EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As he always does, Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale yesterday infused his weekly news conference with a dose of humor, this time regarding first-year Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell.
"Kevin does a great job calling the offense," Martindale said. "I said it's unfair: I'm the blue-collar guy going against Harry Styles. He's a good-looking young guy, but I really like Kevin. I think he's done a great job with not only calling the offense but the entire team."
As Martindale has learned this week, trying to stop the Vikings' offense is no laughing matter. The teams will meet Saturday in U.S. Bank Stadium. The Giants are 8-5-1 and are in control of their postseason destiny. Minnesota is 11-3 and has clinched the NFC North title.
Since the Vikings' defense is ranked 32nd and last in the NFL, it's fair to say they've reached those heights thanks largely to their versatile, dynamic and high-scoring attack. Minnesota is eighth in the league with an average of 25.1 points a game. The Vikings have exceeded that average eight times, including 30+ point games four times in the last eight weeks. By contrast, the Giants have topped 24 points just once (27 against Green Bay).
Veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins is fourth in the NFL with 355 completions, sixth with a 65.3 completion percentage and tied for fifth with 24 touchdown passes.
"I think he's super productive," Giants coach Brian Daboll said. "He does a good job of getting his playmakers the ball. I don't know him. I have a lot of respect for what he's done in his career. He's got a lot of good pieces around him. He touches the ball on every play and usually makes the right decision. He's 11-3 as the starting quarterback this year for them. Highly productive player. He's in the Pro Bowl too, right?"
Correct. Running back Dalvin Cook was not selected this year but was a Pro Bowler each of the previous three seasons. And a first-team All-Pro in 2019-20. This season, he is sixth in the NFL with 1,045 rushing yards. Cook also has 33 receptions and has scored 10 total touchdowns.
"He's definitely tough," inside linebacker Landon Collins said. "He's a menace in the middle. He's a man to be reckoned with and somebody we got to keep our eyes on. So, he's a great player."
As is wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who tops the league in both receptions (111) and yards (1,623). He has scored seven touchdowns and his spectacular one-handed grab in Buffalo on Nov. 13 is widely considered the catch of the year.
"I told the defense. I said that he's one of the top two receivers in this league, and he's not number two," Martindale said. "He's had a phenomenal year – their whole offense has. It's one of those things that they throw the ball, and he could be in double or triple coverage, and he still catches it. I know it's fun for the fan to watch. It's not very fun for defensive coordinators.
"If you are going to any type of one-on-one situation, you better pick the right spot to do it. I think that you got to keep things spinning for Kirk back there because if you just sit in one simple front and coverage, he'll tear you apart."
The Giants are accustomed to covering great receivers after facing Washington's Terry McLaurin (twice) and Philadelphia's A.J. Brown the last three weeks. They join Jefferson and Dallas' Ceedee Lamb as the NFC's four Pro Bowl receivers. Minnesota tight end T.J. Hockenson was also selected.
"Each guy is a little bit different," Daboll said. "What you try to do against really good players is different. You can do a wide variety of things, but again, at the end of the day, most of the time those guys are going to get their touches. Got to do a good job of tackling them, try to prevent the big, big ones. But it's definitely a challenge."
And that's no joke.
*Defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence expressed characteristically restrained joy when asked about being selected to his first Pro Bowl.
"It's an honor, for sure," said Lawrence, who was chosen as a reserve defensive tackle behind the Rams' Aaron Donald and Washington's Jonathan Allen. "The respect you've earned around the league and then the support from the fans, things like that. So, it was a big honor."
Lawrence has a team-high and career-best 6.5 sacks and is third on the team and first among the defensive linemen with 57 tackles (26 solo). Lawrence's 24 quarterback hits are 13 more than team runner-up Kayvon Thibodeaux. He has five tackles for loss, two passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
"I think I'm having a solid season," Lawrence said. "There's plays I wish I had back, opportunities I wish I would've finished, on a couple more plays. Overall, I think I've been solid, I've been trying to improve every week, and just trying to win. Honestly, I don't care really what my numbers say or anything like that, I just want to win for my brothers."
Running back Saquon Barkley was selected as a starter.
In addition to Barkley and Lawrence, four Giants are alternates to the Pro Bowl: placekicker Graham Gano (second alternate), tackle Andrew Thomas and center Jon Feliciano (both third alternates) and linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux (fourth).
Thomas' omission from the list of Pro Bowlers was a surprise, as he has widely been considered as one of the NFL's best tackles this season.
The third-year pro has a reserved personality and was unemotional about what some considered a snub.
"I think anyone that plays this game – they're competitive and you want to receive accolades for what you do on the field," Thomas said. "I don't control that; all I control is what I do on the field. Just continue to get better. Got a lot of football left, so I look forward to that."
Asked why he has played at such a high level, Thomas said, "I think since my rookie year, I've just had a constant increase in understanding my technique, being more consistent in pass pro, same in the run game, and I just get better each week."
Daboll was asked what he thought about Thomas not making the Pro Bowl.
"I think for any of the guys that get selected – whether you're a starter, you made it (but) you're not a starter, an alternate – I think that those guys appreciate that," he said. "Unfortunately, everybody can't make it. But Andrew's a good player for us. I'm glad he's on our team, and I look forward to seeing him play here the rest of the way."
*The Giants signed Collins to their active roster off the practice squad. On Sunday in Washington, Collins played a season-high 27 defensive snaps in his third game as a practice squad elevation, the maximum allowed. To continue playing him, the Giants had to add him to the roster. Collins has four tackles (two solo) this season.
A 2015 second-round draft choice, Collins was a two-time Pro Bowler in his first tenure with the Giants, which ended after the 2018 season. He then spent three years in Washington. Collins has started 94 of 97 regular-season games in which he's played, so returning here on the practice squad was not easy.
"It's definitely humbling, but I've always been that way," Collins said. "I've always been a worker. So, that's something that's never changed. I never came here with expectations, anything like that. I came here to go to work and get back into the building. So, that's the best part about it."
The 2016 Giants, who finished 11-5, was the only winning team Collins played on until now.
"It's exciting," he said. "I'm excited because now you get to really contribute, make some plays for this team, and make that run. That run is as big as it comes. This opportunity is a blessing, and I'm thankful for it."
Linebacker Tae Crowder, the former starter who was released yesterday, was signed to the practice squad.
*The Giants' final injury report included only the two players who were declared out of the game earlier in the week: cornerback Adoree' Jackson (knee) and guard Shane Lemieux (toe).