Tony DelGenio recently detailed the Giants’ all or nothing playoff history over the last three decades.
The last time the Giants won a playoff game without at least appearing in the Super Bowl was 1993. That year, the Giants defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round only to be humiliated 44-3 by the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round.
Since then, the Giants have made nine playoff appearances. Six times they have been one and done. Twice they have won the Super Bowl. In 2000, they reached the Super Bowl only to be routed 34-7 by the Baltimore Ravens.
The Giants seem to reach the Super Bowl when no one sees them coming.
In 2000, they went 12-4 and won the NFC East. That, though, came on the heels of 8-8 and 7-9 third-place finishes that did not hint at the 2000 season to come.
In 2007, the 10-6 Giants were a wild-card team with a questionable quarterback that had to win three games on the road before upsetting the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
In 2011, the Giants struggled through much of the season and had to win their final two games to reach 9-7 and win a tightly-contested NFC East. The Giants secured a playoff berth by beating the Dallas Cowboys on the season’s final day.
The story of this Giants team is a familiar one to Giants fans. After five straight double-digit loss seasons the franchise was a laughingstock. The Giants cleaned house and started over with a first-time GM in Joe Schoen and a first-time head coach in Brian Daboll.
No one was quite sure what to make of the quarterback. The Giants had drafted Daniel Jones No. 6 overall and after three seasons most observers were still wondering what former GM Dave Gettleman thought he saw when he fell into “full-bloom love” and did that.
The Giants were thought to be bankrupt of talent, aside from Saquon Barkley and maybe a few other players. They were thought to be at the beginning of an arduous rebuild. Playoffs? Only those wearing the bluest of blue-colored glass thought that was possible.
Then, the Giants stunned the football universe by starting the season 6-1. They sputtered some after that, going 3-6-1 over their final 10 games, but did enough to cough and wheeze their way into the playoffs.
Are the Giants playing with house money? Sure, even though players rightly push back when asked about that narrative. The season has already been a success, regardless of what happens Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings or beyond. The Giants have the right coach and GM. They seem to have found their quarterback. There is more talent on the roster than perhaps previously thought.
The Giants are, undeniably, ahead of schedule.
Now, what can they do with this opportunity they have in front of them? Here are four reasons the Giants could be a dangerous playoff team.
They have a passing attack
The Giants don’t have Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson catching the ball. They don’t have Patrick Mahomes throwing it.
What they do have is an increasingly effective, efficient passing attack that has been balancing the team’s offense over the final third of the season.
Throughout much of the season the Giants were a run first and pass carefully on their terms or only when absolutely necessary team. That isn’t really the case any longer.
A few numbers from the analytics site RBSDM, leaving out the final game when starters did not play:
Expected Points Added (EPA) per play:
Games 1-11: 0.047 (11th)
Games 12-16: 0.008 (14th)
Success rate per play:
Games 1-11: 43.8 percent (18th)
Games 12-16: 49.4 percent (4th)
Games 1-11: 0.088 (12th)
Games 12-16: 0.029 (14th)
Dropback success rate:
Games 1-11: 45.6 percent (17th)
Games 12-16: 53.0 percent (5th)
Games 1-11: -0.010 (8th)
Games 12-16: -0.025 (14th)
Rush success rate:
Games 1-11: 40 percent (19th)
Games 12-16: 43.3 percent (13th)
Of particular interest to me are the ‘success rate’ numbers. Fifth in drop back success rate and fourth in overall success rate in games 12-16. The Giants are not explosive, last in the league with only 28 passing plays and 21st with just 15 rushing plays of 20 yards or more.
They have been efficient. They have just 16 turnovers, second-fewest in the league. They have a 1.15 percent interception rate, best in the league. They are 11th in time of possession. They don’t beat themselves.
Tony DelGenio recently documented how the Giants have increasingly used the pass to set up the run.
In writing about the Giants’ surprisingly effective trio of wide receivers — Isaiah Hodgins, Richie James, Darius Slayton — we discussed the increased use of ‘11’ personnel (three wide receivers) and the use of stacked formations to create free released and natural picks.
Out of 89 qualifying receivers, FiveThirtyEight ranked James No. 19 when comparing ratings for being open, catching the ball and creating yards after catch. Hodgins was No. 24 and Slayton No. 30.
The point of all of that being that the Giants can do more than hand the ball to Barkley or hope that Jones can turn nothing plays into something with his legs.
Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has been talking for the past couple of weeks about how the Giants have built a “playoff defense.” Now, some of that might be coach-speak aimed at making sure his players understand the importance of being at their best in these high-stakes one-and-done games.
“I can see it building,” Martindale said. “I said something to them during a loss that we’re building a playoff defense here guys, make no mistake about it, and I feel that way. That’s guys that can just play it one play at a time and they don’t flinch, they’re never flinching. If there’s a mistake, we correct it. If there’s a play, we celebrate it, and then we get ready to go play the next play.
“They’ve just been so professional in studying their opponent, studying the game plan, and that’s the thing that’s exciting to me about it is they’ve been rewarded for it ... I’m really happy where we’re at and excited to see where we’re going to go.”
Overall, the Giants have been a middling defense in 2022. They are 17th in points and 25th in yardage allowed. They don’t defend the run well, 31st in the league surrendering 5.2 yards per rushing attempt. They don’t intercept enough passes, last in the league with only six and with a 1.31 percent interception rate that ranks 31st. They are 18th in the league with an 89.9 passer rating against and 13th in sacks with 41.
There is, though, some truth to what Martindale has been selling.
The Giants were 25th in the league in defensive EPA +0.056 through the first 12 weeks of the season. From Weeks 13-17, again not including Week 18 when most starters did not play, that EPA was a slightly better +0.038, still 24th, but an uptick.
With cornerback Adoree’ Jackson back for the first time since Week 11, the secondary is healthier and deeper than it has been all season. Fabian Moreau has done an excellent job replacing Aaron Robinson, and players like Jason Pinnock, Nick McCloud and Cor’Dale Flott have all become useful players. Safeties Landon Collins and Tony Jefferson have become integral parts of the defense in recent weeks as hybrid players mostly used as sub-package linebackers.
I think the biggest reason for Martindale’s excitement, though, is the development of the pass rush. History tells us that Giants’ championship teams of the Super Bowl era have all featured a fearsome pass rush. The Giants are not at the level of those teams quite yet, but there are plenty of signs of a young, developing pass rush that can change games.
Rookie edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux has three of his four sacks and 10 of his 13 quarterback hits over his last six games. Azeez Ojulari, second on the team with 5.5 sacks in just seven games, is healthy again. Dexter Lawrence earned second-team All-Pro honors after the best season of his career, one that featured a career-high 6.5 sacks.
The Giants blitzed more than any team in the league (39.7 percent, per Pro Football Reference. Martindale is the best in the business at creating free runners to the quarterback, saying the Giants blitz “because we know they’re going to hit.” The giants are seventh in the NFL in pressure rate (24.3 percent) and sixth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate statistic (45 percent).
What it all adds up to is that the Giants do have the ability to change games with their pass rush.
Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson will play Sunday for the first time since Week 11. Safety Xavier McKinney is back in the lineup. Edge defender Azeez Ojulari is healthy after a Week 16 ankle injury. Leonard Williams isn’t 100 percent, but he will play.
The Giants are as healthy as they could be. There isn’t a single player with an injury status on their roster. Wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins was added to the report with an ankle injury on Saturday, but was not given a game status. That means there is no question he will play.
The Giants have lost some players — like Sterling Shepard, Wan’Dale Robinson and Aaron Robinson — to season-ending injury. Everyone they have counted on during the latter part of the season will be healthy and available on Sunday, plus Jackson.
Brian Daboll ... and his staff
Brian Daboll is a rookie head coach. He has, though, been part of five Super Bowl-winning teams. He was offensive coordinator on a national championship team at Alabama. This time of year isn’t new to Daboll, and he won’t be overwhelmed by it.
Daboll built a tremendous veteran coaching staff filled with assistants whose resumes are stockpiled with NFL success. Week after week that coaching staff has given the Giants an advantage.
It is no accident that players like Daniel Jones and Dexter Lawrence are playing better than ever. Week after week the Giants coaching staff has found ways to put players in advantageous positions and get unexpected production from a constantly rotating cast of characters.
That isn’t going to change.