-- EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants safety and human fire emoji Landon Collins has dyed his hair blue. He wears it in neat braids atop his head, with the sides cut short, in sharp contrast to his unruly black beard. But the biggest differences between Collins' 2015 rookie season and this one are the look in his eye and the number (four) in the interception column. All four of those interceptions have come in the past three games, all of which the Giants have won.
"I'm being very accountable," Collins said after helping lead the Giants to a 21-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football. "Last year, I had a bad season, and I'm making up for it."
He could be speaking for the entire Giants defense, which is the biggest reason the team has already won as many games (six) as it did in each of the previous two seasons. So much of the early-season focus was on Odell Beckham Jr. and Ben McAdoo, the new head coach, who was the young, hotshot offensive coordinator. But while the Giants' offense has struggled to find its footing so far, the defense has been making sure they turn fourth-quarter leads into wins instead of heartbreaking 2015-style losses.
"We're 6-3. I haven't been 6-3 since I've been here," Beckham, the third-year superstar, said after the game. "It's a good feeling."
Last season?was a parade of bad feelings for the Giants, who blew five fourth-quarter leads in Tom Coughlin's forgettable final season as coach. This season, the close games are breaking their way. They have won four games in a row with an average margin of victory of 4.3 points. They have the third-best record in the NFC even though they've allowed more points than they've scored.
Why? Because they're not giving up points when points would hurt the most. Only eight defenses in the league are allowing fewer points, on average, in the fourth quarter than the Giants' 5.33. Last year, they averaged 8.75 points allowed in the fourth quarter -- tied for worst in the league with the Saints.
Now, you know the Giants spent big to improve that defense, signing top-of-the-market free agents Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins and bringing back Jason Pierre-Paul. Watching Monday night, you could see the payoff: Jenkins holding Bengals star A.J. Green to a pedestrian 68 yards on seven catches; Harrison anchoring a run defense that allowed only 78 yards; Vernon muscling his way past the Bengals' line and meeting Pierre-Paul and Friends at the quarterback. The Giants have just 14 sacks this season -- more than only two other NFL teams. But two of them came on the final two offensive possessions the Bengals had on Monday, and they basically sealed a one-point win.
"Our job as a defensive line is to stop the run and get to the quarterback," Vernon said. "I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight."
The broader effect of the defensive infusion, though, is that it allows coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to maximize the players he has and put the combinations on the field that he prefers. Rookie Eli Apple has clearly usurped former starting cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who frustrated the Giants' coaching staff the past two years with inconsistency and by asking in and out of games. Vernon is a versatile enough player that Spagnuolo can run sub packages where his pass-rushers move inside, the way he used to do it with Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck in his 2007 glory year.
But there's no greater difference than what's showing up in the play of Collins, who was NFC Defensive Player of the Week each of the past two weeks and kept the train rolling with a fourth-quarter interception of Andy Dalton on Monday. Cincinnati was driving inside Giants territory with a one-point lead and 11 minutes, 35 seconds left in the game when Collins made his weekly huge play. And if his teammates were surprised it was only because it had taken that long.
"He's amazing right now," Pierre-Paul said. "Not a different guy, but a better player. Smart."
Collins agrees that he's a better player than he was a year ago. The Giants moved up to draft him at the top of the second round in 2015, and coming out of Alabama he was used to success. But his rookie year was a rough one. Without a true free safety on the roster, the Giants too often forced Collins out of his comfort zone and into coverage, which is not a strength of his game. The improved depth of talent on the defensive side of the ball this season?allows Collins to do more of what he's good at -- play closer to the line, deliver big hits and take advantage of his playmaking ability -- while the overall coverage forces a quarterback into mistakes.
Monday night, Collins said, Dalton was staring down his tight end and Collins didn't have coverage responsibility on the play. He recognized the routes the receivers were running, saw that everyone was covered and moved the ball where Dalton was telegraphing it. Interception No. 4.
No big deal, really, because Collins believes he owes all of this. Last year sticks with him. It haunts him and drives him.
"Just not being accountable," he said of what went wrong in his rookie year. "Not making the right calls, not being in the right position, being out-leveraged. I knew the defense by the end of the year, but it's night and day now as far as knowing the defense, being sound, being in the right position. It's so much better now."
The Giants' defense this year is allowing 359.3 yards per game, good for just 16th-best in the league. But those figures last year were 420.3 and 32nd-best. The stats put them in the middle of the road, but it's possible no single unit in the NFL is more improved over last season than the Giants' defense. Personified by its red-hot, blue-haired second-year star safety, it is -- as he described it -- "so much better now." And the difference is right there in the standings.