There's a well-known, oft-repeated adage that says it's not how you start, it's how you finish. And if the season so far is any indication, there's not a team in the NFL that lives by that maxim more religiously than the New York Giants.
Battered, shorthanded and still stinging from last week's oh-so-close loss to the division rival Philadelphia Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champs took the field Sunday amid a cold rain on a blustery afternoon that seemed to match their attitude and their outlook at kickoff.
Then, before most fans could find their soaked seats and get their ponchos situated, the Giants had a potential disaster on their hands, finding themselves trailing the winless Cleveland Browns 14-0.
As New York allowed two quick scores, one on a Trent Richardson touchdown run set up by an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble and the other on a 62-yard rookie-to-rookie bomb from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon, you couldn't help but think back to the Giants' last home game, when they allowed Tampa Bay to take leads of 17-6 and, later, 27-13.
And fortunately, much like that Week 2 win over the Bucs -- when New York outscored Tampa Bay 28-7 over the final 15:39 -- the Giants on Sunday regained their composure and found their groove, eventually running away with a 41-27 win to move to 3-2 on the season.
Over a 50-minute stretch from the 10-minute mark in the first quarter to the five-minute mark in the fourth, New York outscored Cleveland 41-6, a run sparked by three touchdown catches from Victor Cruz and a career-high 200 yards rushing from Ahmad Bradshaw.
"I felt great today coming into the game," Bradshaw said of his performance, which came on a career-high 30 carries. "I was excited because we were planning on running the ball a lot. ... My hat goes off to my linemen. They did a great job; they couldn't have done any better. There were holes everywhere, and all I did was just run."
New York's stellar middle sandwiched between a bumbling start and finish wasn't always pretty, and it certainly didn't go the way head coach Tom Coughlin drew it up, but the Giants will take it any day of the week.
"We talk about starting well, starting fast, and that's what the idea was," Coughlin said. "But we talk about finishing too, and we did finish."
New York truly did seem headed for disaster from the very start, when Bradshaw coughed up the football on his first rush of the game after running into guard Chris Snee.
The fumble was the first of the year for the sixth-year pro, who has spent most of the last two weeks ignoring Giants fans calling for backups Andre Brown and David Wilson to get more touches. The criticism and the fumble seemed to be just the push Bradshaw needed to wake up and start running for his job.
"I started the game off great with that fumble," Bradshaw joked afterward. "And I just fought back. I stayed hard on myself off the fumble, and I wanted to use it when I had the ball in my hands today. I ran angry today; I was mad at myself."
Bradshaw carried the ball 15 times for 80 yards and a score in the first half, and after a stunning turn of events that included both an interception and a fumble recovery by safety Stevie Brown, New York -- which trailed 17-10 with 4:00 left in the second quarter -- took a 27-17 lead into the break.
"Obviously it's never written up that you're down 14-0 after four minutes go by, but (you know) there's still plenty of time left in the game," said Brown, who has stepped up in a banged up secondary that was without Kenny Phillips and Jayron Hosley on Sunday. Antrel Rolle and Corey Webster were also questionable with injuries, but both played against Cleveland.
"You've just got to stick with it and keep playing and make sure you can fight back and get back into it."
The Giants then took a 34-17 lead with 5:06 left in third quarter on Cruz's third touchdown catch of the game, this one a 28-yarder from Eli Manning, who threw for more than 200 passing yards (259) for the 24th straight game. There was even more pressure for Manning and Cruz to produce on Sunday than usual, because the Giants were without receivers Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden, who were both inactive.
"Nobody was nervous; we just understand we've got to keep plugging away," said Cruz, who now has a league-leading 37 catches through five games. "We've been in this position before, and we've got to keep punching and keep putting drives together. We understand that with Eli at the helm and him knowing what he's doing and receivers being on the same page, offensive line blocking, we're going to be OK."
When New York is on its game, as it was for most of the day Sunday, it can be every bit the championship contender they were touted to be coming into the season, and the Giants have proven that they can play with anyone. Between Bradshaw's newfound confidence and Manning and Cruz's strengthening bond, New York's offense can be tough, and sometimes impossible to stop -- as Cleveland found out.
"I'm sure it sends a message to everybody," said Bradshaw, who may need to get used to the heavy workload after Andre Brown left Sunday's game with a head injury. "I'm sure everybody knows what we've been doing, what we can do, and this just shows it."
However, starting next week, in a rematch of last year's NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Giants are going to have to start being unstoppable a little earlier in the game. Because the Niners sure as heck aren't the Browns, and by the time you get down 14 on a team like that, it may be too late to come back.
"San Francisco is a very good team, and we'll have to be at our best," Coughlin said. "I'd like to get some folks back on the field; that might help."
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