Of the New York Giants’ five losses this season, three of the opponents’ game-winning scores have come with a combined eight seconds left. Last night’s 27-26 New England win, one of the best football games of the year, required Tom Brady to use all but one second of the 1:47 the Giants gave him, and led to the same old questions about New York’s clock management.
“Extremely disappointing loss,” said Tom Coughlin. “Not much for me to say about it other than [what] the frustration was: I mean, finish the game! Just get the game over with.”
Down two points, Eli Manning led the Giants from their own three to a first-and-goal at the Patriots’ five with 2:10 left. New England had one timeout left, leaving the Giants in the enviable but tough position of trying to bleed off as much of the clock as possible while gaining as big a lead as they could.
On first down, the Giants called a run. At worst, it would have run the clock down to the two-minute warning. But the Patriots were expecting a run, and stacked the box against it, so the Giants changed the call at the line of scrimmage.
“They just weren’t going to let us run,” said Manning, “They had goal-line personnel in and they weren’t going to let us run the ball in that situation. The one to Odell on first down was actually a run called. Threw the pass on the outside. Kind of the way it was going to be. They weren’t going to let us run the ball there.”
Odell Beckham got his feet down along the sideline, but had the ball slapped away by Malcolm Butler. A review overturned the touchdown call, and the Giants had to run another play with 2:01 left. It was an incomplete pass, and the two-minute warning stopped the clock.
That first-down call is the one that could be second-guessed—even if the Patriots were playing the run, there’s value in getting stuffed, getting to the two-minute warning, and forcing New England to burn its last timeout on second down. If the Giants had run the ball thrice, gotten stopped on each, and settled for a field goal, the Patriots would have gotten the ball back with about a minute remaining. But that’s hindsight.
Things are very different if Beckham holds on to that pass. The Patriots would have had more time, but would have needed a touchdown to tie or win the game. Coughlin’s justification for throwing on first down was simple and valid: “I’ll take the touchdown.”
Drew discussed this last week, and that’s (generally) statistically the right call. The best way to win a game when you lead late is to treat it like any other possession. That means when a defense sells out to stop the run and gives you man coverage on Odell Beckham, you throw to Odell Beckham. One catch here—or if Landon Collins held on to a potential game-ending Brady interception—and the Giants would have won. That it didn’t work out doesn’t mean it wasn’t the smart call.
The Giants still had a chance to find the end zone on third down, but they went to their standby play in that situation. While Manning moved to his right, the two receivers tried to pick their respective DBs and peel off for an open look. It’s the same play the Giants ran in that season-opening loss to Dallas, when Manning threw the ball away instead of taking a sack and running out the clock. This time Manning wisely went down, because the Patriots had this play scouted and on lockdown. Bill Belichick said he expected it, and it was easy to stop when you know it’s coming.
“Big stop down there on the goal line,” Belichick said. “When the Giants got down, they tried to run that roll-out pick play that they like. We defended that and got the ball back.”
Manning’s slide forced New England to use its last time out, but the time remaining was just enough for the Patriots to set up Stephen Gostkowski for a 54-yard game-winning field goal. In this instance though, unlike in the painful and avoidable losses to the Cowboys, Falcons, and Saints, the Giants were more victims of the breaks and of the Patriots’ better execution than of their own late-game play-calling mistakes.