NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, November 27, 2015, 12:34 AM
Prince Amukamara spent his bye week watching football, with his eyes focused squarely on the NFC East. And when he saw that Washington and Philadelphia had lost on Sunday and that Dallas had won, he immediately called a member of the Giants staff and asked “What does this mean?”
He was told not to worry about it, to “focus on ourselves.” Then he was reminded that if the Giants keep winning “we don’t have to worry about anybody else.”
That’s easy to say, of course. But in a locker room filled with players who’ve never been in meaningful, late-season games before, it may not be so easy to do. The Giants can feel there’s something different about these games right now because beginning with their game in Washington on Sunday, they’re heading down the stretch with a legitimate shot at the playoffs for the first time in three years.
That’s a huge deal, the stakes are high, and they’re absolutely aware of the big picture, no matter how hard Tom Coughlin tries to make that picture seem small.
“If it looks too much like this is a must-win game, it can put a lot of pressure on,” Amukamara said. “So that’s what he has us doing — focusing on ourselves. He always tells us, ‘Just go hard for four quarters, and I’ll tell you what happened when the game is over.’ But I think everyone knows how important this game is.”
“You can sense the opportunity,” added running back Rashad Jennings. “It’s not lip service. Everybody can say ‘One game at a time’ and we understand that’s how we’re going to take it. But you bet your bottom dollar our eyes are on the prize.”
The prize, of course, would be the Giants’ first playoff berth since 2011. And the stakes are even higher considering a playoff berth is the only sure-fire way to ensure that Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese get to keep their jobs. That could make for a very tense final six weeks of the season, considering the Giants (5-5) haven’t exactly pulled away in their division, especially since all six of their upcoming opponents are close enough to at least think they’re in a playoff race.
That’s why this game in Washington could be considered a must-win game — or at least as much of a must-win as there can be at this stage of the season for a first-place team. The Giants may control their own destiny, but they know that control is fleeting. One loss and they go from being chased to chasing. They’d go from the driver’s seat to the edge of their seat instead.
“We know it’s an important one,” said Eli Manning. “Every game counts right now. Every one is important. Every one is big. Every one is going to be a deciding factor in how the season ends.”
This one, though, could give the Giants something they haven’t had much of in Coughlin’s 12 seasons — a little breathing room down the stretch, especially after what turned out to be a huge Thanksgiving Day for them. The Dallas Cowboys’ 33-14 loss to Carolina dropped them to 3-8 and all but ended their hopes of a miracle finish. The Philadelphia Eagles’ 45-14 loss in Detroit dropped them to 4-7 and left them looking like a team in disarray.
So if the Giants win Sunday, they’ll have a two-game lead with five to play and they’ll own the tie-breaker over Washington (4-6), too.
The Giants can’t win the NFC East on Sunday and they can’t lose it either. But they can either make their lives much easier or that much harder — and that matters when they’re playing in a largely unfamiliar position and they can absolutely feel the tensions running high.
“Yeah, we need to get back to the playoffs,” said Jason Pierre-Paul. “It’s been a while.”
It has been a while — a long while. Only five of the Giants who’ll take the field on Sunday — Manning, long-snapper Zak DeOssie, linebacker Mark Herzlich, Amukamara and Pierre-Paul — were on the Giants’ last playoff team in 2011. Only four others — receiver Rueben Randle, cornerback Jayron Hosley, tight end Larry Donnell and defensive tackle Markus Kuhn — the last time they really stayed in the race into December, in 2012.
Last year the Giants were officially eliminated from contention while they were home enjoying Thanksgiving. Two years ago they had virtually eliminated themselves with an 0-6 start to the season, even though it wasn’t mathematically official until Dec. 8.
So this is new and different to most of Coughlin’s players.
“We’re right here in the heart of it,” Jennings said. “It’s not every day that you can wake up and say we’re in the NFL, playing for something.”
What Coughlin wants them to play for, of course, is just a win on Sunday. He doesn’t want them worrying about the standings or the ramifications just yet. But he’s not hiding the importance of the game either. At this point, that would be impossible to do.
“I tell them and they understand it,” Coughlin said. “We try to make everything absolutely clear, absolutely understandable, the circumstances, as we go along.”
He just doesn’t want his players to be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar pressure. He doesn’t want them to feel the tension. He wants them to enjoy the moment instead.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Coughlin said, “compared to where we’ve been the last couple of years.”