EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Giants always knew the secret to winning football games, even when they went 6-10 last season. They just couldn't often do it, especially when games came down to the fourth quarter.
This season, the fourth quarter belongs to them.
They proved that on Monday night with one of their best finishes in years in their prime-time showcase against the Cincinnati Bengals. They snuffed Cincy's last drive with a fierce pass rush and back-to-back sacks. And then they ran the ball down the Bengals' throats, picking up two huge first downs and keeping the ball in their own hands as they celebrated a 21-20 win.
It was exactly the kind of game they would've blown one year ago, either with a bend-and-break defense or a running game that would have stalled.
But that was then.
"This team is totally different," said center Weston Richburg. "We can't even talk about last year because this is not … we would've lost that game. We would've lost the close games that we've won this year. This is a different team, different mentality."
It sure is now that they're 6-3 and well positioned for their first real run at a playoff berth since 2011. They had already felt good about their prospects this season thanks to the way their rebuilt defense was playing. They were just waiting for their supposedly high-powered offense to come around.
Maybe that's why coach Ben McAdoo kickstarted them on Monday night with several leaps of faith that buoyed his players' confidence. He began by taking the ball when the Giants won the opening coin toss, instead of deferring as he usually does. And the Giants responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive that might have been their finest all year long.
Then, early in the fourth quarter, he fired his players up by ordering them to go for it on 4th and goal from the Bengals 3-yard line when they were trailing 20-14. The result of that was a three-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard.
But the best moment came with 2:50 remaining, with the Giants facing a 3rd and 6 from their own 45 and the Bengals out of timeouts. It seemed a lock that the pass-happy McAdoo would call anything but a running play. But he did. In fact, he called one that allowed Eli Manning to check into another one. And Rashad Jennings rewarded him by bursting up the middle for nine yards and a first down that all but sealed the win.
"It felt good. It's something we hadn't done previously this season," said right tackle Bobby Hart. "We wanted to put it on our backs for once. The defense played a hell of a game once again. Just to be able to keep them on the sideline and be able to finish the game was just awesome."
"You saw it on our faces. You saw our emotions. That was a big deal for us," added tackle-turned-guard Marshall Newhouse. "There's nothing better. We always say we want to end the game with the ball in our hands."
The irony is that it wasn't a strong game for the Giants offense, which stalled for a while after the opening drive. And with Victor Cruz sidelined, Eli Manning couldn't get much going in the passing game. He completed 28 of 44 passes, but only for 240 yards.
The run game, though, burst out of nowhere with 122 yards, including a season-high 87 yards on 15 carries for Jennings. And his timing couldn't have been better since 45 of those yards game in the final nine minutes of the game.
The opportunity was there because McAdoo made it clear he wasn't afraid of what had been the worst rushing attack in football. He made sure they knew he believed in what they were able to do.
"He showed trust in us," Jennings said. "He kept going with the run. That's the trust in the offensive line, the back, the tight end. Those are the kinds of things we know we're capable of doing."
"When the coach goes all out for you like that," Hart said, "you don't want to let him down."
The Giants didn't. And they haven't. And that's why this season is so different. It was ironic that they won like this on the night Tom Coughlin was inducted into the franchise's Ring of Honor, since winnings games like this is something they were unable to do for him at all last year. The Giants blew an NFL record five games in which they led in the fourth quarter last season, no matter how many times Coughlin implored them to "Finish."
The difference is that on Monday night, like they have for most of this season, they did.
"To be able to finish the game in the four-minute offense says a lot about your team," McAdoo said, "and a lot about your offense."
"He had the faith in us to get it done," Richburg added. "That was awesome."