EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Leonard Williams has played in 122 games across eight NFL seasons for the Giants and Jets. Only twice did he take the field with a chance to end the day as a member of a playoff team.
In the final game of his 2015 rookie season, the 10-5 Jets, riding a five-game winning streak, faced the Bills in Buffalo knowing a victory would secure a postseason berth. But the Jets never led and lost, 22-17. While that game was being played, the Pittsburgh Steelers led throughout their 28-12 victory against the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh also finished 10-6 and earned the sixth and final seed in the AFC playoffs thanks to a better record vs. common opponents (4-1 to 3-2).
Two years ago, Williams' career-high 3.0 sacks helped the Giants defeat Dallas, 23-19, in their season finale to finish 6-10. Remarkably, the Giants would have won the NFC East title with that record had Philadelphia defeated Washington that night. Alas, the Eagles had no interest in clinching a playoff berth for the Giants and infamously inserted backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia did not score in the second half of a 20-14 loss and the disappointed Giants dispersed the following day.
Tomorrow, Williams gets his third shot to make the playoffs. The 8-5-1 Giants can claim a playoff berth with a victory against the 11-3 Minnesota Vikings in U.S. Bank Stadium and losses by two of the following three teams – Washington, Detroit or Seattle, who all join the Giants in playing road games. If two of those teams and the Giants all lose, the Giants can clinch a berth with a home victory against Indianapolis on New Year's Day.
"I'm trying not to think about it," Williams said of the scenarios. "I think we just need to take (it) game by game and try to win every game. I think this last game was really important, but at the same time, we still need to treat each upcoming game as equally as important."
Although they need help to clinch tomorrow, the Giants are ultimately in control of their own playoff destiny. They will guarantee themselves a spot at the postseason table by winning each of their last three games, next week vs. the Colts and a season-ender in Philadelphia.
"It means a lot to me," Williams said. "I'm spending a lot of time in the building right now trying to take care of my body. Being healthy plays a huge role in December football. I feel like at this point of the season, every team is banged up. And a lot of times, the healthier teams are the ones that are going to make the stronger push. And I'm just trying to do everything I can to be on the field."
This is the first season in his career that Williams missed games due to injury – three with a knee issue early in the season and the Dec. 11 loss to Philadelphia with a neck injury. He returned last week and had a vital fourth-quarter fumble recovery in the 20-12 victory in Washington that lifted the Giants into the sixth seed in the NFC playoff race.
All Williams wants for Christmas is for the Giants to have a better ending to their story than the Jets did seven years ago.
"I just remember going into that game, and I thought for sure that we were for sure going to go to the playoffs," Williams said. "Buffalo was bad that year, I think (the Bills were 8-8). And (Jets quarterback Ryan) Fitzpatrick was doing really well. We were on a hot streak, and then I felt like we had all the players needed to go. And I think we lost on some fourth-quarter stuff. It was a close game.
"It sucked to end the season and know that we weren't going to the playoffs. But at that moment, being a rookie, I thought, 'Oh, we'll just be right back next year.' And then it didn't happen again for seven years. So, it's kind of crazy how it works like that."
The Giants, Lions (at Carolina) and Seahawks (in Kansas City) all play at 1 p.m. eastern time. The Commanders have a 4:05 start in San Francisco.
The 2015 Jets are the only team Williams has played for that finished with a winning record. Is it more difficult to finish 10-6 and come up just short or to play for a 5-11 team that never really has a shot at the playoffs?
"I think it's tougher to go 5-11 and not make it, honestly, because at least when you're 10-6, those last few games of the season, you're fighting for something," Williams said. "You know that you're putting your body through something for a reason, whereas if you're 5-11 and it's the last few games of the season and you know you absolutely aren't going to the playoffs, it's very hard because you know you're putting your body through a lot. And it's essentially for nothing. So, I feel like that's a lot harder."
The Giants and Williams are at the postseason doorstep. Now, they need to take the final steps and join the playoff party.
View rare photos from the all-time series between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings
*This season, 133 NFL games have been decided by eight points or less. That's the most one-possession games through 15 weeks in league history. The Giants and Vikings are two of the league's best teams in that category. Minnesota is a league-best 10-0 in one-possession contests, including the most prolific comeback in NFL history last week, a 39-36 overtime victory against Indianapolis, a game in which the Vikings faced a 33-0 halftime deficit. Minnesota is just the third team ever to win 10 games in a single season by eight points or fewer, joining the 2019 Seattle Seahawks and 1978 Houston Oilers.
The Giants are 8-2-1 in games decided by eight points or less and own the NFL's second-most wins in one-possession games this season.
*Minnesota has clinched its first division title since 2017.
*The Vikings have won the last three games in the series — 2015, 2016 and 2019 — and lead the regular-season series, 16-10. The second of those games was the Giants' only previous visit to U.S. Bank Stadium.
In their most recent meeting, on Oct. 6, 2019, the Vikings gained 490 yards and Daniel Jones suffered his first defeat as an NFL starter in a 28-10 Minnesota victory in MetLife Stadium. The Vikings have won their last two home games in the series, played in different venues in Minneapolis less than 10 months apart – 49-17 in TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus on Dec. 27, 2015, and 24-10 in U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 3, 2016. The Giants last defeated the Vikings on Oct. 21, 2013, in MetLife Stadium.