The sweet, innocent climb to relevance and respectability that earned the Giants this unexpected meaningful December game is now in grave danger of concluding as little more than a fleeting visit to Big Blue heaven in a hot air balloon that deflated and fell back down to earth.
Of course few should have expected the Giants to upset the Browns with backup Colt McCoy quarterbacking and backup play-caller Freddie Kitchen play-calling, and so now, after Browns 20, Giants 6, the season is on the brink.
Joe Judge’s game plan: Give Colt McCoy help.
Because Colt McCoy (19-31, 221 yards) wasn’t about to engage Baker Mayfield (27-32, 297 yards, 2 TDs) in any shootout.
The Giants weren’t going to fight fire with fire, weren’t going to beat Mayfield and the Browns kicking field goals.
So here came Riverboat Joe:
A trick-play failed-fake field goal on fourth-and-5 at the Cleveland 8 that tricked his own team as much as it tricked the Browns cost them three early points.
A failed fourth-and-2 run up the middle out of the shotgun at the Cleveland 6 cost the Giants three more points.
Judge figured that with his backup quarterback and his backup play-caller, he would have to throw caution and convention to the wind.
The wind threw it right back at him.
“I’m not afraid to call things aggressively; I’m not afraid if I think we have a good scheme in the kicking game to call a fake; I’m not afraid to run the ball on fourth-and-1, and we’ll play to our defense at times.
“When you make calls like that, you let your players understand that you have confidence in them, and that they can play the game aggressively.
“I can’t tell them all week that they have to go into this game with an aggressive mindset, and then hold them back at some point when we feel we have a chance to make a play.”
Completely understand the philosophy. But you also cannot afford to come away empty. Because you are damned if you do.
“You hit that thing, you’re the guru,” Judge said. “You don’t hit that thing, everyone wants to second-guess the decision, and I understand that completely.”
Baker Mayfield versus Colt McCoy was never going to be a fair fight, plain and simple. So Judge was left to try to steal one any way he could with Daniel Jones inactive.
“If you want to point the finger at anybody, you can point it at me,” McCoy said.
He was being too hard on himself. McCoy took a few more downfield shots than expected, and he managed himself an error-free game, but there was no magic, no finishing drives, no getting his team in the end zone this time.
“My frustration lies in we have to be better in the red zone,” McCoy said. “A lot of that’s on me.”
There was plenty of magic from Mayfield, who didn’t have to worry about quarantined Giants shutdown corner James Bradberry.
There was really only one way for the Giants to win this one: show up as one of those Dream Teams whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
That meant every last Giant on the field and on the sideline rallying around McCoy like there was no tomorrow.
It meant the offensive line making sure that Myles Garrett, and to a lesser degree, Olivier Vernon, did not wreck the game — which they didn’t.
It meant running the ball effectively enough (21-74) to keep McCoy from operating a one-dimensional offense, which they didn’t.
It meant good old-fashioned New York Giants Dee-Fense.
The Browns, contrary to popular belief, did not try to run it down Big Blue’s throats with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Mayfield threw it down Big Blue’s throats instead.
“If we didn’t have respect for him then,” Logan Ryan said, “we definitely have it now, because he definitely was one of the most efficient quarterbacks we went against this year.”
The fake field goal on the opening possession fizzled because punter Riley Dixon threw high in the middle of the end zone for center Nick Gates.
“I thought it was a well-designed fake,” Judge said.
When Judge went for it on fourth down in the second quarter, Wayne Gallman was stuffed after 1 yard.
It was 13-3 at the half and McCoy’s right arm isn’t equipped to play catch-up against a more mature, more advanced, better team.
Next week: The 5-9 Giants travel to Baltimore to face the surging Lamar Jackson Ravens.
The first-place 6-8 Washington Football Team host the Panthers. … Ron Rivera versus his former team.
Say it ain’t, Joe.