This was an ugly game in which the Giants dominated in almost every statistical category, but penalties and mistakes (most notably special teams, but we’ll get to that in a bit) kept Cincinnati around to the very end.
So what did we learn about the Giants in their fourth win of the season?
Special teams matter
We tend to overlook special teams, with TV broadcasts treating them as a “gimmie” play and fans using them for bathroom breaks. After all, kickoffs usually go for touchbacks, punts are usually fair-caught, and most extra points and field goal attempts are basically free points.
But special teams matter, and I will always use the 2010 Los Angeles Chargers (then of San Diego) as the example. That year they fielded the top offense and defense in the NFL, but also fielded the worst special teams in the NFL. Their atrocious special teams play saw four blocked punts, three kickoff returns for touchdowns, and 1 punt return for a touchdown and cost them a trip to the playoffs.
Special teams matter, and in this game the special teams play was very nearly the deciding factor.
The Giants started the game with a Wayne Gallman rushing touchdown, and the Bengals immediately answered, taking advantage of an open lane for a 103-yard kick-off return for a touchdown. The Bengals had several big returns, giving themselves great field position throughout the game — though their anemic offense was rarely able to do much of anything with it. All told, while they had just 155 offensive yards, their special teams generated 208 yards in returns. The Bengals were also able to pick a potentially crucial fourth down on a fake punt, which hinged on a difficult angled snap to the up back.
The flip side of that is that the Giants’ special teams nearly cost them the game. Not only did the Giants’ special teams give up one of the Bengals’ two touchdowns, but breakdowns in lane discipline give the Bengals hidden yards throughout the game. It’s also noteworthy that the Giants depended on Graham Gano to go 4 for 4 on field goals, scoring 12 of their 17 points. Gano is usually automatic inside of 50 yards, but Gano’s first field coming off the Reserve/COVID-19 list had to have Joe Judge holding his breath as it just squeaked inside the uprights.
Considering the Giants have three special teams specialists on their coaching staff (Joe Judge, Thomas McGaughey, and Tom Quinn), and you can bet that practices will be... tense in the coming week.
It’s time for Matt Peart to start
In the lead-up to the bye week — and for most of the season — my feeling was that the Giants’ third-round pick would become their starting right tackle following the bye week. That, of course, was before he tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed on the reserve/COVID list. So whatever transition the Giants had planned at that spot was put on hold out of necessity, but it needs to happen as soon as Peart is healthy and ready to play.
This was abundantly clear after Cam Fleming nearly cost the Giants the game with a costly penalty (one of three on the game), and his poor play throughout the season. Fleming is a fine backup, a player who can come in if the starter gets dinged or needs to take a play or three off to tie his shoe, but there’s a reason why he has been a career back-up. Get the rookie snaps now, they have nothing to lose.
The Giants back into first place
Somehow, some way, the Giants are currently in first place in the NFC East with a .367 winning percentage. If we’re being completely honest, it’s largely due to the NFC East as a whole being an affront to football and the Giants edging out the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team.
I’m not going to tell anyone else how to fan, but this isn’t a win I can feel particularly good about.
The Giants offense was largely held in check by a defense without a pass rush, very young linebackers, and some okay cornerbacks who let a half-dozen potential interceptions hit the turf. And even before the loss of Daniel Jones, they barely kept up with an offense playing Bobby Hart at right tackle and had just elevated Brandon Allen off the practice squad at quarterback.
The defense did what it had to do to put the game away, but they still allowed that Brandon Allen lead offense to hang around long enough to have a realistic chance of winning at the end. All wins look the same in the box score, but this game could have turned out very differently had Joe Burrow not torn his ACL a week ago.
The Giants survived a team which was very similar to the worst team in the NFL a year ago.
The state of the NFC East is still very much in flux, and all four teams have a chance to stumble bass ackwards into the play-offs with a losing record.
The Giants have a tough remaining schedule, playing the 7-3 Seattle Seahawks, 6-5 Arizona Cardinals, and 8-3 Cleveland Browns before they get their last shot at another hapless NFC East team by ending the season against the 3-8 Dallas Cowboys. How the Giants play the next three games could tell us much more than how they played over the previous three.
The Eagles, meanwhile, play the Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, while the Washington Football Team plays the Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, and ends against the Eagles.
Dallas will play the Ravens, the Bengals, the 49ers, the Eagles, and then the Giants to finish the season.
It’s likely that three teams in this division will be drafting in the top 10, while the fourth slips down to play the first Wild Card (likely the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seahawks, or Los Angeles Rams). We’ll just have to wait and see which team gets that dubious honor.