LANDOVER, Md. -- It's not completely accurate to say Justin Tuck needed a game like this, because Tuck doesn't really "need" anything. Yes, Sunday was the first day of the final month of Tuck's current New York Giants contract. But he hasn't been sweating that all year, so there's no reason to expect him to start now.
"This is a guy who's got two Super Bowls and a Pro Bowl under his belt," teammate Mathias Kiwanuka said after watching Tuck collect a career-high four sacks in the Giants' 24-17 victory over the Redskins Sunday night at FedEx Field. "I feel like, whatever happens with him, he's going to be fine."
Tuck thinks that, too, which is probably the reason why this contract year hasn't seemed to bother him the way it has appeared to affect, say, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. Tuck didn’t love the fact that he only had 2½ sacks in his first 11 games of the season, but he felt he'd been playing well. He had graded out consistently well against the run all year, and he'd been jokingly calling himself "Mr. Almost" in reference to the number of times he felt he'd been very close but the quarterback got away.
"I missed some tonight, too," he said with a grin Sunday night. "Sometimes it can be hard to believe. We come in and we all say the right things sometimes, but sometimes, in the back of your head, you're thinking, 'It's time.'"
Tuck's time to get the sacks was Sunday. With fellow defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul out with a shoulder injury, Tuck and Kiwanuka weren't coming off the field against the Redskins, and they felt added responsibility to deliver in a big way. Tuck realized what he was doing was special as he was doing it, but he still managed to maintain the same mellow focus that has guided him through a 2013 season that hasn't been easy for him or the team.
"Somebody asked me on the sideline how I felt when there were three minutes left, and I said, 'Ask me in three minutes,'" Tuck said. "It's a big feat, obviously, but we have to win. If I had been standing there with four sacks and a loss, I wouldn't have given two cents about four sacks."
Tuck symbolizes so much about the Giants right now. His ability as one of their captains to keep his cool and perspective through the 0-6 start is a big reason why they've been able to win five of their last six. But looking beyond this year, Tuck symbolizes a franchise that obviously needs to rebuild while confronting difficult decisions about some of its championship mainstays.
"Everyone knows I'm a New York Giant through and through," Tuck said. "People ask me, 'Do you want to be here next year?' and that's a stupid question. Of course I do."
When the season began, Tuck was coming off a couple of down years by his standards, and it was reasonable to think he needed a big year if he wanted to convince the Giants to keep him. They have a big decision to make on Nicks, who continues to slog through a miserable contract year that's hurting his chances to return. They're confronting unwieldy cap numbers on guys such as Kiwanuka, Antrel Rolle, Chris Snee and David Baas. And of course, Tuck is a free agent. These are Giants who have won championships, some more than one. They are Ring of Honor candidates who will forever be beloved and welcomed back by the team's owners and fans. Yet, for the nitty-gritty financial reasons that govern today's NFL, it's impossible to say whether they'll be on the team next season.
Each and every one of them would do well to follow Tuck's example, and not just the one he set Sunday night by dominating the game on defense.
"That's the way you lead," said defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who is also headed for free agency and doesn't know his Giants future beyond New Year's Eve. "You lead by showing, and tonight he had a great game."
From the standpoint of a player in a contract season, Tuck has led by example since the start of training camp. His season to date has been a clinic in focusing on what you can control and not worrying yourself silly over the stuff you can't. You would never know, from spending any time around Tuck, that he's in the final month of a contract.
"Because he's never let that be a focal point," Kiwanuka said. "You know he wants to do well, like everybody wants to do well in a contract year. And when a guy comes out and continues to work, continues to work and puts in the time day in and day out the way that guy does, you wish good things for him.
"Four sacks is huge for a guy who does all the little things that don't show up in the numbers. You look, on third downs, we're using him inside as an inside rusher. Nobody talks about that and the effect it has on your sack numbers. But coaches who are evaluating what we do can tell you he's having a very good year. I'd be very surprised if he's not back here next year."
That didn't seem likely three months ago, and it might not be the case. But the way Tuck has played and handled himself this year has set him up well. And after a night like Tuck had Sunday, you start to think Kiwanuka might just turn out to be right.