EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Wink Martindale chose two of the season's lowest moments to tell the players on the Giants' defense how highly he thinks of the unit.
Minnesota's Justin Jefferson had just scored on a 17-yard touchdown pass to put the Giants in a 24-16 hole with only three minutes remaining when the teams met in U.S. Bank Stadium on Dec. 24. Instead of expressing anger or disappointment to the players, Martindale, the team's defensive coordinator, accentuated how good they are.
"I told the coaches and I told Dex (defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence) and Leo (Leonard Williams), I said, 'We've got a playoff defense here, guys. Just keep playing it one play at a time' and that's when it was 24-(16). That's when we were down, that's before the offense scored (to tie the game)."
The Giants lost, 27-24, on a 61-yard field goal as time expired, a score set up on a 17-yard completion to Jefferson on third-and-11. But Martindale never wavered.
"I went on the back of the plane, and I told them, 'We've got a playoff defense, guys. We got beat by a buzzer beater at half-court.'"
On Sunday, the defense will have another opportunity to validate Martindale's confidence when the Giants and Vikings meet in an NFC Wild Card Game rematch. Among his many messages this week: "The biggest thing in this league is you never let one game beat you twice."
The defensive players have full faith in Martindale, who has coached football for 35 years and in the NFL for 18. His message of support was delivered at the perfect time.
"I do remember that moment," Williams said. "He's been saying it quite a few times the last few games and what I take from it is that he has a lot of confidence and belief in our defense and he's reminding us because we should, too. He always talks about how this is a great group and one of his best groups that he's coached. I agree, this is one of the best groups I've played with. This is a selfless group. There's a lot of times in certain packages or pressures where you just know the play is not designed for you, but at the same time you know that you have to do your job for it to work for someone else. Everyone is willing to do that job to make the defense work, and I think that's what makes it so fun playing with these guys."
View photos from practice as the Giants get ready for their Wild Card matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.
Lawrence said "leadership" is what he most appreciates about Martindale.
"He comes in and continues to remind us that this is our defense," said Lawrence, who led the Giants with 7.5 sacks and was selected to his first Pro Bowl this season. "He just calls the plays and helps us learn how to embrace moments with each other because everything's going to be different next year: Don't wait until next year. Dominate this year."
That will be challenging on Sunday because the Vikings have one of the NFL's most formidable offenses.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins led Minnesota to an 8-1 record at home, where he threw 18 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns. The Vikings are the ninth team in NFL history to have four players with at least 60 receptions (Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn and T.J. Hockenson).
"They have the best receiver in the league in Justin Jefferson," Martindale said. "And they have a lot of other really good players. But when you have the best plus other good players, it really stands out."
Jefferson's statistics are otherworldly: league-leading totals of 184 targets, 128 receptions, 1,809 yards (the sixth-highest total ever), 10 100+ yard games, with eight touchdowns. He is the first player in NFL history to have 125+ receptions and average 14+ yards-per-catch in a single season (14.1-yard avg.).
"I said it the last time, he's one of the top two receivers and he's not number two in this league," Martindale said. "It's going to be a great challenge."
The Giants are better equipped to succeed now than they were in the first meeting when they played without their two best defensive backs in safety Xavier McKinney and cornerback Adoree' Jackson. McKinney missed seven games with fractured fingers before returning in the playoff-clinching victory against Indianapolis on Jan. 1. He was rested along with most starters last week in Philadelphia. Jackson hasn't played since Nov. 20 when he injured his knee against Detroit. He has practiced on a limited basis this week and while there's been no official declaration, the Giants are hopeful he will play.
"They're going to make plays," McKinney said of the Vikings. "They're really good players, some of the best we have in this league, so they're going to make plays. Even when me and Adoree' are out there, they're going to make plays on Sunday. It is what it is. When you face another great player, you have to limit them, you can't really stop them all the way. They're going to make some catches that might be crazy, they're going to do some things that's like, 'Oh,' it's a part of the game. We know that as DB's, as a DB, that's the life of a DB. People are going to make catches, they're going to make some plays, but you've got to be able to bounce back and keep going. So, that's what we're looking to do and like I said, we're going to do what we can to limit them. But that's a part of it, that's a part of the game."
If Jackson does play, Martindale should have his entire defense together for the first time this season.
"It's a great time of year for it," he said. "I talk about we're starting to hit our stride. It's because we're starting to get guys healthy, and guys are seeing the progress in the system and playing fast in the system. It's going to be a lot of fun."