EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With his team reeling, his defense getting pummeled week in and week out and a storm of negativity swirling around his team in the final two weeks of the season, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin gathered his charges this past Tuesday and woke them up. This isn't so bad, he told his players. Sure, we've lost five of our past six games and our defense is giving up third-down conversions as if they were candy canes. But we have two games left, and if we win them both, we're division champs.
"I don't know if it was anything we said; I think they realized the circumstances we're in," a giddy Coughlin said after the Giants' 29-14 victory over the Jets on Saturday. "These are young men. They're talented. They've got the world by the tail. It's a great time of year. There's a lot to feel good about. If you'd said before the season that, with two games to go we could still determine our fate, we'd have signed up for that."
And now, the same is true with one game to go. The Giants' victory over the Jets sets up a one-game showdown, right back here, next Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. If the Giants win, they're NFC East champs. If they don't, the Cowboys win the division and the Giants' season is over. In spite of all of the injuries, all of the losses and all of the blown coverages along the way, the Giants have pushed their season to the final week and they still have a chance.
"What better time to be playing your best football?" asked Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty, whose sack of Mark Sanchez in the end zone with 2:24 left in the game produced the safety that put the game on ice. "December in the NFL, that's what it's all about. We still have the opportunity to accomplish everything we set out to accomplish, and that's a good feeling."
Coughlin's message really hit home with the defense, which turned in perhaps its finest all-around effort of the season. It was another down game for quarterback Eli Manning and the passing offense (save for Victor Cruz's electrifying, game-turning 99-yard touchdown catch a couple of minutes before halftime). But unlike last week, when they lost to the Redskins, the defense bailed them out this time. After allowing opponents to convert 54 percent of their third downs over the previous five weeks, the Giants held Sanchez and the Jets to 4-for-21 on third downs.
"I think our defense played lights-out football for four quarters," Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said. "And I think we had more fans in the stands than they did, here at Giants Stadium -- a.k.a. MetLife Stadium."
It was a chippy week between these two rivals. The Jets, as is their wont, did a lot of talking and boasting. The Giants fired back a few times, but generally the Jets' chatter bothers them more than they care to admit. There's little doubt they drew extra motivation from what was going on in the week leading up to the game, and after the game the big boss admitted as much.
"Given all of the talk that was coming from Florham Park [where the Jets practice], this means a little bit more," Giants owner John Mara said in the locker room.
But while the Giants definitely play better when they can get themselves motivated, the key to this game was the toughening up of a defense that had been the league's plaything for the better part of two months. The Jets decided to attack a Giants secondary that had been giving up tons of yardage, and while Sanchez threw 59 passes, he completed only 30 for 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
"When he throws the ball 60 times and he doesn't get 300 yards, that's definitely a win in our book," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "They made a couple of comments in the paper about our secondary, so we knew that was probably how they were going to attack us."
Cornerbacks Corey Webster and Aaron Ross did a great job of keeping the Jets' receivers in check. Webster and safety Kenny Phillips had the interceptions. The Giants' secondary was almost unrecognizable for the tight, effective, smothering way it played. And up front, on the defensive line, there was Justin Tuck, playing like his old, All-Pro self for the first time this season.
"He changed his outlook and his demeanor this week," Coughlin said of Tuck. "He got very positive. He decided not to be concerned about the little nicks he had that have been bothering him, and instead to just ignore them and play through them."
Tuck said Coughlin approached him early in the week and challenged him to be a leader at this crucial time. He also said that Rolle's postgame comments last week about guys not practicing because of nagging injuries, but showing up on Sunday to play, caught his attention. Whatever it was, Tuck looked like a new man, helping the Giants' pass rush look like its old scary self as he and Jason Pierre-Paul hunted Sanchez from opposite sides.
"We came out and played relentless against the pass and against the run," Rolle said. "We had a game plan, and our defensive coordinator stuck with it 120 percent."
This is a newly fired-up bunch of Giants, and there can be little doubt they'll come out fired up again next Sunday against the Cowboys. The Giants are scary when motivated. And with a division title on the line, what more motivation could they possibly need?