The day belonged to the Giants, but the game was all Saquon Barkley's.
Yes, Daniel Jones threw for more than 400 yards, Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney made huge contributions, and the offensive line didn't surrender a sack. But it was Barkley, even with relatively modest numbers – for him - who had the greatest tangible and emotional impact Sunday on the Giants' 27-21 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints in the Caesars Superdome.
The Giants trailed by 11 points midway through the fourth quarter when Barkley sparked a 17-point game-closing rally. It began with his 54-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 6:52 remaining. That was followed by a modest four-yard run to put Graham Gano into a comfort zone that enabled him to kick a game-tying 48-yard field goal with 31 seconds remaining. And it ended when Barkley caught two passes for 19 yards and then bulled his way up the middle from six yards out 5:06 into overtime to give the Giants their first victory of the season after three losses.
"I was excited," Barkley said. "This team has been through a lot. We have been through a lot of close games. We just needed to find a way to finish it. We just needed to stick together and find a way to win this game and we did it."
Everyone connected with the Giants was thrilled for Barkley, who rushed for 52 yards and caught five passes for 74 more. After debuting with two sensational seasons that included the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2018, Barkley's third season ended early in the second game when he suffered a serious knee injury that required surgery. His rehabilitation was so long, Barkley wasn't on the field for the start of training camp. He did line up for the season's first game but seemed to lack the speed and elusiveness he once possessed. After the Giants lost to Atlanta last week, Barkley again had to answer questions about his health and effectiveness.
"I've said this before about Saquon, everybody has seen how much and how hard he's worked with the adversity he's seen and had to overcome," coach Joe Judge said. "This wasn't a small injury that he's had to work and battle through. He's gone through a lot of things, but he's always kept the team first in everything he's done, and they see that. There's a reason he was selected as a captain by his teammates and to represent them with how he works and performs on the field.
"In terms of seeing him have success, it's collective success. It is everyone's win. Saquon obviously punched the ball in at the end to close it out. That's what we wanted, to get the ball back and finish the game out right there. That's what we were able to do."
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Had the players been able to pick a teammate to score the winning touchdown in their first victory, it would have been Barkley.
"The guys see him work hard day in and day out and I think everyone shares in that excitement," quarterback Daniel Jones said when asked about his emotions when Barkley scored. "We're happy for him. No one deserves it more for what he does and what he puts into it. We were so happy to hear that."
"I was trying not to tackle him myself," Toney said. "It was really emotional out there. You put in the work every day throughout the week with these guys and you know of their capabilities. It's the best feeling that you can have is when you execute."
The Giants won the overtime coin toss and never let New Orleans touch the ball. They drove 75 yards in nine plays, the longest a 23-yard, third-down Jones pass to Golladay on the left side immediately preceding Barkley's final score.
"We work that play in practice," Golladay said. "It could not have been a better time for that to be called. It was pretty much wide open. I ran a good route and Daniel Jones put it right on me. He threw the ball all over the place today."
He certainly did. Although leading receiver Sterling Shepard and another key wideout, Darius Slayton, were inactive with hamstring injuries, Jones finished with a career-high 402 passing yards. In addition to the throw to Barkley, Jones perfectly threw a deep ball that was caught for a 52-yard touchdown by John Ross, who made his first reception as a Giant. Ross fumbled the ball and recovered it in the end zone, but the touchdown stood as a pass and catch.
"That's something we talk about all the time, playing through the possession and not just the whistle," Judge said. "He did not hesitate on if it was a touchdown or not, he hopped on the ball right away. The ruling on that play was a catch, fumble and immediate recovery for a touchdown. Had he not played that situation through right there, that could have been a big play going the other way."
Jameis Winston's 15-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson left the teams deadlocked at halftime, 7-7.
In the third quarter, Taysom Hill put the Saints ahead on the first of his two eight-yard touchdown runs. The Giants countered with Gano's 23-yard field goal and it was 14-10 entering the fourth quarter.
When Hill scored again and the Giants were subsequently forced to punt, the Giants were on the short end of a 21-10 score and seemingly facing grim prospects.
But on the first play of their next drive, Jones threw to the left side for Barkley, who caught the ball at the 30, outran cornerback Marshon Lattimore and cut inside to avoid safety Marcus Williams on his way to the end zone. Jones two-point conversion lifted the Giants to within striking distance at 21-18.
"We tried to run that play earlier and I saw that he was sitting out," Barkley said. "Daniel and I had a conversation that it could be there. I stood ready for it. He gave me a great ball.
"When you get one-on-one with a safety, then you have to make that guy miss. I was able to do that. It's kind of cool when you can see things before it happens. He and I were on the same page. I just went up to him and said great ball and heck of a play."
Jones is the first Giants quarterback with two touchdown passes of more than 50 yards in a game since Eli Manning had scoring throws of 67 yards to Shepard and 57 yards to Tavarres King against Philadelphia on Dec. 17, 2017.
After a Saints punt, the Giants took possession at their own 11 with 3:01 remaining. They soon faced a critical third-and-seven, when Jones flipped a short pass to Toney that the rookie turned into a 28-yard gain to the New Orleans 34. Four plays later, Gano tied the game.
On the first play of overtime Jones found Ross for a 17-yard gain and then connected with him for eight more yards two plays later. Jones was five-for-five for 67 yards on the drive before Barkley crossed the goal line and the Giants could hold their first 2021 celebration.
"We haven't won a game all year, so for us to come out here and win a game in a tough environment against a great defense and a great team is great," Barkley said. "We have been in a lot of close games. We have to keep going. We have to keep working every day. We have to keep believing in each other and get ready for next week. Personally, it helps with your confidence to make plays out there, especially late in the game. It feels good to get the win. It definitely builds my confidence up. Each week, I keep feeling my knee getting better and better. I just have to keep trusting the process and keep going."
The same is true for the entire team.