Let’s be honest. There were times long before Jason Pierre-Paul blew his right hand apart in a July 4, 2015 fireworks mishap, particularly during 2013 and the majority of the 2014 season, that it was fair to wonder if JPP would ever be a great player again.
You could never question his heart, but there were physical questions about his back and his shoulder even before 2015.
The last two weeks, especially Sunday’s three-sack, fumble recovery for a touchdown, forced fumble, seven tackle game, have shown us that, yes, mangled hand and all Pierre-Paul can still be a dominant football player.
Jason Pierre-Paul is 1st player in NFL with 3+ sacks & 40+ yard FR-TD in same game since 1982 (when individual sacks became official stat) pic.twitter.com/vBNhfe4PWu— Randall Liu (@RLiuNFL) November 27, 2016
Pierre-Paul was questionable Sunday with a knee injury, but we all knew that if he wasn’t in a hospital bed he would be playing. We didn’t know how well, but he answered with the most dominant stat line of his career, his first three-sack game. He now has 5.5 sacks over the past two weeks and a team-leading seven for the season.
Olivier Vernon on JPP: "He’s been playing like a monster, man.''— Paul Schwartz (@NYPost_Schwartz) November 27, 2016
The play that finally gave the Giants some breathing room, though, was Pierre-Paul’s 43-yard fumble return after Johnathan Hankins had separated Josh McCown from the football midway through the fourth quarter.
Pierre-Paul plucked the ball, officially called a fumble, out of the air. Forty-three yards later, the Giants had a 14-point lead, 20-6.
“It’s an interception, man,” Pierre-Paul said. “I knew one of these days I was gonna catch that ball.”
The Giants now know Pierre-Paul can be a dominant force regardless of whatever limitations he has due to his hand, and that they have an outstanding pair of bookends in Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon.
Let’s see what else we learned on Sunday.
The Giants are set up
The Giants’ victory, even if it wasn’t pretty or overwhelming, sets them up nicely for a playoff run. They are 8-3 and currently hold the No. 5 seed in the NFC.
The Giants have a difficult finishing stretch (at Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. Dallas Cowboys, vs. Detroit Lions, at Philadelphia Eagles, at Washington Redskins). It is hard to imagine that the Giants will roll through those games like they have the lesser competition they have faced in recent weeks.
Even if the Giants go 2-3 over their remaining five games, they would reach the 10-win plateau. The Giants were shut out of a playoff berth during a 10-win 2010 season, but 10 victories should be enough to get them to the postseason. They have a pretty good shot now of reaching that mark.
The Giants are set up. Now, can they close the deal?
Defensive line can deliver
Now, THAT is what the Giants paid for. The Giants spent massive free-agent dollars on Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Pierre-Paul. They will have to spend big money to keep Johnathan Hankins after this season. Granted, they were playing against at awful Cleveland line, but Sunday they looked worth whatever amount of money it took.
Pierre-Paul was dominant, as we discussed above. Vernon had 1.5 sacks despite working against All-Pro Joe Thomas. Hankins had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Harrison had nine tackles and a forced fumble, controlling the middle.
The Giants needed all of it to dispatch the Browns.
Nat Berhe’s season might be over
Berhe left the game after a second-quarter kickoff and was quickly diagnosed with a concussion after taking a blow to the head. That was the second concussion of the season for the backup safety. Just a guess, but after missing four weeks the first time, Berhe could be headed to IR.
Kick, punt return in flux
Dwayne Harris, the team’s usual punt and kickoff returner, was replaced on Sunday. After a week in which special teams coordinator Tom Quinn questioned Harris’s decision-making, that sure seemed like a benching, though McAdoo tried to says Harris has “been nicked up” and was not demoted.
Bobby Rainey took over, but was replaced on punt returns by Beckham after a second-quarter. It is going to be difficult to keep Beckham off punt returns after watching him have a 59-yard return for a touchdown and a 27-yard return nullified by penalties. McAdoo said Beckham is “electric” with the ball in his hands. Officially, Beckham returned three kicks for 35 yards, averaging 11.7 yards per return.
No matter how good he is in the role, I doubt the Giants want to see Beckham returning punts full time. So, how that shakes itself out going forward will be interesting to watch.
Harris told reporters after the game his physical condition more than anything else led to Sunday’s switch:
"I didn't return today because I'm banged up," Harris said. "Wrist, finger, toe -- whatever you can name, I'm probably banged up on. They were just trying to keep the hits to a minimum, so that's why I didn't return today.'