First down on the 27, already in field-goal range, the seemed to have the Giants right where they wanted them, where they were the previous week, about to cough up a close game at home.
That’s when Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard-educated quarterback, flunked the fundamental question on the deep sideline route. He underthrew his receiver, Stevie Johnson, leaving Corey Webster in prime position to turn around the game’s momentum, the disquieting mood at MetLife Stadium and maybe the Giants’ season — or at least the first half of it.
“I wanted to get inside of him,” Webster said of Johnson, whom he was chasing on the left sideline, just inside the 5, with four minutes and change left in a 24-24 game. “Hopefully you get your head turned around and go for the ball.”
Turn around and turnarounds. It was appropriate word play for a day on which the Giants’ defense began by surrendering 14 points on two plays that covered a combined 140 yards. When they remembered that defense does require tackling, the Giants reversed field and fortune in a 27-24 victory that sent them into their bye week at 4-2, thinking they had survived a brutal run of preseason injuries in pretty good shape.
“To have the bye and to be an optimist, if I might, maybe we will get some guys healthy,” said Coach Tom Coughlin, whose team was without defensive end Justin Tuck again and running back Brandon Jacobs, among others.
Coughlin hedged on the hopefulness because this is the N.F.L., where enduring parity has been achieved almost to the point of parody, where most games are as predictable as a gust and where Coach barely knows who will suit up week to week.
A week ago, against Seattle, Coughlin must have felt mighty optimistic when the Giants were driving for a potential game-winning touchdown, only to have Eli Manning’s short pass to Victor Cruz turn into a pinball and run back the other way more yards than Coughlin could bear.
Be it coincidence or karma, Webster’s fourth-quarter interception that started the Giants on a 76-yard drive resulting in a deciding 23-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes was made in the general vicinity of the previous week’s Manning-Cruz crusher.
On Sunday, Manning was mostly patient and pick-free while throwing for 292 yards. Fitzpatrick, one-time master of the Wonderlic, was perhaps left wanting to beat his own brains in for Webster’s interceptions. Especially the second one, unforgivable as it was given the circumstances. “I’ll take that matchup every time, and if I throw a good ball on that, Stevie scores and everybody is happy,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s easy to second-guess it now, but I thought it was a great call and I thought it was the right play.”
A debatable claim, to say the least. But that the Bills were even bidding for their fifth victory in six games was testimony to a crazy-quilt season that has already given us a stunning assortment of the ascendant (Lions, 49ers, Bills) and descendent (Eagles, Jets, Colts).
In a league whose current champion is the municipally owned property of Green Bay, in which Los Angeles doesn’t even rate a team, a season’s overriding success is seldom linked to size of market or sexiness of franchise. It’s the beastly nature of the game, the uncertainty of Sunday, which has turned the N.F.L. into the envy of all competing sports leagues, especially the one currently in collective bargaining limbo.
By themselves, the Giants have become a weekly soap opera. They were declared a disaster in the making after Week 1 at Washington, then a remake of “Little Giants” after they ran off three straight victories despite being patched together with sticks and glue, and a team on the brink of a nervous breakdown after the way they lost to Seattle last week.
“We talked about positive energy, because there was so much negative out there,” Coughlin said.
He was brimming with his own while praising Manning, Ahmad Bradshaw for his 104 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns, and the playmakers on defense who recovered from the unsightliness of Fred Jackson’s 80-yard touchdown run and Naaman Roosevelt’s 60-yard catch and run to the end zone about five minutes apart in the first quarter.
Especially Jason Pierre-Paul, who sacked Fitzpatrick for a 9-yard loss at the Giants’ 37 midway through the second quarter, pushing the Bills out of field-goal range. On the Bills’ next drive, he and Osi Umenyiora stuffed Jackson for no gain on third-and-1 at the Giants’ 31, forcing the Bills to settle for a field goal. In a 3-point victory, the play, though forgotten by the finish, loomed large.
“You never know what’s going to happen in this game,” Pierre-Paul said. “You give up a couple of big plays, but at the end of the day, you move on.”
You take the fourth-quarter gift from Fitzpatrick, drive the ball down the field and cringe when Manning forces a pass to Mario Manningham on third-and-5 from the Buffalo 5.
Cornerback Leodis McKelvin knocked it down, only a step from the unspeakable. “I tried to put it low and maybe squeeze it in,” Manning said. “It’s always a tough situation right there.”
Could have been worse, much worse, a turnaround to turn the stadium upside down. But this week, the football gods smiled on them. Parity rules.