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4 downs: Takeaways from Giants’ loss to Vikings

What can we take away from the Giants’ oh-so-narrow loss to Minnesota?

New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The New York Giants fell just short of the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16, losing 27-24 Saturday on a game-ending career-long 61-yard field goal by Greg Joseph.

This was an incredibly competitive back-and-forth game between two resilient, hard-nosed teams that are used to playing close games. There were stretches throughout the game where it felt like either team could seize control, and neither team was really able to do so. Ultimately, it could only be a happy holiday for one team, and that turned out to be the Vikings.

So what can we take away from the game before we have some holiday cheer?

First down: About the Giants’ receivers

There’s going to be plenty of digital ink spilled over Daniel Jones’ play today, and I don’t want to dwell on him.

This game felt like the quintessential “Daniel Jones Experience”.

The view here is that this might have been Jones’ best game as a pro, but his good play also highlighted why I continue to have reservations about him.

The Giants didn’t ask him to do anything particularly involved and he executed well. He made some very pretty and legitimately impressive throws. But he also put the ball in danger too much (something he’s done a lot more than the box score reflects, it’s jus that this time the potential turnovers stuck), and his placement continues to be maddeningly inconsistent.

But those inconsistencies allowed for some incredibly impressive plays by the Giants’ receivers.

Isaiah Hodgins, in particular, stepped up and had a career game and made Patrick Peterson looked like a washed-up has-been at times. He was incredibly reliable throughout the game and came up with one of the biggest plays of the game when he hauled in a deep pass that was at the ragged edge of his catch radius for 29 yards.

Richie James had the one big drop and wasn’t able to haul in another pass that was low and behind him. However, he also had a very impressive game and came up big throughout the game with chunk plays to keep the Giants ahead of the chains.

Fans might feel sour on James right now, but he was still the Giants’ leading receiver. James finished with eight catches on 12 targets for 90 yards, many of which helped set up big plays by his teammates.

Darius Slayton and Daniel Bellinger had good games as well, with Slayton’s speed in the open field turning a short pass into a 32-yard gain to set up Saquon Barkley’s touchdown run, and Bellinger showing fantastic field awareness to secure the two-point conversion without drifting out of the back of the end zone.

Nobody is saying the Giants’ receivers are great. But they’re solid players who deserve to be active on an NFL offense. Between Wan’Dale Robinson, Slayton, Hodgins, James, Collin Johnson, and Bellinger, the Giants have the makings of a solid receiving corps going forward. They just need to find a number one to set the rest off with the matchups they should be getting.

Kudos to GM Joe Schoen for scouring the NFL’s various scratch-n-dent bins and piecing this receiving corps together.

Second down: It’s all about the defense

The Giants were in position to win this game all afternoon long, right down to the very end. They were in position thanks to the play of the defense, who were disrupting and imposing their will all game long. The fact that they were doing so against one of the most potent offenses in the NFL makes the defense’s play all the more impressive.

The Giants sacked Kirk Cousins four times this game, with Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Landon Collins, and Azeez Ojulari all getting credit for sacks. And even when the Giants weren’t able to get the sack, Wink Martindale’s blitz schemes generated a ton of pressure on Cousins and they were beating him up all game long. That pressure likely covered a lot of warts on the back end of the defense, too.

Yes, the Giants were burned for big passing plays on blitzes late in the game. That’s the constant risk with this type of defense — that the other team will have the right call and buy just enough time to exploit weakened coverage.

But there were also plenty of other plays where Cousins had a receiver wide open down the field and was unable to find him because of the pressure brought by the Giants’ defense. Whether they were forcing Cousins off his spot, forcing the ball out early, preventing him from stepping into the throw, or forcing a check-down, this defense generated a lot of hidden yardage that played a massive role in the Giants having a chance to win.

Third down: Will the Giants ever be able to defend a tight end?

I just got done praising the Giants’ defense, but their inability to slow down tight ends remains a sore point.

Landon Collins had a good game and flashed in both run support and coverage in his first game back on the Giants’ active roster. He’s taken to his role as a “linebacker” in Wink Martindale’s defense, and I think we’ll see him continue to grow in this role over the last two games.

That said, the Giants desperately need an upgrade at the second level of their defense. They need to find a linebacker who processes quickly and has the athleticism to act on his reads. T.J. Hockenson is a talented, high-upside player, but he looked like Gronk (in his prime) or Jason Kelce against the Giants — and that’s a disturbingly consistent trend for them. Hockenson finished with 13 catches on 16 targets 109 yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s just downright tough to win when a tertiary option is able to gash a defense like that.

The Giants need to find an answer in the offseason.

Maybe that’s Darrian Beavers, or maybe the Giants will finally use a pick somewhere in the first three rounds on a linebacker. But having a true three-down MIKE who can play the pass, play the run, and blitz would be a tremendous upgrade for the Giants’ defense.

Fourth down: Of course the game ended like this

This was one of the most exciting games I can remember, and I was legitimately on an adrenaline high by the time Nick and I went live for our regular post-game stream. But I also can’t say I was surprised by the ending — well, other than that Joseph made that 61-yard kick.

These two teams came into the game with a combined 18 wins in one-score games. No two teams in the whole NFL are better at playing their opponents close than the Vikings and Giants. We all should have guessed that this game was going to come down to the wire.

Now, that’s not a good thing — putting yourself in situations where a single bounce or call can be game-changing isn’t a sustainable way to play. And this game really served to highlight just how narrow the Giants’ path to victory is. They can’t afford to be under water in penalties (they were, 7/63 to 2/14) and turnovers (2 to 0). The Giants just don’t have the roster to beat themselves and their opponents at the same time.

That said, it’s a credit to the coaching staff and players that they have the mental fortitude to be in these situations and keep giving themselves a chance to win.

Extra point - Happy Holidays everyone!

I thought about leading off with this, but it makes a better closer. I just wanted to take a minute to thank everyone for clicking and reading this year, and I wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy Holidays in general!