PHILADELPHIA -- The particularly cruel gut punch was delivered to the New York Giants -- and possibly their entire season -- not by the stunning 61-yard field goal that gave the Philadelphia Eagles the victory Sunday, but by the realization that the G-Men may have found their offense, even as their own lack of discipline might have already made it too late.
The Giants lost 27-24 on Sunday, dropping into an 0-3 hole that no team since 1998 has crawled out of to make the playoffs. For the silver-lining crowd -- and in that, you have to include an unlikely adherent, receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who said this loss was not that frustrating -- the 24 points scored will provide a kind of balm. The Giants hadn't broken 20 in eight straight games going back to last season, and so the fruits of Ben McAdoo's decision to retain play-calling responsibilities but go up-tempo might at least be an indication that New York has taken a turn for the better.
"This was the first step of progress we had as far as team unity, playing all three phases," Beckham said. "We didn't finish all three phases, and as hard as it is to take the positives, this was a step in the right direction."
The crestfallen look on Eli Manning's face as he dressed told you he knows the real score. The Giants sputtered for three quarters, failing to record even a single point and moving the ball better than they have this season only to be stopped by questionable officials' calls, third-down failures and one terrible McAdoo play call at the goal line.
A brutal sequence at the end of the first half -- in which the Giants looked like they had two touchdown passes, only to have neither, before getting stuffed on a fourth-and-1 run -- summed up the futility that has bedeviled the Giants this season. It might haunt them even if that fourth-quarter burst proves to be more trend than aberration.
And even when the Giants began to score, they stumbled. Beckham's first touchdown, which pulled New York to 14-7, seemed to ignite the team. But then he crawled on the ground, and raised his leg as if he was a dog peeing on a hydrant. The resulting unsportsmanlike conduct penalty meant the Giants had to kick off from their own 20-yard line. On the next play, safety Landon Collins forced a Zach Ertz fumble, giving the Giants the ball back, and they scored quickly to tie the game. But McAdoo was clearly irked by Beckham's penalty, bringing up in his frustrated recitation of all that had gone wrong that the Giants should not be kicking off from the 20.
Beckham sloughed off the concerns.
"I was in the end zone -- I'm a dog, so I acted like a dog," he said. "I don't know if the rule book said you can't hike your leg. I was trying to find the imaginary ghost I peed on and I couldn't find it. I don't make the calls. I just play football.
"It didn't end up being detrimental."
He said he understood that McAdoo does not want to be kicking off from the 20-yard line.
"When I get in the end zone, I do what I do," Beckham said. "I'm going to try to spark this team. The consequences are going to be what they are. We were motivated from that. I don't think this set us back any."
Of course, he couldn't have known that at the time. And the fact that he was so sanguine about drawing the penalty -- when Evan Engram had also been flagged on a celebration penalty on the Giants' first touchdown of the season -- indicates that a lack of good judgment might be added to New York's long list of woes.
McAdoo will have plenty to ruminate over after this game, going well beyond Beckham's questionable decision-making. The most pressing may be whether McAdoo waited too long into the season to go up-tempo, or did Beckham's bad ankle make that impossible? The more vexing one may be whether this team can eliminate the mistakes that inevitably turn into insurmountable obstacles.
It might be tempting for the Giants to look at outside factors in this loss. Sterling Shepard seemed to have twice scored touchdowns on the same second-quarter drive -- once when the ball appeared to cross the plane of the goal line, and then when he took three steps in bounds in the end zone before dropping the ball out of bounds -- but came away with no points. McAdoo said after he is trying to figure out what a touchdown is. Malcolm Jenkins clotheslined Beckham in the fourth quarter when Beckham seemed lined up to make a big catch, and it's arguable that Jenkins could have been penalized beyond the pass interference he was called for. The Giants settled for a field goal on that drive, with 3:11 remaining, their final score of the game. Those are points off the board, perhaps as many of 11 of them.
Even a transcendent player like Beckham or a top defense like the Giants' unit can't overcome so many self-created setbacks. That goes to discipline, to a failure to pay attention to details. McAdoo was asked if he has a discipline problem on his hands and he pointed right to Beckham's penalty, a pretty clear indication of his frustration.
There were so many others McAdoo could have called out, too. The delay-of-game penalty offensive lineman John Jerry drew after he impeded a defensive player who was trying to leave the field on that same late field-goal drive. Or a holding penalty to left tackle Ereck Flowers when the Giants had the ball with under a minute remaining with a chance to drive for the winning score. No team can overcome a 28-yard punt that sails out of bounds with 13 seconds remaining. That miscue set up the 61-yard field goal that Jake Elliott blasted to win the game.
"Everything adds up in this league," McAdoo said. "Seven penalties, too many yards, the tempo worked for us as an offense in the ball game, but we had too many formation infractions there that hurt us."
Later, he added: "The first win keeps getting delayed. We are not playing well enough to win as a football team. We are irritable and we need to find a way to win a game. It's not going to get any easier."
It won't, and all signs point to a devastatingly disappointing season for a team that had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations just three weeks ago. If it does end in a tailspin of disappointment, the post-mortems will be lengthy and brutal and they will dwell on how no opponent hurt the Giants more than they hurt themselves.
But part of what makes Beckham so dangerous -- and also mostly charming -- is that he gives up on nothing, not the ball that seems to be sailing over his head, not the season that looks to be slipping away. His older teammates had said that the Eagles game was a must-win. Beckham sees things differently, his youth leading him to silly celebrations but also relentless optimism.
As daunting as the upcoming schedule and statistics are -- just three of 132 teams that started 0-3 since 1990 have gone to the playoffs -- the Giants are just two games behind the NFC East division leaders. The offense showed signs of life Sunday. Beckham said he felt good but tired, a sign that his ankle will no longer be a hindrance. The defense is reliably solid.
"I mean you, still have 13 more games," Beckham said. "If you win 13 and you're 13-3, you should be in the playoffs -- that's the bottom line. History was really meant to be re-written and broken in every single way. So again, I'm not going to sit here and panic. It's a long season. You're going to keep playing. What are we supposed to do, stop playing at Week 4?"
No, but starting to play smarter -- by all of the Giants -- would go a long way toward salvaging the season.