EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants concluded an unconventional week of preparation in a most satisfying manner.
Putting aside the distractions of numerous false-positive COVID tests, late schedule changes, and players going on and off the reserve list, the Giants rode an opportunistic defense, Graham Gano's reliable leg, and just enough offense to defeat the Las Vegas Raiders, 23-16, today in MetLife Stadium.
The Giants won for the second time in three weeks and improved to 3-6 entering their bye.
It was a week to both forget and remember for the Giants. On Monday, they lost a winnable game in Kansas City, 20-17. Two days later, 13 positive tests from Tuesday forced practice to be pushed back. When the testing uncertainty continued Thursday, the players were sent home for Zoom meetings only to return for practice. Saquon Barkley, Xavier McKinney and Gary Brightwell were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Through all the news bulletins and updates, coach Joe Judge emphasized to his players and coaches they had to maintain their normal preparation and focus.
"We have a very resilient team, we have a very mentally tough team," Judge said. "To me, the most complementary word you can use for any group of people is 'team,' and they stick together and they work together. They challenge each other, they come back, they respond. They come back after tough losses. You can sit there and you can lick your wounds or you can look forward and say, 'What do we have to do to be successful this week?' The ball is going to kick off today at one o'clock regardless of what happened last week, so we couldn't dwell on what happened on Monday night. We can't dwell on any previous game, success or failure in those games. The team really just shows up and works hard every day, they work with a good attitude, they accept the challenges that we throw their way, they embrace the challenges other teams are going to give them and they keep moving forward.
"We had a number of other guys on the team – there were a lot of floating pieces this week. There was a large element when we start talking about the actives for the game, the inactives, who's going to be available, who's going to be maybe be a COVID flex. We went into this week truly with everyone has to be ready, and we say that all the time. This week was one of those deals where – normally, we're able to talk through some of the inactives early in the week, anticipating. Maybe it's through possible injury or game plan having to play something. This was a week I had to look the coaches in the eye in the staff meeting early in the week and say, 'Hey guys, just have them all ready. When we figure this out in terms of who's going to be available, we'll figure it out. But have them all ready.'"
Barkley was activated from the reserve list but was inactive for the fourth consecutive because of an ankle injury. Brightwell remains on the list. Fittingly, McKinney, the only player to spend time on the reserve list and play in the game, made the afternoon's biggest play. On the third play of the second half, he intercepted Derek Carr's sideline pass for Hunter Renfrow and returned it 41 yards for his first career touchdown and the Giants' initial defensive touchdown of the season. The score gave the Giants a lead they never relinquished at 17-13.
"I just read the quarterback," McKinney said. "I felt Renfrow going out and I was kind of just all eyes on the quarterback the whole time. He was looking it down, so just trust my instincts and I went, and I made the play."
Asked what he thought when he saw a large expanse of green turf in front of him, McKinney said, "touchdown. My mentality every time I get the ball is to get yards and try to make a play, make a touchdown for our team. That was my mindset through that play."
McKinney likely questioned if he would get an opportunity to even play when he was remotely participating in meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.
"It was a long week," McKinney said. "Obviously, I didn't get to practice those two days, but I was still in meetings. Just tried to stay locked in. Obviously, earlier in the week, I didn't know really what was going to happen as far as if I was going to be able to play or not. Just tried to stay locked in throughout the week."
"He pulled his best Ferris Bueller this week, didn't have to show up for work and had a career type of game," Judge said. "He did a good job staying prepared, was in all the Zoom meetings and all that stuff. Not speaking for Zay, but you could see the frustration level throughout the week – if he's in the Zoom meeting, the team's on the field practicing, he's not able to be active and involved, you're kind of one foot in, in terms of am I going to be able to play. Obviously, when he got cleared, that was big for us as a team."
In keeping with the tenor of the week, the game was full of unusual happenings. The Giants were outgained by 158 yards (403-245). Daniel Jones tied his career-high by completing 75% of his passes (15 of 20), but they gained only 110 yards, the lowest total of his 35 career starts. Only three of his completions were to wide receivers. He did throw a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Engram on the game's first series.
"It's a big play, a play that we worked on all week," Engram said. "We knew what kind of coverage and the kind of defense they were going to play and D.J. made a perfect throw. Literally, a perfect throw and trusted me with it. I just went up and made a play for the team."
But Jones didn't have to throw that often, because the rushing attack churned out 149 yards on 31 carries, including 99 yards by Barkley's replacement, Devontae Booker.
"I think it (not getting the wideouts involved) has a lot to do with how well we were running it and trusting that," Jones said. "I think when you're able to do that when the offensive line is playing like that, then you lean on it. We have the versatility as a team to be able to play different ways. That was working, so we stuck with it. Those guys stepped up, they did make some big plays when we needed them. This team, our team, we can do a lot of different things and attack different ways. Got to keep working on it."
The Giants were able to win despite scoring just one offensive touchdown because the defense was terrific. McKinney intercepted another pass late in the fourth quarter to set up Gano's third field goal, a 38-yarder (he also kicked 35 and 32-yard field goals).
And though Carr threw for 296 yards and the Raiders gained more than 400 yards while averaging 5.9 yards a carry, they scored just one touchdown on six trips inside the Giants' 20-yard line, and that was on their first possession. The last five trips yielded three David Carlson field goals, a missed field goal and a fumble on Las Vegas' final play.
Those last two instances are worth noting. Carlson inexplicably missed a 25-yard attempt with 9:28 remaining that would have narrowed the Giants' lead to 20-19. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the shortest missed field goal in the NFL this season and the shortest of Carlson's career by 10 yards.
The Giants waited until Las Vegas' final offensive play to sack Carr, but it clinched the game. Quincy Roche dropped him for a seven-yard loss and forced a fumble – both career firsts for the rookie linebacker – that was recovered by Leonard Williams, who held the ball high over his head as he ran down the field in celebration.
After an unusual week, the Giants were able to jubilantly let loose.
"We really just told ourselves all week to just stick with everything," Booker said. "Coaches and some players were out and like you said, we went through the adversity all week going through everybody testing. Me today, I've got to wear this mask because I'm vaccinated as well, but it just was really everybody going up in there and getting the stuff done. Zoom meetings, we being focused on everything. It can be hard sometimes because you don't know if some guys are on or watching or paying attention. Once we got done with the Zoom and came to practice, everything clicked, and we were on the same page."
"I think it's just a credit to the focus of the group and guys preparing despite being out of the building or whatever was going on," Jones said. "Just kind of staying focused on what we were doing and making sure we were ready to go. You're going to have stuff like that come up and it's about being able to deal with it and still get done what you need to get done throughout the week."
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