Bowl safety. The key word there, though, was "one." The other answer turned out to be veteran defensive back Michael Thomas, known more as one of the best special teams players in the game.
After going against San Francisco's George Kittle, next up was Tampa Bay's O.J. Howard. Looking to tie the game before halftime, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick drove the Buccaneers from their own 14 to the Giants 30. He then tried to hit Howard down the seam, but Thomas jumped in front of the pass and intercepted it at the 13 with 23 seconds to go before the break.
It was Thomas' first interception since getting one off Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in a wild-card meeting with Miami in the 2016 postseason. It was his first in the regular season since his NFL debut in 2013, when he intercepted Tom Brady to clinch a victory over the Patriots.
"I'm just glad that [defensive coordinator James Bettcher and defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo] keep finding ways to get me on the field," said Thomas, a special teams co-captain who played a season-high 39 defensive snaps (53.4 percent) in last week's victory over San Francisco. "I just thank God for the opportunity, and just want to keep taking advantage of it. We knew that the tight end is one of his top targets, period, but especially in the red zone. So it's a big matchup for me. I loved that I was able to go out there and prove that I can make a play and seal it right before halftime so they don't get points. That's huge."
Two plays into the second half, linebacker Alec Ogletree returned another interception 15 yards for a touchdown. It was Fitzpatrick's third and final interception before Buccaneers coach turned back to former No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston.
"That was something coach talked about – 'Hey, let's go back and make it a two-score game again,'" Thomas said. "And to do it right there on defense and right after halftime, that was huge. Playing with a lead is always huge."
The Giants expanded their lead to 17 points on Odell Beckham Jr's eight-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but the Winston-led Buccaneers cut the deficit to three points twice with 5:11 and 2:22 left in the game. That's when the Giants called in their closer, and Thomas recovered an onside kick just before the two-minute warning.
"We've got a bunch of veterans who've been special teams players for their different teams, so once we saw the formation, all of us knew that's probably where they were trying to go with the ball," Thomas said. "Just on how they were lined up with two guys on either side of the kicker bunched in, once we saw it, we were prepared for it. I saw the ball kicked at the tee, and that's all it is. See the ball kicked and went up and made the play."
Thomas even returned it four yards for good measure.
"Obviously the rule is go, get down," he said with a smile. "You got the ball, get down. But if they didn't tackle me, I was going to the crib. I'm glad I made that play. At that point you're trying to seal the game."
The Giants were able to run the clock down to 23 seconds and give the ball back to Buccaneers at their own 20 with no timeouts. The Buccaneers dialed something up for a name Giants fans don't dare to say out loud – DeSean Jackson – but B.W. Webb intercepted it, and Eli Manning took over in the victory formation as the Giants won back-to-back games for the first time since 2016.
"All we thought about and all we talked about was we weren't where we wanted to be with the 1-7 start," Thomas said. "But DG [general manager Dave Gettleman] and this team, this organization, brought in great character guys. So all the leadership and talented players from the previous organizations, all we talked about was staying the course. Keep working, keep believing, and when we come back from the bye week, one game at a time. Let's try to have one-game seasons and win. And we're just going to keep doing that. That's the type of guys we've got in this locker room."
That's the type of culture Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur set out to cultivate this season.
"Mike Thomas as you know was elected a captain, and I didn't know much about him, but very quickly gained a huge appreciation," Shurmur said. "He's one of the adults in the room. He's an outstanding person, he gets it, he's able to get it and he leads. He does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons and doesn't care about the consequences. That's Mike. He's always got a smile on his face. He's very competitive. Every time we put him in there to do something, he competes. He's the kind of guy you want on the field."
They might want him again with Philadelphia's Zach Ertz up next.