The first New York Giants game I ever attended was in 1966. There was no secondary market in those days, so the only way non-season ticket holders could go to games was by knowing someone who was not using their tickets that Sunday. The 1966 Giants were a bad team. The roster of the great Giants teams of the 1950s and early 1960s had been gutted by age and poor personnel decisions. They lost 52-7 to the Dallas Cowboys in their second game, and had just been pummeled by the Los Angeles Rams 55-14 to drop their record to 1-7-1, when my father was offered tickets to the following Sunday’s game against the 0-9 expansion Atlanta Falcons. No wonder my father’s friend didn’t want the tickets. But for me it was a rare chance to see my beloved Giants in person at the old Yankee Stadium, and anyway, they were playing an expansion team, so surely they would win.
Or maybe not. The Giants’ starting quarterback that year was Earl Morrall, who had several Pro Bowl and All-Pro seasons with other teams. But after the Giants got off to a terrible start in 1966, head coach Allie Sherman benched him for Gary Wood, an eighth-round 1964 draftee. Wood did not do any better, so the day I went to see them Sherman decided to start third-string rookie quarterback Tom Kennedy. Atlanta beat the Giants 27-16 for their first win as a franchise, and they finished the season 3-11, ahead of the 1-12-1 Giants, who were a truly terrible team.
The worst teams in NFL history
The 1966 Giants gave up 501 points that season in 14 games - 35.8 points per game. Amazingly, that is not the worst in NFL history. Aside from a couple of 1920s teams who only played 1-2 games, the 1950 Baltimore Colts hold the record with 38.5 points surrendered per game, while the 1954 Washington team gave up 36.0. The 1966 Giants also scored only 263 points, for a season point differential of -238.
As bad as they were, the 1966 Giants weren’t close to the worst team in NFL history on the basis of point differential. That honor goes to the expansion 0-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1976, with a record -287 point differential:
After one of their losses, head coach John McKay was supposedly asked, “What do you think of your team’s execution, coach?” To which McKay replied, “I’m in favor of it.” (Although this story may be apocryphal.)
In recent seasons, we have examples such as the 2021 Jacksonville Jaguars (-204 point differential), New York Jets (-194), and Houston Texans (-172); the 2020 Jets (-214) and Jaguars (-186); and the 2019 Miami Dolphins (-188) and Washington football team (-169). (In case you were wondering, the 2021 post-Daniel Jones injury Giants led by Mike Glennon and Jake Fromm for six games were -107, which projects to what would have been an NFL record -303 over a full season.)
Two must-win games coming up for the Giants?
To everyone’s surprise, the 2022 Giants find themselves at 6-2 coming out of their bye week and most definitely have a chance to make the playoffs. The Giants have been underdogs in most of their games thus far, making it all that much more satisfying when they have won. But that is about to change. They are about to play the 1-6-1 Houston Texans, and after that the 2-6 Detroit Lions, both at MetLife Stadium. The schedule gets a lot tougher after that, including games at Dallas, two against undefeated Philadelphia, and another against one-loss Minnesota. So if the Giants are to actually make a playoff run, victories the next two weeks are almost a requirement.
Houston is probably regarded by many people as the worst team in the NFL this season, and Detroit is not far behind. But these teams are nothing like the worst teams of NFL seasons past. Neither team actually has the worst point differential in the NFL. That honor belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers with -77 in 8 games, which projects to -164 over 17 games. That is far from the worst teams that the NFL has seen in the last few years.
Houston is second-worst in the league in point differential at -50, which projects to only -106 for the full season. Detroit is at -46, which projects to -98 for the full season. Yes, these are losing teams, but not terrible teams. A reasonable comparison is the 2021 pre-Daniel Jones injury Giants. Before Jones’ neck injury that shelved him for the season the Giants had a 4-7 record through 11 games and were -51 in point differential, which projects to a -79 differential over a full season, a little better than the Texans’ and Lions’ projections but not a lot. That Giants team defeated New Orleans on the road as well as playoff-bound Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
Parity reigns in the NFL in 2022
We see it every week. Just this past weekend the New York Jets beat the Buffalo Bills, and it wasn’t a fluke - it was the Jets’ dominating defense that kept Josh Allen under wraps. The Lions defeated the formerly mighty Green Bay Packers. The Tennessee Titans, with a rookie quarterback thrust into action before he should have been and mostly just handing the ball off, took the Kansas City Chiefs to overtime. Even the undefeated Eagles have won games by only three points against Detroit, eight points against Jacksonville, and three points against Arizona, some of the worst teams in the NFL right now.
In the 2021 season, five teams scored 50 or more points in a single game:
And 31 more teams scored at least 40 points in a single game. But roughly halfway through the 2022 season, no team has put 50 points up in a game, and 40 points have been scored only 11 times so far:
Maybe it is the more widespread use of two-high safety defenses or the departure of elite wide receivers from formerly high-scoring teams. Maybe it is formerly bad teams seeing several years of good draft picks mature (e.g., the Jets, who have accumulated quite a bit of talent). Or maybe we will see a lot more high-scoring games as the season progresses (four of the five 50-point games last season occurred in December and January). At the moment, though, the NFL is a league of parity, and “on any given Sunday,” as the league used to say, close games and upsets are happening with surprising frequency.
Are the Giants actually better than the Texans and Lions?
Here are the schedules of the Giants’ next two opponents to date:
The Texans’ six losses have been by 7, 3, 10, 18, 7, and 12 points. In their 18-point loss to the Raiders they were leading 20-17 after three quarters. Their 12-point loss was to the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles, arguably the best team in the NFL, and that game was tied midway through the third quarter.
The Lions have had two relative blowout losses, but otherwise they have lost by 3, 4, 3, and 4 points, all four to likely or possible playoff teams (Philadelphia, Minnesota, Seattle, Miami).
The evidence from Pro Football Focus doesn’t suggest that the Giants are actually any better overall than the Texans and the Lions:
Houston’s weak points relative to the Giants are their run defense (29.6) and tackling (34.9), so that suggests that we will see a heavy dose of Saquon Barkley, and perhaps Daniel Jones on bootlegs, this Sunday. But it is not as if the Giants have a stellar run defense either (49.2 grade), so expect the Texans’ excellent rookie running back Dameon Pierce (the main reason for their outstanding 88.0 rushing grade) to be a big part of their offense. Dangerous but disgruntled wide receiver Brandon Cooks, who has six 1,000-yard seasons, including last year, is back after not being traded and missing last week’s game, but whether he plays against the Giants this Sunday is a mystery.
Detroit’s offense is more potent than that of the Giants, even though their season point total is only 25 points higher. Their problem is consistency. The Lions have put up 35, 36, and 45 points this year, and two of those were against the Eagles and Seahawks, two good defensive teams. In recent weeks, though, their offense has been shut down by New England, Dallas, and Green Bay. The Lions feature an excellent wide receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown (76.9), and one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, though their overall PFF score does not support that. PFF still ranks them eighth in the NFL, though, and reports that their 2.1 average yards before contact on rushing attempts is third best in the NFL. Detroit’s weak spot is their defense, which has allowed 77 more points than the Giants. Yet that doesn’t show up in their PFF defense grades, and don’t tell that to Aaron Rodgers.
Why are the Giants winning while Houston and Detroit are not?
Despite the individual offensive and defensive statistics, the Giants clearly show up as better than both teams where it counts - expected points added (EPA):
By this measure the Giants are in the large tier of above-average but not great teams, while both Houston and Detroit are in the lowest tier, as defined by the diagonal lines that emphasize combined offensive and defensive play. The team tier chart corresponds pretty well to the general impression of which teams are the elite (Philadelphia, Buffalo, Kansas City) and which are the worst teams (Indianapolis, Carolina, Houston, Pittsburgh, Detroit) this season.
EPA per play is a measure of the efficiency of an offense in putting itself into position to score and of a defense in not putting the opponent into position to score (implying a negative EPA). It values explosive passing or rushing plays on offense and stops or turnovers on defense. But it also takes game situation into account. A 2-yard gain on third-and-1 has a much higher EPA than the same gain on third-and-10. A long touchdown pass in garbage time has a lower EPA than a 1-yard TD pass with a minute left in a tie game. Here are a few notable examples for the 2022 Giants, from rbsdm.com. The numbers on the far right indicate how each play changed the win probability of the home team at that moment:
Week 1 @TEN:
Week 4 CHI:
Week 5 @GB:
Week 6 BAL:
Week 7 @ JAX:
Daniel Jones’ 65-yard TD pass to Sterling Shepard against the Titans was the Giants longest pass play of the season. It added almost a full TD’s worth of expected points because statistically teams do not score often from their own 35-yard line, even more so after they have lost a yard on first down. Jones’ 21-yard bootleg TD run against the Bears a few weeks later by comparison only added 2.2 points because the Giants were already in easy field goal range and had four downs to work with. Most of the Giants’ high-impact plays (which is what EPA tries to capture) this season have been on defense: Xavier McKinney’s bat-down of Aaron Rodgers’ fourth down pass with a minute to go, Julian Love’s interception of Lamar Jackson that put the Giants into scoring position late in the game, and McKinney’s strip of Travis Etienne as he reached the Giants’ 5-yard line, recovered by Love.
The team tiers are telling us that the Giants on average have been a slightly above average offense and slightly below average defense in efficiency to date. That’s good enough for them to be in the upper half of the NFL overall, because there are plenty of teams that are terrible on one side of the ball even though they are very good on the other side (upper left and lower right in the chart). The Texans and Lions are in the lower left quadrant, meaning they have been below average in both, despite putting up overall stats that don’t look much different from those of the Giants.
The Giants are making a good number of big plays when it counts, while Houston and Detroit apparently are not making those high-leverage plays as often. That’s likely to be the key to the next two weeks. The Giants are probably not going to dominate either opponent, and either team’s offense is capable of moving up and down the field on the Giants’ defense statistically (especially now that McKinney is out for the next few weeks). The questions are: Can the Giants’ defense get big stops at key moments as they have in many of their games? Gan the Giants’ offense move the ball and put points up more easily against these relatively poor defenses than they have in most of their games so far?
A lot probably comes down to coaching and play calling. The Giants’ creative offensive and defensive approaches have caught teams off-guard much of the season. Now there is a half season’s worth of that on film. Seattle cracked the code on how to limit the Giants’ offense last week, and although the defense generally played well it was unable to make big plays late. Daboll, Kafka, and Martindale have had a week to digest that loss. How will they adjust? The answer to that may determine whether the Giants still look like a playoff team two weeks from now.