EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jason Pierre-Paul was going to find a way to impact this game, even if he couldn't get on the field to do it. So he did it with a video he made for his team to watch on Saturday night, and again with a fiery speech in their huddle after pre-game warmups.
The message was simplly that, "Everybody needs to step up," linebacker Devon Kennard said, "and if we really wanted it we could go get this win."
They wanted it. They stepped up. And thanks to a stellar defensive performance in the first game since Pierre-Paul was lost for the regular season, the Giants earned one of their biggest regular-season wins in years.
Make no mistake about it: The Giants' 10-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys was all about the Giants' JPP-less defense. The Giants' offense was atrocious, save for one short pass that Odell Beckham Jr. turned into a 61-yard touchdown. They were given ample opportunity to put the game away, but instead they kept putting it back in their defense's hands.
Those hands, though, are strong and more than capable. They held the Cowboys to just 260 yards and basically derailed their two Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates. Running back Ezekiel Elliott did have 107 yards, but just 21 on nine carries in the second half. And quarterback Dak Prescott, who threw just two interceptions in the first 12 games of the season, threw two more against the Giants and was a miserable 17-of-37 for 165 yards.
Prescott, playing behind the NFL's best offensive line against a defense that was missing one of it's best pass rushers, looked like a rookie -- which was all part of the Giants' defensive plan.
"We flustered him, I feel like," Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "We gave him some different looks. We were throwing some different personnel at him. We blitzed him, played different coverages, so we gave him some different stuff. We didn't just sit there and let him figure out what we were in and pick us a part.
"So people weren't where he wanted them to be at. We were jamming some guys, giving them some re-routes. We pressured him, we mixed it up a little bit. I think he got frustrated."
It was so bad for Prescott that he connected with his best receiver, Dez Bryant, on just one of the nine times he threw in his direction, thanks to stifling coverage by the Giants' secondary, specifically cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Bryant, by the way, fumbled his one catch with 2:13 remaining when Jenkins dislodged the ball.
But the defensive confusion was much more than that. The Giants played safety Landon Collins very often as a linebacker in the middle of the field, with cornerback Leon Hall coming in as the deep safety. That essentially neutralized Jason Witten (four catches, 26 yards), who figured to have a big game given the way the Giants have trouble with tight ends. And they got pressure without Pierre-Paul thanks in part to a big game from his replacement, rookie Romeo Okwara, but they also got a huge game from Kennard, who wreaked havoc with his speed lining up at both defensive tackle and defensive end.
All of those were wrinkles they've shown before, but not nearly as often nor as effectively as they did on Sunday night. But they all knew they'd have to do a little bit extra against the Cowboys, even before they played Pierre-Paul's video.
"He's a playmaker, so it takes one extra play Landon needs to make in the game, one extra play JC (Casillas) needs to make," Kennard said. "So it's not just the guy in his exact position, but everybody in their own role needs to do something a little extra to account for such a dynamic player that JPP is."
Nowhere was that total team contribution more evident than in the fourth quarter when the Giants' offense seemed to do everything it could to give this game away. It started when Eli Manning (17-of-28 passing, 193 yards) was picked off at the Cowboys 15 with 9:40 remaining, giving Dallas a chance to erase the Giants' 10-7 lead. The defense stopped them on a big third-down sack by Kennard to give the ball back to the Giants' offense.
The Giants' offense, in fact, would get the ball three more times in the fourth quarter. Every single time they went three-and-out.
"Eli throws a pick and the defense is saying, 'Good,'" Casillas said. "Not good that he threw a pick, but good that we get to go back out there on defense again. We love playing with each other. We love playing for each other. It's a great group. We're all close."
So in the fourth quarter they got big plays from defensive end Olivier Vernon, Jenkins, Okwara, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Collins and Kennard. The Cowboys had the ball in their hands four different times in the fourth quarter, trailing by only a field goal.
They got one first down in those four drives and totaled only 23 yards.
That's a championship performance by a defense. That's a performance that surely made Pierre-Paul proud.
"We played phenomenal," Jenkins said. "We all stepped up. DBs, linebackers, defensive line, we all played together. I've been saying it since the beginning of the year: We can be as special as we want to be. We just have to continue to buy in."