The Giants had a chance to move into first place Sunday night. In Week 15 of the NFL season. Still playing meaningful games a few days before Christmas. Such was the state of the NFC East. Such was the state of their modest but significant improvement on display this season.
By the end of the evening, the Giants and Joe Judge were put in their place. They were outclassed by the Browns, losing 20-6 at MetLife Stadium, once again putting an embarrassingly unproductive offense on the field and this time getting some shaky decision-making from their rookie head coach.
First place felt a million miles away.
The word that comes to mind: Outclassed.
Colt McCoy, starting in place of injured Daniel Jones, was wholly ineffective, unable to get the Giants in the end zone. When he was able to move the ball, points did not materialize on the scoreboard after Judge eschewed two field goals in the first half for a bad fake and a failed fourth-down run. It was as if Judge had no confidence his team could stick to its usual script — play close, tight games and make if a four-quarter battle.
McCoy was 19-for-31 for 221 yards — much of his yardage came in garbage time — and without much of a running game did not come close to duplicating his upset in Seattle when he subbed for Jones two weeks ago.
Baker Mayfield (27 of 32, 297 yards, 2 TDs) enjoyed a rocking chair game, throwing free and easy from the pocket, rarely touched, often able to choose from an appetizing array of open targets as the Browns improved to 10-4 and moved closer to solidifying their first playoff berth since 2002.
Unless the Giants players and coaches were on radio and television silence and steered clear of social media for the entire day, they knew how they fared around the league in Week 15 before ever taking the field. From their standpoint, two out of three wasn’t bad. Their closest rival in the NFC East, the Washington Football Team, lost to the Seahawks 20-15. The Cowboys moved out of last place, beating the 49ers 41-33. The Eagles went down in Arizona 33-26.
All in all, not a bad turn of events for the Giants. They could have moved ahead of Washington (6-8) and back into first place in the division, based on sweeping the two-game season series. That did not happen. Instead, they fell to 5-9 and into a tie for third place with the Cowboys (5-9), with the Eagles (4-9-1) in last place. Washington controls its destiny in the division and the Giants probably need to beat the Ravens and Cowboys to have any chance to extend Judge’s first season.
The Giants had three red-zone trips in the first half and came away with only three points, and Judge has to take the heat for the lack of production. Twice, he waved off short field goals and twice he came up empty. As a result, the Giants trailed 14-3 at halftime.
It was as if Judge did not believe his team could hang with the Browns unless he took big swings. Judge missed, twice.
The Giants got the ball first and advanced to the Browns 5-yard line. Judge sent out Graham Gano but the field goal unit immediately shifted with holder Riley Dixon dropping back as a quarterback. He took the snap and chose a bad option, throwing the ball over the reach of center Nick Gates. It was a lousy fake attempt.
Next, the Giants used some solid running by Alfred Morris to get to the Cleveland 5-yard line. Again, Judge had no interest in tacking on three points. He went for it on fourth-and-1 and Wayne Gallman was stopped for no gain when Sterling Shepard failed to prevent his man from getting into the backfield.
Backed up deep in their own territory, the Browns made the Giants pay for the gamble, as they embarked on a 10-play, 95-yard drive culminated in Mayfield’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry, who leaped over Isaac Yiadom in the back of the end zone. The Browns led 13-3 after they missed the elongated (48-yard) extra point created by a Landry taunting penalty.
McCoy was 6 of 12 for 91 yards in the first half. His most notable pass was one he did not connect on. He had tight end Evan Engram open from the Cleveland 19-yard line but the ball hung up, allowing safety Karl Joseph to arrive and knock the ball from Engram.
The Giants played without James Bradberry, their top cornerback, who is in self-isolation as a high-risk close contact after his chiropractor tested positive for COVID-19. That sapped the secondary of an irreplaceable defender and the coverage suffered in a big way. They could not deal with the tight ends the Browns put into routes and Mayfield had easy pickings, as he was rarely pressured as he rolled out of the pocket.
The Browns, already in control, put the hammer down as they put together another 95-yard drive, with Nick Chubb cashing in from a yard out early in the fourth quarter.