Stating the obvious, there are a lot of good things that have come out of this season for the New York Giants. Near the top of list must be creating a winning culture or mindset. Success creates success. The players believe they can win because they have done so. Important steps on this journey in 2022 were the upset wins against the Titans, Packers, and Ravens before the bye week when the team surged to a 6-2 record. Perhaps the most important post-bye game in terms of impacting team confidence was the Christmas Eve defeat to the Minnesota Vikings just three weeks ago. At the time, the Vikings were 11-3 and considered one of the best teams in the NFC. The Giants were coming off of their critical second game against the Commanders, but had gone 0-3-1 in the four games before that contest. The expectation at the time was that the Giants would be handily defeated by the Vikings and Eagles in the last three regular-season games, and would have to beat the Colts to secure a playoff spot. While this is in fact what happened, the Giants-Vikings game on Christmas Eve was far more competitive than expected. Indeed, it took a 61-yard, last-second kick for the Vikings to avoid overtime.
The most important thing that came out of that game was that the team now knew it could compete at that level. Indeed, the overriding feeling in the fan base (and probably the team itself) was the desire to face the Vikings again. Three weeks later, here we are. In between, the Giants’ win over the Colts was far easier than expected, and group of backups gave the Eagles a tougher game than expected. The Giants seem to be surging at the right time.
That does not mean the 2022 New York Giants have become a Super Bowl-caliber team. Far from it. This roster still has glaring weaknesses at many spots. And depth is razor thin. But some of the luster has also come off of the Eagles, Cowboys, and Vikings in recent weeks. There is a growing sense that if this team can just stay healthy, they might create some noise in the NFC post-season tournament.
Win or lose, at this point what is important for the Giants as a franchise under Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll is the playoff experience. The 1986 Super Bowl champions needed the 1984 and 1985 playoff experiences. The 1990 Super Bowl champions needed the 1989 playoff game. The 2007 Super Bowl champions needed the 2005 and 2006 playoff experiences. There is something to learn here, to grow from. The longer they can keep this ride going, the better.
THE INJURY REPORT:
- WR Marcus Johnson (knee – probable)
- OC Jon Feliciano (back – probable)
- RT Evan Neal (ankle – probable)
- DL Leonard Williams (neck – probable)
- OLB Azeez Ojulari (ankle – probable)
- CB Adoree’ Jackson (knee – probable)
- S Jason Pinnock (shoulder – probable)
- S Xavier McKinney (fingers – probable)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
In my preview between these two teams from a few weeks ago, the gist of my offensive preview was Daniel Jones and the New York Giants offense was going to have to score more than their usual 20 points per game to have a chance to win. At the time, the Vikings were 8th in scoring offense, averaging 25 points per game, and dead last in yards allowed (almost 400 per game). The Giants had a mini-offensive explosion that day, scoring a whopping 24 points. It wasn’t enough.
Minnesota finished the regular-season 7th in total yards gained, 6th in passing yards, 28th in rushing yards, and 8th in scoring (still around 25 points per game). The challenge remains. The Vikings are going to move the ball and score. The New York offense has to keep pace. The good news is that Jones and the offense did have one of their better games against the now-ranked 31st defense in the league (31st against the pass, 20th against the run, 30th in scoring). Jones was 30-of-42 for 334 yards and a touchdown. Saquon Barkley ran the ball 14 times for 84 yards (6 yards per carry) and a touchdown. The Giants had a season-high 445 total yards. The bad news were the mistakes, a rare interception by Jones this season and a fumble by Daniel Bellinger. Both turnovers came when the Giants were inside Minnesota territory and driving for points. In a game decided on a 61-yard field goal, the Giants lost the critical turnover battle 2-0. That was the difference in the game.
The other macro-level point is that, unless something strange happens, this is going to be a nail-biter. This is just the way both of these two teams play. The Vikings were -3 in point differential in 2022; the Giants were -6. Most of the games the Giants and Vikings play are close and decided in the 4th quarter. The Giants have been good in winning 4th-quarter games; the Vikings have been outstanding. No lead is probably safe.
Aside from the two turnovers, a few other things hurt the Giants in the first game. There were a few dropped passes (two uncharacteristic drops by Richie James and one characteristic drop by Darius Slayton). The offensive line also had a rough game against one of the more-talented set of edge rushers in Za’Darius Smith (10 sacks) and Danielle Hunter (10.5 sacks). Right tackle Evan Neal struggled against Hunter and allowed 1.5 sacks, multiple QB hits, and a bunch of pressures. Neal was also added to the injury report this week with an ankle issue that he suffered in practice on Thursday. LT Andrew Thomas gave up a couple of pressures that led to sacks. The interior line had problems too, particularly with stunts. Ex-Giant Dalvin Tomlinson was fired up against his old team.
It will be interesting to see how Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka approach this game. Despite their two outstanding edge rushers, the Vikings are terrible against the pass. And Jones did throw for over 300 yards against these guys just three weeks ago. Early in the game, even wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins was surprisingly getting the best out of their top corner, Patrick Peterson (though Peterson got his revenge with a timely interception). Statistically, Hodgins and James had their best games of the season. The damage could have been worse had the NYG receivers not dropped a few passes. However, the offensive line did struggle in pass protection, particularly Neal. The match-up against him and Hunter is not a good one. Also keep in mind that Barkley averaged six yards per carry, but he only carried the ball 14 times (he did have eight catches). The Giants only ran it 21 times total, with Jones having only four carries. Do the Giants go with a heavier emphasis in running the ball this time around? That may be the safer route, but it’s not usually the best for scoring points. On the flip side, it would help to keep Minnesota’s explosive offense off of the field. Tough decisions.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
It’s this side of the ball where things get really interesting. There are some key take-aways from the last contest between these two teams and some significant changes.
On December 24th, the Giants allowed 23 first downs and 353 total net yards to the Vikings. The bulk of those yards came via the passing game (270 net yards). But the 83 yards in rushing is a bit misleading as Minnesota ran the ball only 18 times with their backs. This was consistent with the Vikings’ pass-centric offense all year. The good news for the NYG defense was the 4 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, 6 tackles for losses, and 7 pass defenses. The bad news was zero turnovers created, including two dropped interceptions.
There are some significant injury-related developments to note. CB Adoree’ Jackson and S Xavier McKinney missed the last game. OLB Azeez Ojulari left the game in the first half with an ankle injury after being credited with 2 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, and sack. DL Leonard Williams also left the game in the second half a neck/burner issue. He returned, but his play seemed to be affected. The issue with both Ojulari and Williams is not just their availability to start a game, but to be able to play the entire contest at a high level. To be blunt, the Giants need them to stay on the field and play well through pain.
The additions of Jackson and McKinney could be huge. Fabian Moreau was abused by WR Justin Jefferson in the first game, catching 12 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown. But much depends on how many snaps Jackson can play, and how rusty/effective he will be after missing two months of action. The return of McKinney increases team speed/range in the secondary, allowing for greater flexibility in covering Jefferson. The Giants can now also use McKinney, or Julian Love more since he shifts back to strong safety, in covering tight end T.J. Hockenson, who killed the Giants with 13 catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns. Landon Collins, who played 49 percent of defensive snaps in the first game, should also see more playing time in lieu of Micah McFadden, who had his issues in coverage. The domino effect on the return of McKinney should not be underestimated. Love could be a huge player in this game as a moveable chess piece. Love may also have a chip on his shoulder after just missing breaking up a touchdown pass to Hockenson in the first game.
For the Giants, there is good and bad news on the Minnesota injury front. In the first contest, Dexter Lawerence absolutely abused the back-up center. However, the Vikings get starting center Garrett Bradbury back. That’s a big deal. On the flip side, starting right tackle Brian O’Neill is out this time around. That should help the Giants’ edge rushers. Both O’Neill and LT Christian Darrisaw were a strength up front and now one of them is missing.
On Christmas Eve, the bulk of the Minnesota offense was Kirk Cousins throwing to Jefferson and Hockenson (25 of the 34 receptions and 242 of the 299 receiving yards). Running back Dalvin Cook also added 64 yards on 14 carries (4.6 yards per rush). The game plan is obvious. Try to limit the damage by Jefferson and Hockenson. When Cousins does put the ball in harm’s way, catch it. So much will depend on the availability/effectiveness of Adoree’ Jackson against Jefferson. The Giants should be in better position to deal with Hockenson this time around. The wild card is Dalvin Cook. He can break off game-changing runs if the defense is not careful.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
Terrible protection in the first game caused a punt block that set up the Vikings on a short field for an easy touchdown. Expect Minnesota to be coming after Jamie Gillan on every punt. All six New York kickoffs resulted in touchbacks in the first game. I hope that continues and the Giants simply avoid flirting with kickoff coverage breakdowns. Kick returner Kene Nwangwu was voted second-team All-Pro.
FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Head Coach Brian Daboll on playing the Vikings again: “I think any time you play a team for a second time – Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas – you always watch the previous game. That’s part of the preparation process. But we are full steam ahead on preparing, watching the games that they have played after us. We’ve already watched all the games before that. So, it’s really like playing another division team that you just played a few weeks ago and doing everything you can to prepare the right way.”
THE FINAL WORD:
Barring something strange happening, this is going to be a really close game again, probably a contest that comes down to a field goal. When you have two teams like this who play tight games almost every week, it usually comes down to things like red-zone efficiency and turnovers. Tell me who won those two stats on Sunday night and I’ll tell you who won the game. I would not be shocked if the Giants try to cross up the Vikings in the game and use a heavy dose of Barkley on the ground, perhaps doubling his carry total from the first game. They could also use more RPO with Jones to slow down the edge rushers.