Almost everyone but the two teams on the field were looking ahead of Sunday. To their credit, the New York Giants, who were out of postseason contention, and the Dallas Cowboys, locked into their playoff seeding regardless of the outcome, put on a show in the regular-season finale. After the start did resemble a preseason game, the fourth quarter included the drama of four lead changes. Dallas eventually came out on the winning end of the whipsaw with a 36-35 victory over Big Blue.
"We just tried to go out and win the game," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "It is never exciting to play the last game of the season when you know you aren't going to the playoffs. We still wanted to go out and play well. We had that feeling in the locker room where we felt good about what was going on and about the work that was being put in. I think we made a lot of progress. It was just a tough loss. Dak [Prescott] makes a great play on fourth down. We had an opportunity to win it we just did not make the plays. I am disappointed with the game."
IT WAS OVER WHEN: Manning's pass intended for Cody Latimer, who made two circus catches earlier in the game, fell incomplete on fourth-and-10 with 46 seconds left. Giants coach Pat Shurmur said in his Wednesday press conference that nothing would be better than seeing Manning take the victory formation on Sunday, but it was Prescott who took a knee at MetLife Stadium.
"We just were not able to make plays at the end to win, but we had an opportunity at the end," Manning said. "We had an opportunity in this game to make it a two-score game at the end and didn't take advantage of that and had to settle for a field goal. We had to settle. We needed 15 yards to get in field goal range and threw four straight incompletions."
BEAS' KNEE: Saquon Barkley momentarily took back the lead for the Giants with a two-yard Superman leap into the end zone, and Aldrick Rosas extended it to seven points with a 38-yard field goal with 2:39 to play. The Cowboys were down to their last chance when faced with fourth-and-15 at the Giants 32. Prescott rolled to his left and threw up a pass to Cole Beasley in the back of the end zone. Video replay showed that he did get one knee down before falling out of bounds. Dallas wasn't done. Wanting to end it there and avoid overtime, Cowboys Jason Garrett kept the offense on the field. Prescott found Michael Gallup in the end zone to take a one-point lead.
"Yeah, it just felt like it was the right thing to do," Garrett said. "We are going to play a game next week, let's go win it right now."
RUNNING INTO RECORD BOOKS: Barkley's stat line ended with 17 carries for 109 yards and touchdown, and four catches for 33 yards. The second overall pick has set the bar so high for himself that those seem almost average, but there is nothing normal about his season. On Sunday alone, he accomplished the following: broke Reggie Bush's NFL record for most receptions by a rookie running back (88 in 2006); became the third rookie in NFL history with 2,000 yards from scrimmage (Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James); reached 100 scrimmage yards for the 13th time this season, tying Dickerson's NFL rookie record; tied Odell Beckham Jr.'s franchise rookie record of 91 catches; and scored his 11th rushing touchdown to break the franchise rookie record.
WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR THE GIANTS: Despite their 1-7 start, the Giants found a way to remain in postseason contention into the final month of the season. That door eventually closed in Week 15, their first of three consecutive losses to end the season 5-11. Eight of their losses were decided by differentials of seven, seven, five, three, three, two, one, and one point.
"It feels different [than last year]," Manning said. "We went into every game this year feeling like we had a great opportunity. We had a chance to win games and score points. Last year, guys were injured, coach gets fired during the season, a lot of things going on. This one, you saw the progress. You saw us getting better and felt good about things, what we were trying to accomplish. We just saw hoped that we could turn things around. We lost some tough games towards the end."
WHAT THE WIN MEANS FOR THE COWBOYS: The NFC East champions, who won seven of their final eight games, had nothing to lose or gain in terms of postseason seeding on Sunday, but Garrett maintained his intention to win in Week 17. While Ezekiel Elliott wrapped up his second rushing title without playing in the finale, the Cowboys also rested two Pro Bowl offensive linemen dealing with injuries. Quarterback Dak Prescott, however, played the entire game and heads into his second postseason game after throwing a career-high four touchdowns against the Giants.
"I mean it definitely adds [to the momentum]," Prescott said. "You watch right there at the end, just the intensity of the offense and just the sideline of everybody pushing to get that score and how much we wanted to score and win this game and then just going for two as well right there. That's huge. That's huge for this team and if you just saw the sideline when they were on offense those last four plays, it was like no other part of our season. Just the intensity, everybody focusing and how bad we wanted it. This meant a lot to us. This was an in-division opponent: New York Giants vs. the Dallas Cowboys. Big win and got us to 10, so it was huge."