EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the constant hunt for deeper meaning -- for portents, for short-term happenings with long-range predictive value -- we too often overlook the simple aspects of the games we're watching. The New York Giants' 52-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints came burdened with all kinds of ulterior import. Any number of things could have been on the Giants' minds as they took the field late Sunday afternoon. Any number of external narratives were meaningfully plausible. Here are two:
1. The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, who both appeared bound for losses that would have offered the Giants a chance to extend their division lead to two games, won last-second thrillers. This meant the Giants needed to win in order to stay in first place. Some Giants players said they knew this when their game began. Some said they learned it at halftime. Coach Tom Coughlin claimed he had no idea.
2. The Saints entered the game as a big, sharp thorn in the Giants' side. Saints quarterback Drew Brees went in 4-0 in his career against the Giants (one of those games while with the Chargers), and the Giants had lost those games by an average of 23 points. They would have been within their rights to be fearful, angry, driven, you name it, to hand Brees and the reeling Saints an embarrassing loss. A couple of guys admitted this was, indeed, on their minds.
But as the Giants fielded and answered questions in the wake of a much-needed victory over a horrible-looking team, the narrative that was emerging from their locker room seemed impossibly simple.
"I think we just won a ballgame, man," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "We did what we needed to do."
There's been a lot of chaos over the past month in the NFC East. The Redskins' four-game winning streak, the Cowboys' improvements on offense, the Giants' slide back to the pack -- all of it has made things very interesting in a division that began November as the Giants' to lose. But amid it all, the Giants have maintained their lead and control of the NFC East race. You can talk all you want about tough schedules and tiebreakers and the like, but the fact remains that if the Giants win all their games, no one else can win this division. They know this, and that's a powerful thing for them. This here -- this situation in which they play one game a week and feel they have to win it to move on -- is where these Giants eat.
"Honestly, this is our playoffs," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "These are playoff games for us now, every week. And this is where we've kind of made hay here the last couple of years, so we need to continue to do that."
So the results of the Redskins' and Cowboys' games were, in the minds of the Giants, irrelevant. As was the Saints' recent history against them. What mattered when the Giants took the field Sunday was the game in front of them that needed to be won. And win it they did, in spite of a couple of Eli Manning interceptions and some defensive hiccups that let the Saints hang around for a while. They poured it on the way they knew they could against this pathetic New Orleans defense. Four Manning touchdown passes to four receivers. A career day for rookie running back David Wilson, whose 100 rushing yards and 227 kick-return yards combined for a Giants single-game all-purpose yardage record. Two interceptions and a forced fumble by the amazing Stevie Brown, the backup safety who now has seven interceptions in a season in which starter Kenny Phillips has missed eight games.
Doing all those things, and overcoming the things they did wrong, mattered a billion times more to the Giants on this day than anything that happened in Cincinnati or Washington, D.C. And whether any of it meant anything about what's to come -- whether this was Wilson's "breakout" game or a sign that Hakeem Nicks is back to full health or proof that Brown needs a significant role even once Phillips returns -- none of that stuff means much to the Giants in their current state of mind.
"We talk all the time about taking care of our own business," Coughlin said. "And how do you take care of your own business? Win."
There might come a time in the next few weeks that the Giants don't win. Their next two games are in Atlanta and Baltimore, where the home teams are a combined 65-13 over the past five seasons. Those who say their schedule looks tougher than those of the Redskins and Cowboys the rest of the way have a case, and if the Giants lose any of their final three games, that could eliminate the control they currently hold of the division.
For the moment, however, they still have it. And while there is much else with which teams or players could be distracted at this scenario-infested time of year in this ever-hectic NFL world, the Giants are trying very hard to keep their focus on that one, simple fact. If they win the game in front of them, it doesn't matter what happens anywhere else.
"Destiny is a matter of choice," Coughlin said, echoing the message he spent the week offering to his players. "Same message over and over. Maintaining this one-game lead. Understanding the difficulty of our schedule but also understanding that we can't get where want to go without being able to play the best and beat the best. You're better off if you feel you have to win each one of these games."
The Giants certainly believe they are. They have convinced themselves that this is their time of year -- the time when their opportunity is directly in front of them, reachable and uncomplicated. The simplicity of the NFC East race as it stands right now is perfect for them. It keeps them focused. Everybody else can talk all they want about what's working on them from the outside. But on the inside, it's just like Cruz said it was Sunday. Just win a ballgame, man, and move on to the next one. Whatever else you'd like to put on the Giants' win Sunday -- whatever you want to use it to prove or predict -- for them it was all pretty simple.