How do the painfully average New York Giants have an 8-3 record?

The New York Giants don’t pass the eye test.

After Sunday’s 27-13 win over the winless Cleveland Browns, headlines will tout the Giants’ impressive six-game winning streak and the 8-3 record that gives them one of the five best marks in the NFL. Eli Manning’s modest passing day (15-of-27 for 194 yards) will be overshadowed by his three touchdowns, and the man who caught two of those scores will further the reputation and perception that he’s the most explosive playmaker on a contender, if not the entire NFL. You might even hear some praise of the team’s resilience, taking a day in which it didn’t bring its A, B, or C game and turning it into a two-touchdown win.

All that is a football combover — masking major problems of a team you could call one-dimensional and be overstating it by about half. The Giants didn’t bring their A-game to Cleveland because the Giants don’t have an A-game. They play ugly football. Their games are mostly unwatchable until the fourth quarter. In a down season for the NFC, but a great season for the NFC East, the Giants are a fringe playoff contender masquerading as an 8-3 power. It’s good work if you can get it.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 25: Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants looks on after throwing an interception in the closing minutes of their loss to the Washington Redskins during their game at MetLife Stadium on September 25, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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The New York Giants can’t run. Entering Sunday they were 31st in the NFL with five games of 65 yards or less. Against the Browns, with their zero wins and 31st-ranked run defense, Giants running backs had just 24 carries for 85 yards. (Only a 22-yard end around by receiver Sterling Shephard pushed the team’s rushing  yards over 100.)

The New York Giants have a middling passing attack. Manning, now 35 (somehow), is playing like, well, Eli Manning. He giveth and taketh away: Prior to Sunday, he had four games with three or more touchdown passes. In each of those games he threw an interception, throwing multiple picks in three of the four. (He broke that streak on Sunday with a three-TD, zero-interception afternoon.) With Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants have the explosiveness that always makes their air game dangerous, but it’s hardly the high-flying success a team needs with such a poor running game.

Teams can survive a mediocre offense — the Vikings are 6-5 with a horrible one. Denver won a Super Bowl last year. But that usually requires a top-five defense, and the Giants are right in the middle of the league, ranked 16th overall.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 27: Jason Pierre-Paul #90 of the New York Giants sacks Josh McCown #13 of the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 27, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Football is about more than numbers, as we’re reminded every week. Even there, the Giants are unimpressive by comparison.

They entered Sunday’s game against the 0-11 Browns having outscored opponents by a total of four points — winning seven games by 27 points and losing three by 23. The victory over Cleveland was their first of the season decided by more than a touchdown and increased New York’s point differential to 18, or just one point better than the 4-6-1 Cardinals. Football Outsider’s DVOA rating, as reliable an NFL team metric as there is (which is to say not especially reliable but still very interesting), has the Giants ranked No. 15, behind a number of teams flirting with a .500 record.

The Giants’ consistency is impressive — they’re never out of games but their opponents aren’t either. Even Cleveland was within one score midway through the fourth quarter in a game that saw the Giants punt nine times and have six three-and-outs against the second-worst defense in the league.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

So how do you get 8-3 from all that? You steal games like the one against the Saints, when the opponent forces three turnovers but only puts up 13 points. Or when the Rams throw four interceptions and the Giants still need a defensive stand at the end to avoid overtime. There was the time Manning threw an interception with less than two minutes to go, giving Philadelphia a chance to win late and when the Ravens blew a lead with two minutes left, saw the Giants score on a quick-strike TD to Beckham and still had chances to win the game as the final seconds ticked away. (Sense the theme.) Victories all.

New York has won games because of a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, a 66-yard touchdown with 90 seconds left and an opponent failing to get out of bounds before (admittedly) what would have been a long field-goal attempt to win. A gutsy, fourth-down gamble was the key play in a Monday night win over Cincinnati. Other successful fourth-down calls kept Giants close to the Bears in the first half of last Sunday’s win.

But through those eight wins, there’s a simple constant: The Giants earned them all. They’re deserved victories. It doesn’t matter how you get them, all that matters is that you do. Three of the Patriots four Super Bowl wins came on the final competitive play of the game and the other was decided on a final drive. The Giants twice defeated those Patriots in a Super Bowl in years in which they were a combined 19-13 with a plus-16-point differential. The process is overrated.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

New York gets it done. Eli converts the fourth downs. Beckham creates enough separation to pull away for that touchdown. New York’s defense comes up with the key third-down stop as often as the offense makes theirs. Overall, neither unit is anything special at converting or stopping those crucial downs. The offense ranks 27th in third-down percentage and 13th on fourth down. The defense has rankings of 13th and 16th, respectively. It’s the reason all 11 Giants games have been up for grabs in the middle of the fourth quarter. You get to eight out of 11 victories when, in the fourth quarter, you either match a team’s offensive ineptitude (as in the six-point win over the Bears), play the (heavily) bend and (somehow) don’t break game (like when they took a seven-point fourth-quarter lead against the Rams and saw L.A. run a 12-play drive that resulted in no points, went three-and-out, then saw the Rams run another 12-play drive that resulted in no points) or go out and make the plays (against the Bengals the Giants matched an Eli interception with an Andy Dalton one, sacked the Bengals QB twice on a crucial drive, stopped a third-and-one and converted a third-and-six with 2:40 left that clinched the game). There’s no recipe which is good because, if there was, the Giants would almost certainly botch it.

Looking in-depth at the stats and game logs you’d never think the New York Giants are an 8-3 team. The good news for them is the only number that matters is the digit in the win column.