EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Joe Judge strongly believes his team is improving as it prepares to play a game that could improbably move them closer to serious contention for the NFC East title.
The Giants have won two of their last four games, beating the Washington Football team by a combined four points, including a 23-20 triumph yesterday in FedExField. Between the two triumphs, they lost to Philadelphia and Tampa Bay by one and two points, respectively. And just before that quartet of games began, they fell in Dallas on a final-play field goal.
On Sunday, the 2-7 Giants will host a rematch against the division-leading 3-4-1 Eagles, against whom they had an 11-point lead with five minutes remaining on Oct. 22.
"There is no reason we can't continue to play at a high level," Judge said on a Zoom call Monday. "I love the improvement we're seeing. The young guys are really coming along. There are a lot of encouraging things we're seeing from the guys that are rookies or new guys to this program, and we're getting a lot of production from a lot of guys."
The group includes a sizeable group of rookies making important and consistent contributions – offensive linemen Andrew Thomas, Shane Lemieux and Matt Peart; nickel corner Darnay Holmes; linebackers Cam Brown, Carter Coughlin, TJ Brunson and Tae Crowder (who has been on injured reserve since scoring the deciding touchdown in the first Washington game); wide receiver Austin Mack (Giants season-long 50-yard catch yesterday); and cornerback Madre Harper (who recovered a fumble that set up a touchdown).
"I think there's a lot of clips in these last few games that you can see that we can say this is the style we want to play as an offense, defense and special teams moving forward," Judge said. "That doesn't mean the game plan is exactly the same. We want to keep making sure we have an emphasis in terms of ball security, number one, limiting penalties and knocking mental errors off the plate. I like the way we're playing aggressively on offense. I like the tempo we're playing with. That's not always going to be part of the game plan. Sometimes we may slow it down. I like the last few games, our ability to work some tempo. I like how we're running the ball and that's setting up some plays down the field in the passing game. I like how we're covering kicks right now. We've been able to make plays in the return game, as well. That's shown up in the last few weeks. We're definitely improving in that area.
"Defensively, I see a lot of improvement with the situations, whether it be third down, red area or two-minute. That's improvement. That's something we've placed an emphasis with our team that we have to continue to improve on. We've seen a lot of really good players, good offenses in the first part of the season. We have to keep on improving, as we keep on going through because they're going to keep on getting better and better."
View photos from the Week 9 matchup between the Giants and Washington at FedExField.
In a normal season, a team that has played more than half of its games and won only two of them would not be contenders for a division crown. But this is no ordinary season in the NFC East, where the Eagles spent their bye week perched in first place with a 3-4-1 record. The Giants, who have been close in almost every game but defeated only Washington, can take a big step toward the top when they host the Eagles.
"It's definitely strange," said leading tackler and defensive captain Blake Martinez. "But the NFL is crazy. Anyone can beat anyone. Anyone can be in it at any time. You just kind of go with it week by week, make the improvements necessary and see how kind of the dice falls. It's one of those situations where you see what we've been through this whole season, and to know that we still have a shot and we still have the opportunity right in front of us to do what we need to do, it's an awesome feeling. As a competitor, you love it."
"Obviously, it's a big game," guard Kevin Zeitler said. "We know where we're at, we know where the division is at. Every win in the division is a big thing."
Especially when you're 2-7 and still running the race.
*Wide receiver Golden Tate returned to the team today. He did not travel to Washington and was inactive for the game.
"He was back in there with us today, working," Judge said. "We're not going to have the players in the building tomorrow, but they'll be able to come in to work out. Then Wednesday, we'll be on the field for practice, so he'll definitely be out there practicing with us. Like all of our players, we're going to have plans for these guys within the game plan. If you're asking me specifically about him being active for the game, I would anticipate Golden being active. I have no reason to believe he wouldn't be active at this point. But we're going to go through this week and kind of see how everything goes with everybody on the team and see where everything lays out."
*The Giants must make decisions on some players who are on their practice squad and injured reserve.
Running back Alfred Morris, who rushed for 67 yards yesterday, has been added to the roster with "standard elevations" each of the last two weeks. That is the limit on such moves for each player. Morris reverted to the practice squad today. If the Giants want to suit him up again, they must sign him to the 53-man roster.
Guard Chad Slade has been added to roster from the practice squad three times, the last two as a COVID-19 replacement for Will Hernandez. The Giants have one free move remaining with him.
Slade played three snaps yesterday, his first regular-season action since Dec. 31, 2017, when he started at right guard for the Houston Texans at Indianapolis.
*The players on injured reserve who are candidates to return to the field are safety Xavier McKinney, the second-round draft choice who has been sidelined all season with a foot injury, and linebackers Tae Crowder and Oshane Ximines. When they begin practicing, it begins a 21-day period during which the Giants must activate them or keep them on I.R. for the remainder of the season.
"We'll approach a lot of different things this week in terms of our roster with a lot of different players," Judge said. "Over these next few weeks, we expect several guys to have the opportunity. We don't know where they are physically yet. We start their clocks off the I.R., they will be coming off the clocks on I.R., so we have to check and see what our total roster is in terms of that. There's a lot of things with that that are going to factor in."
McKinney underwent surgery after he was injured in training camp. He has attended meetings all season but has yet to step on the field. Might he this week?
"That's still up in the air," Judge said. "I don't know if we will necessarily see him this week. He was on the field the other day running with the trainers. I haven't had much of a chance with my own eyes to really get my eyes on him. I know he's making a lot of progress. I'm getting positive reports on him. We have until Wednesday. He'll be with the trainers tomorrow, and that may shed a little bit more light on it for us. Based on how we practice Wednesday, if we go full tilt or some kind of an abbreviated walk thru, or short fundamentals practice, we haven't decided yet. That may affect whether or not we start his clock on that day or not."
Another factor in these decisions is the Giants' bye week is after the game against Philadelphia.
"With Oshane and Tae, they are very similar to X-man (McKinney)," Judge said. "We have to figure out where they're at physically and when do we want to start their clock. All of them have made a lot of progress. Some are a little bit closer than others. I want to see where they're at. The biggest thing I'd say at this point is because you have the bye week coming up next week, we want to be very calculated when we start their clock, that 21-day window. If you start it too early and then you lose another week with the bye week anyway, it may set them back. There's a benefit of getting them going with us right away, getting their legs back under them, get them back playing football. There's also a benefit of holding a little bit knowing you have the bye week next week and there's really no advantage to getting them to a game next week anyway. There's a couple different avenues we can take with these guys. I want to see where they're at physically. We talked this morning with the trainers and basically said, 'Hey look, tomorrow we have to have some answers to at least help us make a better decision.'"
*Finally, Hernandez remains on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
"In terms of Will coming off the COVID list, I have to check with Ronnie (Barnes, the senior vice president of medical services) with some of the specifics. I know he has started some of the ramp up stuff from what I understand talking to Ronnie this morning. The one thing I want to make sure is we are fair with with Will is this guy has missed two games, that's a lot of football he's missed. We have to be fair to him to get him his conditioning back and get him back on the field moving around. It's not like this guy has spent the last two weeks lifting weights and running, doing individual drills in his back yard. This guy has been quarantined and fighting a virus. We have to make sure when we get him back, we give him a chance that he's able to get out there and play a full 60 minutes healthy. Also, make sure he gets some reps on the field to account for some of that lost time and kind of sharpen him back up for some of the movement he is going to see inside at that guard position."