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Giants vs. Commanders: Week 13 storylines to follow

SAQUON-SWEAT-STORYLINES

Following a mini-bye due to last week's Thursday game, the Giants have returned to the Quest Diagnostics Training Center for the final stretch of the season.

The Giants had a couple of extra days to think about their 28-20 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Dallas Cowboys, a game in which the Giants were dominated in total yards and time of possession. The loss marked the first time this season in which Brian Daboll's squad lost consecutive games.

They will look to regain their early-season momentum on Sunday when they take on the Washington Commanders. The two teams will face off for the second time only two weeks later, with the Giants facing off against the Eagles in between while Washington has their bye.

"I'd just say we're trying to get ready to play this week," Coach Daboll said Tuesday. "That's the most important game. It's the fourth game of our third quarter here in the season. And we're going to try to do the best we can to try to get ready."

Here are five storylines to follow in the Week 13 matchup.

1. 'Season starts now'

After jumping out to an impressive 6-1 start, the Giants have lost three of their last four games to drop to 7-4. Despite the recent rough stretch, the Giants still find themselves firmly in the playoff race as they currently hold the second Wild Card spot in the NFC. With six games remaining, the Giants are facing the toughest part of their schedule.

Following the Week 15 contest in Washington, the Giants close out the season on the road in Minnesota and at home against the Colts before traveling to Philly for the season finale. Five of those outings are against teams with winning records, including three games against the NFC's top two seeds.

"It's definitely exciting," rookie outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux said Monday. "Dabs talked to us today, and he kind of gave us that idea that the beginning of the season starts now. So, everything we've done has put us in position to go for it all. So, we can't get too far ahead of ourselves. But it is a big task at hand that we have."

"When you play meaningful games in December, I think that's why we all do this," Daboll added on Tuesday. "You go all the way back to OTAs and to preseason and the beginning part of the season; now you're in December. And I've been on teams that have played meaningful games in December, and I've been part of teams that haven't. It's not a lot of fun when you're not playing meaningful games. So, let's come to work with a great attitude, a positive mindset. Keep getting better. And you focus on the week's opponent: That's how you have to do it. But they're important games now."

2. Injury updates; reinforcements on the way?

For the first time in what seems like a while, the Giants received some positive injury news. At the start of the week, outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari (calf), guard Ben Bredeson (knee) and safety Tony Jefferson (foot), all of whom have been on injured reserve, returned to practice. Ojulari has only played in two games this season, as the calf injury caused him to miss the first two games of the season along with the past seven games. Jefferson suffered a foot injury in London in Week 5, while Bredeson hurt his knee against the Jaguars in Week 7.

In addition to the guys on injured reserve, several other players who have been recently sidelined were back on the practice field. Right tackle Evan Neal, center Jon Feliciano, cornerback Fabian Moreau and tight end Daniel Bellinger participated in practice on Tuesday. Neal has been out since hurting his knee in Week 7, while Bellinger suffered a serious eye injury in the same game. Feliciano and Moreau were hurt against the Lions in Week 11. Although it's only Tuesday, Daboll said it looks "promising for quite a bit of guys" ahead of Sunday's game.

"I would say relative to the guys coming back, there's still a few days here," said the head coach. "Let's get through practice today; let's go to the next day. I don't want to make some split-second decision. I think that's one of the reasons we're going pads: Let's work a little bit on the running game. Let's get some of these guys back and see how they operate in contact stuff…"

"I would say (Bellinger's) trending in the right direction. So, we'll see how it goes out there today, but I'm optimistic for Belly."

The only three Giants not practicing on Tuesday were guard Shane Lemieux (toe), guard Josh Ezeudu (neck) and cornerback Adoree' Jackson (knee). All three were hurt in the Week 11 loss against Detroit.

3. Getting Saquon back on track

One of the biggest reasons for the Giants' strong start this year was their success running the football. They had the league's top rushing attack for much of the first half of the season, but recent struggles in that department have led to some poor performances overall from the offense. After topping 125 yards in five of their first seven games, including three games with 235+ rushing yards, the Giants have reached the century mark on the ground only once in the last four games (Week 10 win over Houston).

"We've all been in this league a long time," said Daboll. "The last time that you haven't faced adversity will be the first time. You're going to face it. Week 1, Week 5, Week 10. So, the approach is to be consistent, like the message I've tried to give really since I've been here."

Opposing defenses have seemingly locked in on Saquon Barkley over the last month. The star running back ran for 152 yards on 35 carries (4.3 avg.) in the win over the Texans. But if you were to take out that game, Barkley has gained just 114 yards on 46 carries since Week 8, an average of only 2.5 yards per carry, while failing to reach 55 rushing yards in any of those three contests. He has been held in check in the passing game, as well, totaling just 10 receptions for 43 yards over the past four games.

Things won't necessarily get easier this weekend as Barkley goes up against a talented defensive front. The Commanders rank eighth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (108.4) and have given up just six rushing touchdowns in 12 games (rank third in the NFL). They are led up front by their pair or first-round defensive linemen, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.

View rare photos of the all-time series between the New York Giants and the Washington Commanders.

4. Situational defense

Heading into the team's Week 11 matchup against the Detroit Lions, the Giants had proven to have one of the top situational defenses in the league. In the Week 10 win over Houston, the defense held the Texans to just three third down conversions on 10 attempts, while they allowed only one of their four trips inside the red zone to result in a touchdown. Following that performance, the Giants ranked second in the NFL in both third down (32.7) and red zone (38.2) defense.

The unit has not found the same success over the last two weeks, however. The Lions converted six of 13 third-down attempts against the Giants (46.2 percent), before the Cowboys were successful on seven of 11 (63.6 percent). This dropped the Giants to seventh in the NFL in third-down defense (36.6 percent). In terms of the red zone, the Lions scored a touchdown on four of five trips inside the Giants 20, while getting a field goal on the fifth drive, and the Cowboys got into the end zone all four times they made it into the red zone. The Giants still rank fifth in the league in this area, but have seen their red zone defense drop to 48.8 percent.

The Commanders' offense has not found a ton of success in either area. Washington has converted on 36.8 percent of their third-down attempts (26th) while their red zone offense (53.1 percent) comes in at No. 20.

5. Scouting the Commanders

The Commanders began the season 2-4 with Carson Wentz under center. Taylor Heinicke took over in Week 7 and hasn't looked back. Heinicke has led Washington to victories in five of their past six games, with the sole loss coming against the Vikings. He has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,169 yards (194.8 avg.), seven touchdowns and five interceptions while adding a score on the ground. Terry McLaurin has been Heinicke's favorite target, as the talented fourth-year receiver ranks eighth in the league with 840 receiving yards.

Washington does not shy away from opposing teams knowing what they want to do on offense; they want to pound the ball on the ground. They have run for over 125 yards in six of their past seven games, including four games with 150 or more. Over the last three weeks, the Commanders have averaged 160 rushing yards, led by their pair of young running backs Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson.

Moving over to the defense, Sunday's game might represent the 2022 debut for the biggest name on the unit, defensive end Chase Young. The second overall pick in the 2020 draft has not played since tearing his ACL in Week 10 of last season. In 24 career games, Young has registered nine sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits along with six forced fumbles.

"We'll see how many snaps he plays when he gets back," Daboll said about Young. "Obviously, he's a dynamic guy with where he was selected, how he's played. All hands on deck."

If Young is active, he will join Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne on a stacked defensive line. Sweat currently leads the team with seven sacks, while Allen and Payne are at 6.5 apiece. All three have double-digit tackles for a loss.

"They're good at the run and the pass," said the Giants coach. "I think that's what (makes them so good). I think having strong fronts – both defense and offensively – is kind of where you want to build your football team. And they certainly have done it. I think the last eight games, they've up 16 points – that's without Chase. So, they've got some other good players in there – two 'Bama guys inside. I was with Payne for that one year. Allen. Sweat.

"They're challenging on both fronts. They don't give up a lot of points. They haven't given up a lot of points here in the last eight weeks or six and seven. I think they play physical style football. (Commanders head) Coach (Ron) Rivera – I got a lot of respect for him and how he. They're physical on both sides of the ball and the kicking game. That's what I think makes a good football team."

The defense took a recent hit when starting linebacker Cole Holcomb, who leads the team with 69 total tackles, was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. However, fellow inside linebacker Jamin Davis is enjoying a strong season as the second-year player has three sacks to go with his 68 total tackles. In the secondary, safety Darrick Forrest leads Washington with three interceptions, while veteran cornerback Kendall Fuller has a team-high 11 pass breakups.

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