EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When it was over and another near-disaster had been averted, a few New York Giants defenders invoked the Any Given Sunday clause -- you know, that old line that anyone in the NFL can beat anyone, anytime.
But even that was half-hearted. The unavoidable truth was a Halloween-style scare came a day early for the Giants' defense Sunday against winless Miami. Only the last five minutes against the Dolphins went the way the unit had anticipated for the first 55. And that was only after Eli Manning led the team on a game-saving late touchdown drive for the fourth time in its five wins.
So the Giants' defense wasn't kidding itself afterward.
Style points matter, all right, when you're playing a Miami team that was desperately trying not to fall to 0-7. And they especially matter when you're a Giants team that finds itself once again trying to shake its recent history of fast starts that turn that into late-season fades, and -- worse -- your schedule in the next six weeks is more forbidding than it was in any of those previous years. Try this on for size: at New England next week, at San Francisco, then home against the Eagles; at New Orleans, back home against Green Bay, then at Dallas. Are you kidding?
It's a gauntlet only a masochist -- or one of those teams chasing the Giants for the NFC East lead -- could love.
No wonder Giants coach Tom Coughlin called the Giants' 20-17 escape against Miami "a huge win A huge win."
How big? "Huge," Coughlin said a third time.
"I was starting to get some gray hairs," Giants defensive tackle Justin Tuck admitted, thinking back to when the Giants entered the fourth quarter still trailing 17-10.
"We were making mistakes, and they were finding them," Mathias Kiwanuka added.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to go down Sunday, now that the Giants finally had their defensive line intact for the first time this season. This struggle wasn't even remotely like the Giants' loss to a lousy Seattle team a few weeks ago.
Turnovers helped hasten the Giants' demise then.
This time, the Giants' offense didn't give away the ball once all day. And yet, instead of coming out of their bye-week break looking to feast on the Dolphins' banged-up offensive line that lost a third player (starting center Mike Pouncey) during the game, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora acknowledged, "We were just sluggish at first."
The Dolphins scored a touchdown on their opening possession of the game. They drove 12 plays and 90 yards on the Giants for a second touchdown in the second quarter, and finished it off with a 1-yard bootleg on fourth down by much-maligned quarterback Matt Moore, who only became the Dolphins' starter when Chad Henne was injured.
If you're doing the math at home, that's bad team + backup journeyman quarterback = Giants on the ropes. But how?
Coughlin tried the no-panic approach when the Giants still trailed 14-10 at halftime -- "That was the bad half. Let's put that one behind us. Let's do something about it," he told the team -- but for a long time, little went as hoped for his defense, anyway. "We planned on kicking off and stopping them," Coughlin continued, "and they drove it right back down the field on us."
The Giants improved to 5-2 anyway because Manning rallied them to their first lead of the day with 5:58 to play. They're still in first place in the NFC East. But the uncomfortable truth is the offense is still bailing out this team right now. And once the Giants get past how nice and character building and stirring all of that has been to watch, the truth is the Giants don't have the kind of offense that wants to be forced into any more shootouts in these upcoming weeks. Not when the Giants are playing the four best quarterbacks in the league -- Tom Brady, Michael Vick, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers -- plus the Cowboys Tony Romo, who can be as dangerous as anyone if he's having a good day.
So the Giants' defense has to play better than this. "Tremendously better," Tuck said.
The defense has to forget about the late sacks it came up with against the Dolphins when it knew Moore had to throw, and dwell more on its season-long inability to stop the run. Miami's Reggie Bush ran for 103 of the 145 yards the Dolphins had Sunday. Before that, the Giants surrendered 177 yards rushing to Philadelphia, 156 to Arizona, 145 to Seattle and 155 to Buffalo.
Not good. Not nearly good enough.
That's why Tuck only shrugged Sunday asked whether the Giants' Super Bowl victory over unbeaten New England in the Super Bowl four years ago could be a possible source of confidence this week.
"I don't think that run in '07 is going to help us get a victory up there," Tuck said. "We are going to have to play a tremendously better game. [But] we can better. That's what championship teams do. We have to demand it of ourselves to get better."
And if the Giants' defense can't do it? With the schedule they've got, the outlook is scary, all right, starting Sunday in New England.
"We'll see where we are," Tuck agreed. "Real soon."