Giants' new formula of relying on their defense has them on verge of a playoff berth

0:47 | NFL
Sunday's Top Performers: Week 15
Monday December 19th, 2016

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — After his team won its biggest game of the season, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. took the game ball, which had just been awarded to him, into the Giants’ locker room. He got linebacker Jonathan Casillas’s attention, then rolled the ball across the floor toward him, and by extension, the rest of the defense he captains.

“You guys deserve it,” Beckham told him.

That actually happened last week, after the Giants finished off a 10–7 pitchers’ duel—highlighted by a patented Beckham circus catch—to sweep the season series with the Cowboys. But it could just as well have taken place after their most recent victory, on Sunday, as the Giants knocked off the Lions 17–6 in Week 15.

On a dreary day at the Meadowlands, the Giants rode their new formula—rely on the defense to keep the game close, then string together enough short offensive plays to allow their stud wideouts to explode occasionally—to pick up their 10th win of the season for the first time since 2010. The means are different from those of the last two playoff teams, which relied largely on a strong ground game and an adequate defense, but the end could be the same: a deep postseason run.

That would come as a relief for at least one of New York’s young stars.

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“I hope it doesn’t get taken wrong, but I’m very greedy with myself,” Beckham said after the game. “It’s never enough… I’ve been preaching about the Super Bowl.”

This is not a Barry Sanders situation. Beckham, playing in his third year in the NFL, just turned 24 in November, and the Giants have shown a willingness to assemble the right pieces around him. Yet it’s cruel that the league’s most exciting player has spent the last two seasons cleaning out his locker just as the league’s most exciting games begin. He makes his most stunning plays when the audience is biggest, and he talks openly about his legacy. At the moment, that legacy is mostly scores of barbershops learning to recreate his trademark blond-topped burst-and-fade hair for their teenaged clientele and legions of Pop Warner players flying through the air with one hand outstretched, but it’s a shame that the spectacle ends there.  

But that could change this year: If the Giants win either of their next two games, they clinch a wild-card spot. So in some ways it seems fair that a player who has accounted for 27% of his team’s yards since he entered the NFL will likely see his first postseason thanks to the strength of his defense.

“Man, I’m running out of adjectives for those guys,” says receiver Victor Cruz of the unit.

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Unrecognizable might be a start: This off-season, New York guaranteed $19.4 million to the best available defensive end (Olivier Vernon), cornerback (Janoris Jenkins) and run-stopper (Damon Harrison), replacing Robert Ayers, Jayron Hosley and Markus Kuhn. Last year’s corps allowed 28 points per game, good for 30th in football; this year it’s down to 19, and seventh, and it’s only getting better. Since the bye week, which defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo spent modifying their third-down defense, the Giants have allowed opponents to convert a league-best 26% of such plays. They have not allowed a touchdown in seven quarters, and they have intercepted more passes (three) than given up field goals (two) over the last two games. Even after All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was lost for the season to a hernia in Week 13, and Jenkins left Sunday’s game with a back injury, the unit looks well-positioned for January.

Which it will have to be. Cruz and Sterling Shepard combined for a whopping five catches and the Giants gained 114 yards on the ground—and those were viewed as encouraging signs. Quarterback Eli Manning threw for 201 yards on Sunday, his best total in a month, and his teammates answered questions about him with assurances that he would be fine, that he plays his best when the moment is the biggest.

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“If you can get Eli to the playoffs, you can roll the dice,” said Casillas after the game, before amending his statement to include his receiving corps.

Then the captain of perhaps the best defense in football tugged on a Yankees cap and loped out of the locker room and into the tunnel, where he came upon a fan visiting as part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Antonio Shelton, 14, is recovering after successful April surgery to remove a brain tumor. Antonio gaped as Casillas signed his hat, and after the player walked away, the grin on the young man’s face was almost as bright as his Odell Beckham hairdo. 

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