Vince Lombardi never actually said what he is famously quoted as saying about winning being the only thing, but you get the point he was making even if he didn’t exactly make the point the way history has referenced what he did not say, but probably meant. Winning is better than losing. We get it.
This brings us to the Giants and, with great relief, the end of their 2018 season. They are 5-10 and will finish either 6-10 or 5-11, depending on how they fare Sunday against the Cowboys at MetLife Stadium.
“I don’t know if there’s a big difference [record-wise] other than what’s different is you win your last game,’’ coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think that’s what’s different, if you don’t make the playoffs, you don’t make the playoffs, but at this point we’re going to stay in the moment and do what we can to win the game.”
Other than rising or falling a peg or two in the 2019 NFL Draft selection order, the significance of what the Giants do in their finale is likely to be forgotten by the time a new crop of Giants mix with the returnees to form next year’s team. There was all sorts of talk this past week about the carryover affect winning in Week 17 can do for the Giants moving into Shurmur’s second season as the head coach, talk that is more projection than based in any real factual evidence.
In 1985, when the Giants lost to the Bears in the playoffs, the feeling in the room was the setback was the necessary growing pain to take the franchise to the next level — that one season unquestionably linked to the next. The Giants in 1986 won their first Super Bowl but it was a different era, before rampant free agency. Bill Parcells, knew all the key players would be back to finish the job. This is rarely the case in today’s NFL, which is why there is such fluctuation from one year to the next as far as which team makes the playoffs and which gets left out.
In 2004, the Giants completed their season with a home victory over the Cowboys. Few remember that set the Giants’ record at 6-10; that 28-24 triumph is significant because it was win No. 1 for Eli Manning — he lost his first six starts. More recently, the Giants closed out 2012 with a rout of the Eagles and lost their first six games in 2013. They won their last two games in 2013 and lost their first two in 2014. In 2015, the Giants lost their final three games under Tom Coughlin and in 2016 won their first two for Ben McAdoo.
If you can detect a trend, please do.
“I can’t remember how the last game of every season worked out,’’ Manning said. “I think we are building something. I think when you have new players, and a new team, and a bunch of new guys coming from one year that hopefully will be here next year, I think you are building kind of the character and a winning attitude. So, I think those things can carry over.’’
Manning hopes to return for a 16th season to help with the carryover, if one exists. Shurmur knows he will be back and, after a massive overhaul from 2017, is expecting most of this roster to return in 2019. The Giants were 1-7 in the first half of this season and are 4-3 in the second half. So, there is improvement, however incremental.
“Unless you just change everybody out, what about the other 45 guys?’’ Shurmur said. “What about the coaches that are still here? The systems are in place, you do what you can to improve the systems, and you do what you can to improve the players. Anything you do more than once, you improve, and so if you believe experience matters, that’s why everything carries over. I think it’s all connected.’’
There is nothing at stake for the first-place Cowboys, winners of the NFC East and looking ahead to a home playoff game. The Giants hope to avoid leaving behind the season on a three-game losing streak. These teams met in Week 2 — the Cowboys won 20-13 in Arlington, Texas — and went on to produce diametrically different seasons. Shurmur said “I think we’re a better team’’ now than then. “We function better,’’ he said.
Up next, he gets to see if there is any carryover.
Cowboys LBs Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee and Leighton Vender-Esch vs. Giants RB Saquon Barkley
This is not a three versus one fight, of course, but Barkley is going to have to navigate his way around perhaps the best run-stopping linebacker corps in the league. Barkley is not surging to the finish, with only 31 and 43 rushing yards the past two games. Lee, 32, might be on his last legs but he knows how to get to the ball. Smith, 23, and Vander-Esch, a 22-year old rookie, are young studs who figure to give the Giants nightmares for years to come. “Those guys are young players but they’re completely immersed in what we’re doing, they love ball, and they’re getting better and better by the week,’’ Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
Last call: Some are assured of returning but so many are not, making this game the last opportunity for players to make an impression, one way or another, before the coaching staff and front office start figuring it all out. Michael Thomas, a 28-year old safety, signed a two-year, $4 million contract before the season, but this does not guarantee he will be back. Thomas is a special teams captain and instantly established himself as a leader in the locker room. With Landon Collins on injured reserve, Thomas is now in the starting lineup. “The tape is your resume, so anytime you get a chance to go play a game, you want to put something great on it because everybody gets the chance to see it,’’ Thomas said. “The last one, it’s the last game everybody remembers — pretty much the last thing you do. What have you done for us lately? So it’s the last one, you want to end the season with a win.’’
Learning curve: The first half last week was one of the best performances defensive coordinator James Bettcher saw from his unit all season, limiting the Colts to seven points. The Colts surged to 21 points in the second half and easily went the 53 yards they needed to score the game-winning touchdown with 55 seconds remaining. The Giants have allowed an NFL-high 154 fourth-quarter points. “That’s something that, I don’t know if you want to say it’s maturity, it’s just continuing to play the game,’’ Bettcher said.
Enough Saquon Barkley debate: The Giants won … but so did Jets
Saquon or Sam? The debate — sports-talk-radio candy — has…
Rookie records: Saquon Barkley is going to lead the Giants in rushing yards and, with Odell Beckham Jr. missing a fourth consecutive game, receptions. He has 87 catches and needs two more to pass Reggie Bush for the most receptions by a rookie in NFL history. Barkley needs 114 yards from scrimmage to reach 2,000. Only two rookies in league history have ever done that: Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James. “It was amazing,’’ said receiver Sterling Shepard, asked to describe watching Barkley this season. “The things that guy can do on the field, like I said, they’re amazing and it’s only going to go up from here. I felt like the game slowed down a lot for me my second year and I expect the same thing from him and he’s going to keep lighting it up.’’
Big finish: It was not the season second-year tight end Evan Engram expected. He has just 40 catches for 496 yards and two touchdowns a year after a strong (64-722, six TDs) rookie year. Engram did not play in five games with knee and hamstring issues and saw his snap-count decreased when the offense moved to more of a run-first mentality. He is healthy now and has 11 receptions for 152 yards the past two games. “I feel like I know Evan well and what he does well,’’ Shurmur said, “and we’ll just try to keep featuring him.”
It is never easy to figure out motivation in a game like this, with one team moving on and the other going home. A good rule to follow: Quality teams usually play quality football. The Cowboys will not use all their top players for the full 60 minutes and will have loads of support from their fans in the stands in a road game. Maybe Eli Manning finds a way to close out in style.
Giants 24, Cowboys 20