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Giants vs. Vikings: Wild Card storylines to follow

DJ-COUSINS-STORYLINES

Giants playoff football is officially here.

Brian Daboll and the New York Giants (9-7-1) began on-field preparations Wednesday for their Wild Card matchup against Kevin O'Connell and the Minnesota Vikings (13-4). It's the franchise's first trip to the postseason since 2016.

Although the stakes are obviously higher, coach Brian Daboll has kept his team focused by keeping their same consistent approach they've taken all season.

"I'd say we're 0-0. It's a new season, so we got to do a good job of preparing and practicing the right way to play our best on Sunday..." Daboll told the media Wednesday. "Win, move on. Lose, go home. It's not overly complicated. We're playing a game. You've got to earn it to get there. And now you got to do things you got to do to try to play your best and coach your best. "

Here are five storylines to follow in the Wild Card matchup:

1. 'We believe in our process'

It would be difficult to classify Brian Daboll's first season as head coach as anything short of a major success. Daboll led the Giants to nine wins and a trip to the postseason just one year after the team went 4-13. They picked up several big wins along the way, from the season-opening win in Nashville to the playoff-clinching victory over the Colts on New Year's Day. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the team throughout the season, Daboll's approach has remained the same week in and week out. Don't expect that to change now that they've reached the postseason.

"We really believe in our process and being consistent – whether that's a preseason game, a game you have to win to get into the playoffs, a division game," Daboll told the media Monday. "I think that throughout the season, you go through a lot of different things. To (a previous) question, you go through some failures. You go through some successes. You go through some tough games on the road when everybody's against you. You go through some big games, whether that's a night game on a Sunday night against a division opponent or a Thanksgiving (game).

"You've went through these experiences, and each week you learn. You might not learn for that necessary next game, but I think those collective experiences, you lean on those. But in terms of our preparation for our players, for our coaches, it'll be – a boring word – but it'll be consistent. We believe in what we do. We believe in how we do it, and then we have to go out there and execute and call a good game and make good decisions. Again, what wins in Week 1 wins in the playoffs. And that's the truth."

In their opening-round matchup, the Giants get a rematch against the Vikings. The two teams met on Christmas Eve and put together one of the season's more exciting outings. It was a back-and-forth affair that featured the Giants overcoming a 10-point deficit to take the lead before the Vikings eventually won on the foot of kicker Greg Joseph, who connected on a career-long 61-yard field goal as time expired.

"Next team on the list," Daboll said about facing the Vikings. "When you get to this time of year, you don't really focus on brackets. You knew going into the game yesterday it could be one of two teams. Both teams (San Francisco 49ers) are very good with very good records. One we have played and are familiar with. Much like I said earlier, kind of the Washington three-week kind of deal there where we played Washington then another team then Washington again. But it's a great environment up there. Really good team, good coaching staff, competitive, won a lot of football games. So, we've got a lot of work to do."

2. Can DJ, Saquon keep it rolling?

The Giants may not be where they are today if not for the strong play of two of their offensive captains, starting with Daniel Jones. The fourth-year quarterback put together the most efficient season of his four-year career under Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka. Jones set career-highs with 3,205 passing yards, a 92.5 passer rating and a 67.2 completion percentage. In fact, his completion percentage established a new franchise single-season record, beating Eli Manning's mark of 66.0 percent set in 2018.

Jones' impressive season goes beyond those numbers. He also led all starting quarterbacks with a 1.06 interception percentage this year with only five picks on 472 pass attempts. This represents the highest number of passes a Giants quarterback has attempted with so few interceptions in franchise history. His 12 games without an interception marked the most number of starts without a pick in the NFL this season (no other QB has more than 10). He also had a record-breaking season on the ground as he became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history with 3,200+ passing yards, a 65+ completion percentage and 700+ rushing yards. He finished with 708 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

"I was always confident this would happen, and we would have this chance, largely because the guys we have in the locker room, the type of guys they are and how close we are as a group," Jones said about making the postseason. "We had some tough years, but I think we learned a lot. That's helped us get to where we are now. I think (I've) just always been confident in the group, the type of guys that we have, and ultimately that that would lead to success."

Saquon Barkley also enjoyed a strong campaign under the guidance of Daboll and Kafka. The fifth-year running back rushed for a career-high 1,312 yards on 295 carries, good for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and 10 touchdowns on his way to being selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time since his record-breaking rookie season in 2018. He moved ahead of Ahmad Bradshaw (4,232 years) into sixth place on the Giants' all-time rushing list with 4,249. Barkley also added 57 receptions for 338 yards.

Jones and Barkley found a lot of success against the Vikings on Christmas Eve. The fourth-year quarterback threw for 334 yards, his second-highest total of the season, with one touchdown and one interception while adding 34 yards on four carries (8.5 avg.). Meanwhile, Barkley needed just 14 carries to gain 84 yards (6.0 avg.), which included his clutch 27-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-2 late in the fourth quarter. The talented back played a big role in the passing game, as well, tying Isaiah Hodgins and Richie James with a team-high eight receptions that went for 49 yards.

3. Slowing down Jefferson & Vikings offense

Any discussion about the Vikings' offense must start with Justin Jefferson. The 23-year-old receiver had a record-breaking campaign in just his third NFL season as he led the NFL with 128 receptions for 1,809 yards and added eight touchdowns. Jefferson became the youngest player in NFL history to lead the league in catches and receiving yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and his receiving yards finished as the sixth-highest ever in a single season.

In the first game against the Giants' defense, Jefferson matched his season-high of 12 receptions, which went for 133 yards and a touchdown. Jefferson came through with the biggest offensive play of the game for Minnesota when he took a screen pass 17 yards to set up Joseph's game-winning field goal. Daboll knows that slowing down the All-Pro receiver must be the defense's top priority on Sunday.

"I said this before when we played them – there's not a lot of teams or a lot of players that can just stop him," the head coach said about the Vikings' star receiver. "He's one of the best in the league. He's a dynamic player. He has got a lot of production. He's an exceptional route runner. He's a very tough player to defend."

Tight end T.J. Hockenson also did a lot of damage in the last meeting. Hockenson matched Jefferson with a whopping 16 targets, finishing with a team-high 13 receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns. It was the second game this season that the tight end had over 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns, with the first one coming in Week 4 while still a member of the Detroit Lions. He recorded 86 receptions for 914 yards and six touchdowns across 17 games with the two teams and earned his second Pro Bowl selection in four seasons.

Vikings wide receivers Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn must also be contained. Thielen ranked second on the team with 70 receptions for 716 yards and six touchdowns, while Osborn was right behind him with 60 receptions for 650 yards and five touchdowns.

Minnesota's offense also boasts the talented running back duo of Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. Cook ran for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns on 264 attempts (4.4 avg.) and added 39 receptions for 295 yards and two additional scores. Mattison totaled 374 yards and six touchdowns on 89 total touches (74 carries, 15 receptions). The pair ran for 81 yards on 18 carries in Week 16, an average of 4.5 yards per carry.

"I think we just try to put a plan together that we think is best for competing against their offense," said Daboll. "They have a lot of good players on their offense. (Tight end T.J.) Hockenson killed us. So, (Kirk) Cousins is an excellent quarterback. (Running back Dalvin) Cook can take it the distance. They have a lot of talented skill players, a good quarterback. We're going to have to play a really good, sound defensive game."

View photos from practice as the Giants get ready for their Wild Card matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.

4. Giants pass rush vs. Minnesota O-line

The Giants finished the regular season with 41 sacks, which ranked 13th in the league. The pass rush is facing a great opportunity to pressure Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins this week. The defense recorded four sacks of Cousins on Christmas Eve, with Jaylon Smith, Landon Collins, Leonard Williams and Azeez Ojulari each picking up one. Ojulari was forced out of the game after the sack due to an ankle injury. The ailment limited him to just 22 snaps, or 31 percent of the Giants' defensive plays. Ojulari and Williams, who has been dealing with a neck injury, have had two full weeks to heal and hopefully will be closer to 100 percent come Sunday.

On the flip side, Minnesota placed right tackle Brian O'Neill on injured reserve last week. O'Neill didn't miss an offensive snap this year until he suffered a calf injury in Week 17 against the Packers. After earning a trip to the Pro Bowl last year, he followed with another strong campaign as one of the Vikings' top linemen. Additionally, starting center Garrett Bradbury hasn't played since hurting his back in Week 13 against the New York Jets. Bradbury might have a chance to suit up this weekend, but his inability to practice last week makes his status unclear. He was a limited participant in the first practice of the week on Wednesday. Austin Schlottmann, who had started four games at center in place of Bradbury, was also placed on injured reserve last week with a fractured left fibula. This left third-string center Chris Reed as the starter in the regular-season finale. However, the Vikings did designate tackle Blake Brandel to return to practice Wednesday. Brandel started Weeks 12-14 before a knee injury landed him on injured reserve.

"In regard to Garrett, the hope is that we can get him practicing this week," Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell told reporters earlier this week. "The hope is that we can have him out there, more than likely limited, on Wednesday and then we'll see if we can build his work in throughout the week and see how he feels. Ultimately, I just want Garrett to give it a go and see if he can turn the corner and possibly help us, but at the same time, I don't want to put him in a position where he may not be the best or feel like he's held back at all."

The Vikings allowed 47 sacks this season, the eighth-most in the NFL, including 13 in the final three games leading up to Week 18. With Minnesota's O-line down at least one and possibly two starters and the Giants' pass rush getting closer to full health, Martindale may be able to take advantage of this matchup.

5. Injury updates; Adoree' close?

With the postseason officially underway, the Giants appear to be as healthy now as they were at any point during the regular season. Three players were listed on the final injury report last week that were eventually listed as inactive for Sunday's regular-season finale – defensive lineman Leonard Williams (neck), outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari (ankle) and cornerback Adoree' Jackson (knee).

Williams and Ojulari played against the Colts on New Year's Day before sitting out Week 18, with the former playing 31 defensive snaps (53 percent) and the latter on the field for seven snaps. Williams has been dealing with a neck injury over the last few weeks, while Ojulari injured his ankle sacking Kirk Cousins in Minnesota on Christmas Eve.

Daboll told the media Monday that he expected both Williams and Ojulari "to do stuff at practice" this week, along with Jackson. The veteran cornerback has been sidelined since the Week 11 game against the Detroit Lions when he hurt his knee returning a punt. Jackson has been a limited participant in practice every day the last two weeks before being listed as doubtful on the final injury report. The 27-year-old corner appears to be nearing a return, which the defense could use with a matchup against Justin Jefferson coming up.

Daboll expressed some optimism Wednesday that the three defenders, all of whom were listed as limited in the first practice of the week, could be ready to go this weekend.

"I think everybody will practice," Daboll said. "Maybe some will be more limited, but I'm encouraged where everybody's at."

If Williams, Ojulari and Jackson are all able to suit up in Minnesota this weekend, it will be the first time the entire starting defense will be on the field together this season.

Center Jon Feliciano (back) and safety Jason Pinnock (shoulder) were also limited in Wednesday's practice, while safety Xavier McKinney (fingers) was a full participant.

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