CLEVELAND (AP) — The football popped into the air and Jason Pierre-Paul knew exactly what to do next.
Use both hands.
“I knew one of these days I was going to catch the ball,” he said. “I knew if I was ever catching a ball, I’m going to the end zone.”
Pierre-Paul returned a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown and recorded three sacks to lead the New York Giants to their sixth straight win, 27-13 over the Cleveland Browns.
Eli Manning threw three touchdown passes — two to Odell Beckham Jr . — as the Giants extended their longest winning streak since 2008 and moved closer to securing their first playoff berth in five years. The Browns (0-12) have lost 15 straight dating to last season.
With the Giants (8-3) slogging through a game where they seemed to be playing down to Cleveland’s level, Pierre-Paul helped New York open a two-touchdown lead and avert disaster with his third career touchdown — maybe one that meant a little bit more to the defensive end.
Under pressure, Browns quarterback Josh McCown was hit as he threw by New York’s Jonathan Hankins and the ball was corralled by Pierre-Paul, who tucked it under his left arm and rambled untouched for the TD to give the Giants a 20-6 lead. It was another stirring moment in the comeback for the 27-year-old Pierre-Paul, whose career was nearly ended by a horrifying fireworks accident in 2015, when he lost his index finger and parts of two others on his right hand.
The fumble return only reaffirmed Pierre-Paul’s return to form as an elite player, coming a week after he had 2 1/2 sacks, forced a fumble and deflected a pass in a win over Chicago.
“I’m not proving anything,” he told reporters Sunday. “I told you all last year when I came in, I already won.”
Pierre-Paul is the first player to have three sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown of at least 40 yards since 1982, when the NFL first recognized individual sacks as an official statistic.
His humility after the performance was just as impressive. He has been an inspiration to his teammates, who have marveled at his resiliency.
“He’s basically taken over these last two games,” Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “I’ve been a fan of JPP since he came into the league, and knowing what he’s been through, it’s so encouraging to watch him now.”
Pierre-Paul’s TD was originally ruled an interception before being changed to a fumble.
“It was an interception,” he said with a laugh. “How else can you get seven points? The ball never touched the ground, so we’re going to call it an interception.”
The Giants recorded seven sacks on McCown, who said there are few players as tough to block as Pierre-Paul, who was limited in practice this week because of a knee injury.
“He is a big dude and a heck of an athlete, and he plays hard,” McCown said. “You have those types of things where he has a very rare skillset for that size and speed. That is what gives him an edge.”
Here are a few other takeaways from the Giants’ win:
NEW ROLE? Beckham had a 59-yard punt return TD called back by a holding call, but that didn’t stop him from celebrating in the end zone.
As he mimicked the powder toss made famous by Cavaliers star LeBron James, a close friend, Browns punter Britton Colquitt informed him the play was coming back.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care, I still ran it back on you,’” Beckham said.
Giants coach Ben McAdoo wouldn’t commit to Beckham taking over return duties.
DOWN BROWNS: Cleveland is four losses from history, and first-year coach Hue Jackson may have reached a breaking point.
Jackson’s eyes teared up when discussing a nightmarish season that is almost over. The Browns are trying to avoid joining the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams, and Jackson is vowing his team won’t be bad in 2017.
“I am not feeling like this next year,” Jackson said. “There is no way. Uh-uh. No. I am a fighter, and I don’t lose many fights.”
WAR OF WORDS: Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor and Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins won’t be exchanging Christmas cards.
Despite Pryor catching six passes for 131 yards, including a 54-yarder, Jenkins ripped him on Twitter following the game with a vulgar post. Pryor answered back with praise, writing “you are a great corner. Solid defender! You played a solid game. Good luck rest of year.”
Earlier in the week, Jenkins said Pryor, a converted quarterback, wouldn’t be a challenge and called him “another receiver, just bigger.”