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The Giants defense has been way better than anyone could have thought

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A defensive resurgence is keeping the Giants in the playoff chase.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –- When the Philadelphia Eagles called timeout with 1:28 left for their fourth-and-10 play from the New York Giants’ 17-yard line, the Eagles choice was not a mystery. It would be a Carson Wentz pass. It would be intended for their best receiver, Jordan Matthews. And it would attack Giants cornerback Trevin Wade.

They knew it. The Giants knew it. We knew it.

Wade has been the opponents’ go-to guy often this season. He has been attacked mercilessly. He has struggled.

A touchdown would have pushed the Eagles ahead, 29-28.

"I knew they would be coming at me," Wade said. "I lined up in the slot on him (Matthews) and the first thing I wanted to do was take away the inside, the slant route. Once the play broke to the outside in the end zone, I just wanted to stay in it. Keep fighting. Stay tight."

He was so tight, in fact, that Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wentz’s pass "was thrown a little more to his (Matthews’) outside than where we’d like it." Wentz said he wanted to throw it more inside, not fade the pass so much, that he wanted to be more precise. Wade, however, did not allow it.

The Giants brought pressure on Wentz.

"The rush was on," said Giants linebacker Keenan Robinson, "the quarterback had to get rid of it faster and our whole thing was whoever was back there in the secondary on the ball had to execute, stand up, make the play, make the defense work – win the game."

Wade did.

The Giants won, 28-23, because Wade made his best play of the season on the Eagles’ final offensive play. They won because, against a Philadelphia offense that conceded little, the Giants defense conceded less.

This is new. The Giants defense last season blew six fourth-quarter leads, but now in three straight victories (Ravens, Rams, Eagles) has protected them. Sure, Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes against Philadelphia. But Manning’s interception with 1:48 left at the Giants’ 34-yard line forced a final defensive stand. Wentz moved his team to the 17, but no further.

Wade made certain he was not the weakest link. The Giants defense made game-swinging plays for the entire game. The Giants improved to 5-3, snapped a four-game losing streak to Philadelphia, and made this point –- they finally have a defense that matters.

* * *

It has been a numbing voyage.

Last season the Giants finished last in total defense. This year they rank 23rd overall but ninth in points allowed (164). Consider this: Halfway through the season, they have allowed fewer points than the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos defense (166).

They spent more than $200 million in the offseason for new defensive personnel and listened as defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo demanded a new commitment all around, especially in finishing.

A defense is the sum of its parts, though, and for this one, for any defense to rise, contributions must come from unlikely places. Like from the free agent Wade. Like from free agent safety Andrew Adams.

Adams intercepted Wentz on Philadelphia’s second possession. That led to a Giants offensive touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Adams, in the final seconds of the first quarter, got his fingertips on a Wentz pass meant for Mathews in the end zone that ruined the chance for an Eagles touchdown.

Adams was elevated from the Giants practice squad on Sept. 23.

"Trevin and I have kept this in common: Just keeping our heads down, showing resiliency and believing in the kind of athletes we are," Adams said. "I know he works hard. I know he hasn’t let the past haunt him. He stays prepared. He deserved to make that game-winning play. We love him for that. We are gonna love him no matter what happens. He’s that type of player and person."

There is something about Wade that made all of the Giants stay with him, believe in him. Maybe it is in part because of how he believed in himself. There is something about this Giants defense that makes you believe it can stick.

Landon Collins intercepted Wentz on Philadelphia’s first possession and that led to a Giants offensive touchdown. Twice the Giants thwarted the Eagles on fourth-and-short-yardage plays.

Their tackling was good, especially an early Collins one-on-one, sideline effort on the shifty running back Darren Sproles at the Giants’ 19 that limited Sproles to 2 yards when it looked as if he would get much more. Especially an early, sure tackle of Wentz for a 5-yard loss by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, where Pierre-Paul displayed discipline in staying home in his responsibilities.

These kinds of hidden plays kept occurring throughout the game. The Giants defense making sure it mattered.

They sacked Wentz twice, producing a third straight game with at least two sacks.

Philadelphia was 3 of 15 (20 percent) on third-down conversions. It was 1 for 4 (25 percent) on fourth-down conversions. Wentz did not throw a touchdown pass and finished with a 64.5 passer rating.

The Giants offense did not score a fourth-quarter point and Manning also threw a pick with 10:08 left at the Philadelphia 40-yard line. Even after that one, the Giants defense promptly forced an Eagles three-and-out.

"We went out there and played some great defensive ball," Pierre-Paul said. "No matter what situation that we get in, we just have to play some great defense. Everyone knows the Giants are based on great defense, so that’s what we came here to do."

It is what they have not done for the last four seasons – with 9-7, 7-9, and two 6-10 records, no playoffs and no defense that mattered.

* * *

Though rookie head coach Ben McAdoo is an offensive mind, he was expected to fix this defense immediately. He has also been charged to insert young players, to cultivate the entire roster. It was no accident that McAdoo kept referring yesterday to a bye-week look and return that featured renewed emphasis on "using all 46."

That would include Wade, 27, from Austin and the University of Arizona. He was drafted by Cleveland in 2012, a seventh-round pick and the 245th player selected. He spent a season in New Orleans. Another on Detroit’s practice squad. He joined the Giants last season. At times, he’s looked lost.

But on Sunday he strode from the locker room wearing a big, white Stetson cowboy hat, black, Ariat cowboy boots, a grand smile, and fresh confidence. His grandfather, Morgan Smith, gave him the hat.

"He’s all country," said Wade, laughing. "I’m one half country and one half city."

He is a favorite among the Giants. They revere the way he believes in himself, how he got off the floor, off his back, and onto his feet. He illustrates the evolution of their defense.