Late Sunday night, Eli Manning retreated from the noisy celebration in the locker room to the relatively silent interview area and cautioned anyone who thought the Giants' thrilling victory over the Dallas Cowboys guaranteed anything but a happy flight home.
"It won't mean anything if we don't finish the season strong and win these next games," Manning said. "That's the mindset. We can't relax now. We can't start feeling great about ourselves. We have three big games. Next week, Washington is coming to New York and we have to win that game and go from there."
They go from a position of strength, thanks to their come-from-behind 37-34 victory in Cowboys Stadium. The Giants trailed, 34-22, with less than 3½ minutes remaining before scoring two late touchdowns, the last Brandon Jacobs' game-winning one-yard run with 46 seconds left.
The victory improved the Giants to 7-6 and into a first-place tie in the NFC East with the Cowboys. Thanks to their victory, the Giants own the tiebreaker. If they win their last three games, they will be division champions, no matter what Dallas does. Their final three games are all in MetLife Stadium, at home against the Redskins and Cowboys and as visitors vs. the Jets on Dec. 24.
Although exhilarated by the turn of events in Texas, the Giants well know that the ultimate fate of their season has yet to be decided.
"Hopefully this will again continue to motivate and excite us about the very difficult remainder of our schedule," Coach Tom Coughlin said on a conference call today. Moments later, Coughlin said, "I've always been a huge believer in you have to take care of your own business. Whenever you start to drift and to think that perhaps other people are going to help you out, I think you get in trouble. You have to take care of your own business. We realize how difficult each one of these games will be, but we put ourselves in position where if we can take care of our own business then what we've wanted all along will present itself as an opportunity for us."
Coughlin has pounded the same message into the players since training camp opened – finish. Drives, games, the season as a whole. Coughlin wants the players focused on finishing them all successfully. Now, that's exactly what they have to do to secure an NFC East championship that is well within reach.
"It is not about style points, it is about having the opportunity to accomplish what we set out to accomplish at the beginning of the season, which was win the division," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "Now we are in a pretty good position but we have three tough ballgames ahead of us. We know that we are going to have to finish. Coach Coughlin started it in training camp with the motto of ‘finish' and that is the mentality. That is the mentality of our football team for the next few weeks."
"Basically, we are in the playoffs now," said Kevin Boothe, who has filled in so capably for David Baas at center. "We knew that we couldn't afford to fall further behind Dallas when we went into the game. We are in a playoff type atmosphere from here on out. We have a big division game this week and we have to take it one game at a time and see what happens. We have to give Washington our best shot. They lost a couple of tough ones and they could have very easily won them against quality opponents so we know that we are going to have our hands full on Sunday."
The Giants enter their final three games with the steely confidence that is forged only by winning tough games under adverse circumstances. To come back on the road as they did, much like their victory in New England last month, helps convince them that no situation is too dire, no deficit too big, no time frame too short for them to succeed.
Six times this season, the Giants have won games in which they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. Manning has been almost flawless in those high-stakes, anxiety-producing situations.
"We have a great quarterback that can make plays like that," said Jacobs, who ran for a season-high 101 yards and two scores. "If you ask me, he's the best in the business when our backs are against the wall and we need to score. He's never let me down. I believe in him. I believe in our offense. I believe in our coaches and he got it done."
"We always know that he is going to get it done," Canty said. "From our side of the ball as a defense, we know that we are going to get another chance to stop them after we score. We know we are going to have to hold them or get a stop to protect the win. We pretty much know that when our offense is going down and putting a drive together the last five minutes of a ballgame, we have a pretty good shot of scoring some points."
On the last two drives, Manning completed eight of 11 passes 102 yards and a touchdown. He finished the game with 400 yards, the third time this season he reached that statistical milepost.
More than 95,000 people were in Cowboys Stadium last night, but seemingly no one in the building was as calm as Manning.
"I don't ever feel pressure when I'm playing football," Manning said. "I know my assignments, I'm reading the defense, I know my plays and I try to make plays and try to get the ball into my receivers' hands and let them do their job. It's exciting, it's fun. I'm competitive and I'm out there doing what I can to get a win."
On the Giants' first possession of the fourth quarter, Manning threw a screen pass that was tipped by Victor Butler and intercepted by Sean Lee, who returned it 30 yards. Two plays later, the Cowboys scored on a 50-yard pass to Dez Bryant to increase their lead to 12 points with only 5:41 remaining.
"I think our main thing was when Dallas scored to go up 12, we just needed to get one score," Boothe said. "We are not going to make up all of it in one drive. I think the main thing was to score as fast as possible to give ourselves one shot in the end. We were pretty efficient on the drive and scored within a couple minutes and we put the pressure back on Dallas. It benefitted us and our defense got a stop and gave us a shot in the end."
Manning first responded to the larger deficit by leading the Giants 80 yards down the field in eight plays, including a terrific 24-yard pass on the right sideline to Hakeem Nicks and an eight-yard touchdown throw to Jake Ballard. After the Cowboys went three-and-out, Manning was at the helm of the game-winning six-play, 58-yard drive that featured an 18-yard pass to Ballard.
Coughlin cited a seldom-mentioned aspect of Manning's character to explain the quarterback's success in high-pressure situations.
"It's just his mental toughness," Coughlin said. "He comes over, he's not happy. A lot of times he's not happy. Something has taken place and he wants to control everything and sometimes there's things you can't control. He'll come to the sideline and be disappointed and upset but he'll get his nose right in the book and look at all of the pictures and see and discuss with Kevin (Gilbride, the offensive coordinator) what has to be done, what could have been done differently and what do you see, what do I see, what's everybody see? Then he goes back out there and just directs traffic on the field and the response on the part of his teammates is obvious."
Three more responses like last night's and they'll be NFC East champions.
*Coughlin said Ballard suffered a wrist injury in the game, but "I think Jake is going to be okay. … They don't believe it's much."
Tackle David Diehl has a hand injury. "Dave just keeps hanging in there and pounding away," Coughlin said. "I think that they may be a little bit restricted this week, but they'll definitely be ready to go. He's had an ongoing hand issue that he's battled and really done well with it."
Tight end Travis Beckum has "some issues in his upper chest area," according to Coughlin. "I think we're going to have to see if he can play through some of the soreness that he has and hopefully that will happen."
"We're hoping, but we're going to have to wait and see," Coughlin said. "This stuff is day-to-day. You get excited and then you get a report and it's not quite as positive as you thought I might be. We'll wait, it's a little early. We have tomorrow and, even treatment-wise, Wednesday before we get on the field. Let's just see how that plays out."