The coaches shout: It is the fourth quarter now. This is the end. We cannot lose the fourth quarter. We can’t. We have to finish.
“That’s been their thing since back in training camp,” wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said.
Tight end Jake Ballard backed up Nicks. “It’s constant,” Ballard said. “Finish. Finish. Finish. Finish the game. They won’t let us slack off at the end of practice at all. It’s a top priority. And the more we do it, especially in games, the more comfortable we are when things get tight.”
Ballard conceded that fans might not be so at ease with the high-pressure emotional swings, but Giants players, at least, seem to be growing more comfortable in the fourth quarter. Their over the on Sunday was the Giants’ fifth game this season in which they had a fourth-quarter drive that could tie the score or put them ahead, and their fourth straight game in which the decisive score came with nine minutes or fewer remaining. The Giants (4-2) have won three of the four.
Sunday’s version of the late-game dramatics featured two important interceptions by Giants cornerback Corey Webster, a career day from running back Ahmad Bradshaw and an unflappable performance from , who did not throw an interception against a Bills team that came into the game as the league leader in forcing turnovers.
“We have been striving to finish and win the fourth-quarter battle,” Webster said. “We did just that.”
With the score tied, 24-24, and the Bills driving with four minutes left, a reprisal of last week’s disappointing loss to Seattle seemed more likely. The Bills had a first down at the Giants’ 27, when receiver Stevie Johnson made a quick move at the line of scrimmage and got a step on Webster as he sped down the sideline.
It had been a mostly difficult day for Webster. He had missed an important tackle, been late on several pass coverages and now seemed a step slow on what looked to be a game-winning play for the Bills.
As the ball started to fall toward Johnson, however, Webster accelerated. And as Johnson reached high to pull it in, Webster’s hands went higher. He cradled the ball as he fell to the ground at the Giants’ 5-yard line, holding on even as Johnson pulled his facemask to the side.
It was Webster’s second interception of the game (he also picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick earlier in the quarter), and he pranced to the sideline with glee. Minutes later, he was joined in celebration by the rest of his teammates. Manning led the Giants down the field for the go-ahead score, with Lawrence Tynes’s 23-yard field goal with less than two minutes to go providing the final margin.
It was an important win for the Giants, who, with a bye week, have two weeks to enjoy it. With the sting of last Sunday’s loss lingering and another rash of injuries sidelining their defensive captain Justin Tuck, their Pro Bowl right guard Chris Snee and the backup running back Brandon Jacobs, the Giants could have easily slipped again against the surprising Bills (4-2). Before Webster’s interception, it looked as if they might.
Instead, the Giants escaped with a victory on a day when Bradshaw scored a career-high three touchdowns, Manning passed for 292 yards and the defense rallied from an awful start to stand firm when the Giants needed it most.
Bradshaw was the finisher for much of the game, plunging into the end zone from 1 yard out on three occasions. When Bradshaw broke a 30-yard run to put the Giants into field-goal range on the final drive, it gave the Giants their first 100-yard rusher of the season (he finished with 104) — no small accomplishment considering the offensive line was operating with the backup Kevin Boothe in place of Snee.
“We knew if we kept pushing a little bit harder, we would get there,” left tackle Dave Diehl said. “Today was a total group effort.”
Stopping the run had also been a problem for the Giants, and much had been made of the defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s connection to the Bills. Fewell spent four years coaching in Buffalo and was the interim head coach for the final seven games of the 2009 season.
Buffalo Coach Chan Gailey had been concerned about Fewell’s familiarity with the Bills, but Fewell’s greatest focus in the buildup was on his own team. The Giants entered having allowed an average of 159.3 rushing yards a game over the previous three weeks, an ominous number because Bills running back Fred Jackson was averaging 96 yards a game on his own.
Early on, it looked as if nothing had changed. After the Giants went ahead with five minutes remaining in the first quarter on Bradshaw’s first score, Jackson immediately responded with an 80-yard touchdown run. Linebacker Michael Boley did not fill a hole, safety Deon Grant took a poor angle and cornerback Aaron Ross could not make a touchdown-saving tackle.
The Giants’ defense followed that by taking another hit, as Fitzpatrick found receiver Naaman Roosevelt for a 60-yard touchdown catch-and-run just before the end of the first quarter. This time, it was Webster and the backup cornerback Justin Tryon sharing the role of hapless would-be tackler, and Coach Tom Coughlin had a stunned look on his face as the Bills danced in the end zone.
“We could have let those two plays determine the outcome of the game, but we didn’t,” safety Antrel Rolle said. “We played relentless.”
They did. After struggling in the first quarter, the Giants’ defense held Jackson to 39 rushing yards the rest of the game, limited Fitzpatrick to 130 passing yards in the second half and did not allow the Bills to even get a first down on their final drive of the game. When Fitzpatrick’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 59 seconds left, the Giants had sealed a victory that will fit nicely alongside their thrilling wins over Philadelphia and Arizona.
“It was about fighting,” Coughlin said. “We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game.”
With these Giants, it seems as if it always is.