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Can “unique opportunity” help accelerate Giants’ long-term progress?

Many Giants will be playing in their first truly meaningful NFL game on Sunday

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants have gauged, and will continue to gauge, their 2020 season on the basis of week-to-week progress. Close game, blowout, win or loss, the concept of making progress has been a constant theme for coach Joe Judge.

The Giants have made enough progress that after an 0-5 start they have won two straight games and three of their last five. Their 3-7 record is nothing to write home about.

“We have three wins, we’re confident but nobody in this building should be overconfident,” veteran defensive back Logan Ryan said earlier in the week.

Those three wins, though, have been enough to propel the Giants into the middle of the playoff race in the NFC East, the NFL’s weakest division.

Ryan, Blake Martinez, Cameron Fleming, Nate Ebner and Golden Tate are among a core of Giants veterans who have played in many big games throughout their careers.

There are, though, many young Giants who have not only never been in a playoff game but who have never played in a truly meaningful late-November or December regular-season game. The only player on the roster drafted by the Giants who has been in a playoff game is Sterling Shepard, who was part of the 2016 team that lost to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round.

If we are still focused on long-term progress, then the question is can playing in meaningful games down the stretch of the season, even with an overall record that indicates these upcoming game shouldn’t be consequential to the playoff race, accelerate that progress? Can playing “big” games make guys better players than simply playing games because they have to in order to finish out the season?

“I think so,” said Ryan, who earned two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots. “When the stakes are high, I think it brings the best out of everybody, it brings the truth out of everybody.

“I just feel like we are who we are, we’re getting better as a team, we’re believing in one other and regardless, we have to play our best football now. There’s no more time to wait, there was on preseason, there was no first four games we called preseason, there was no games four through eight. It is what it is, every team is in November now and the division is extremely even, so it’s irrelevant. This game’s the most important game just because of the time of the year and the next one will be more important than this one. I’m confident in our guys, I’m confident they know how to prepare and get ready for the game.”

Evan Engram, drafted in 2017, is one of those Giants who will be playing Sunday in a significant game for the first time.

“It’s a unique opportunity for us,” Engram said. “When it’s meaningful football and the playoffs are involved, everybody’s, like I said, sense or urgency goes up. For me, it’s different being here the last three years in the situations that we’ve been in. I know it’s different for a lot of the young guys that are here that are just coming into the league and getting their opportunity to play meaningful football. Like I said, our motivation right now is getting better each and every day and attacking each opportunity going into the week, like we have now going against Cincinnati. But it is a special opportunity that a lot of guys are ready for.”

Judge said this week “is really the starting point for the division.”

“The most important thing truly is what I always say, is being a better team every week and being a better team at the end of the season because everyone right now is on equal ground going forward,” he added.

The Giants are expected to win Sunday, currently listed as 6-point favorites. They should win against a Cincinnati Bengals team without quarterback Joe Burrow and running back Joe Mixon. With four straight games coming up against teams with winning records, it’s a game they have to win.

“The message I always have for the players is look, if you start reading headlines and you want to believe the good, then you better be ready to believe the bad because a lot of the same people are writing two different stories about you weeks apart,” Judge said. “You can’t go with the rollercoaster up and down. Whatever is said on the outside of the building may have some truth to it, but at the same time, we can’t let that dictate how we prepare or the flow that we have and the mindset that we have.”

How will the Giants handle their “unique opportunity?” We will find out Sunday, and perhaps in the games after that.

The fact that they have this opportunity, that they have a chance to experience “must-win” football has to be something that should help them going forward.