- Fresh off a 12-5 2021 season that culminated in a Super Bowl victory, the Rams dropped to an embarrassing 5-12 in 2022.
- Their starting quarterback, signed to a four-year, $160M contract, missed the team’s final 8 games due to a neck injury that landed him on season-ending IR.
- Their star defensive lineman missed the final 6 games with a high ankle sprain that required off-season surgery.
- The offensive live, already weaker due to the retirement of Andrew Whitworth, collapsed as four of its key members for 2022 suffered injuries.
The parallels are far from exact, but if a Super Bowl champion can drop to 5-12 the next season, should we be surprised that the 2023 Giants, with an eerie similar injury history, came into this game on track to match the 2022 Rams’ record of futility after their own Divisional Round appearance in 2022?
The Rams had rebounded to 8-7 and playoff contention entering today’s game because Matthew Stafford has been healthy and has regained his 2021 form after a slow start. He’s done that because the offensive line was completely rebuilt in one off-season with a second-round draft pick, a trade, and an undrafted free agent, and because they found possibly the rookie of the year in the fifth round in wide receiver Puka Nacua. Note that the Rams did not fire their head coach or general manager after their 5-12 season.
In other words, the Rams team that faced the Giants today might be the ghost of Christmas future. As for Christmas present, though, what did we learn from the Giants’ 26-25 loss to the Rams?
Fourteen NFL playoff teams is too many
The Rams came into this game at 8-7 and controlled their destiny to be in the playoffs. After watching this game, it is hard to believe that these Rams are a playoff team. The Giants begged to give the game to them all afternoon with their mistakes, and they couldn’t do it until the very end, because the Rams made their fair share of errors. This did not look like a team that had won 5 of its last 6 games (now 6 out of 7).
The Rams’ defensive line is impressive, with Aaron Donald and Kobie Turner accounting for 5 of the Rams’ 6 sacks and drawing holding penalties on the Giants’ porous offensive line all day. Still, the Giants’ anemic offense was able to put up 319 passing yards and 105 rushing yards on the Rams. The Rams’ secondary and linebackers were mostly handled by the Giants’ receivers: Darius Slayton caught 4 of 6 targets, Wan’Dale Robinson 6 of 9, Darren Waller 5 of 6, Jalin Hyatt 3 of 4, and Daniel Bellinger 4 of 4. The Giants should have won this game, even though their mistakes made them undeserving of it.
The democratization of the NFL playoffs makes things more exciting for fans in more cities. It’s not clear it is in the best interests of the NFL in the long term.
Tyrod giveth and Tyrod taketh away
There’s a reason that Tyrod Taylor has had a 13-year NFL career and has started 57 games, but only 14 in the past 6 seasons. Taylor throws a beautiful deep ball, by far the best of the Giants’ three quarterbacks. Today, for the second consecutive week he connected with Darius Slayton on a long TD pass. This one went for 80 yards, with 62 air yards, hitting Slayton in stride once again for an easy touchdown. These are the explosive plays the Giants’ offense so sorely needs. Tyrod also is a plus with his legs, most notably his key 31-yard run on the final drive to put the Giants into position for the winning field goal.
On anything less than about 10 yards, though, Tyrod is frightful. The one that will linger in Giants fans’ minds for the longest time was a simple toss to Saquon Barkley on a 2-point conversion attempt that would have put the Giants ahead late in the game. Barkley was wide open with a clear path to the end zone, and Taylor threw it so far behind him that Barkley had zero chance to catch it. I’m a senior citizen, and I was never a good athlete even when I was young, but I think even I could have completed that pass.
That play was only the most egregious of Taylor’s adventures on short pass plays. He had Isaiah Hodgins crossing the end zone a step ahead of his man and failed to lead him with the ball, allowing the defensive back to break up the pass. In the second quarter, he completed a short pass to Eric Gray, but at his ankles. Later in the second quarter, he fumbled the snap on fourth down, turning the ball over on downs. In the third quarter, Tylor threw behind Barkley on second down for another incompletion. (Barkley dropped several passes he should have caught.) In the fourth quarter, Taylor threw behind Jalin Hyatt on a crosser on fourth and short, although Hyatt ran his route too shallow to make the first if he had caught it. On the Giants’ last offensive play, Taylor threw too short to Wan’Dale Robinson. Oy vey.
The Giants’ defense isn’t that good, but it is resourceful
There was never a time in today’s game that I felt that the Giants had Matthew Stafford’s number. The Rams began the game with a methodical 11-play drive that only ended without points after Brian Daboll’s second consecutive successful challenge. (Aside: Why do successful challenges count against the total number a team has for the game? If it’s determined that it’s the officials’ fault, why penalize the team for their mistakes?) The next time the Rams had the ball, they mixed Stafford passes and Kyren Williams runs on an 8-play drive that ended in a Williams TD.
It looked like it would be a long day for the defense. That never really materialized, though. Stafford is (in my eyes) a future Hall of Famer. He has tremendous arm talent, and in the Rams’ 2021 glory days, he threw deep downfield with the best of them. Not today, though. Stafford mostly relied on short passes. He threw over the head of his receivers twice on intermediate depth passes, and twice he was intercepted by safety Dane Belton, who can’t find his way onto the field regularly but has 4 interceptions in his career. Belton also had 2 passes defensed.
As the game went on, Wink Martindale’s blitzes started to affect Stafford more and more. The Giants’ defense got home four times - twice by Bobby Okereke (one shared with Rakeem Nunez-Roches), one by Jihad Ward, and a big one late by Isaiah Simmons. The Giants give up a lot of successful running plays. They don’t blanket receivers routinely. Sometimes they make bonehead plays, like Adoree Jackson’s strip attempt on Puka Nacua that resulted in an 80-yard TD when Nacua broke free.
Somehow the Giants stayed in the game, and they should have won. It was not the fault of the defense.
The Giants’ special teams are “special,” but sometimes not in the way they should be
Despite Tyrod Taylor’s ineptitude on short passes, he still put the Giants in position to win. If Mason Crosby hadn’t missed an extra point, the missed 2-point conversion wouldn’t have been needed, nor would the missed 54-yard field goal near the end of the game. (His former Packers teammates, competing with the Rams for a Wild Card berth, will not be happy.)
On the other hand, Gunner Olszewski caught Ethan Evans’ 58-yard punt late in the fourth quarter, and after almost being tackled a couple of yards into his return, broke free for a 94-yard TD. Olszewski hasn’t been perfect by any means since coming to the Giants - earlier in the game he somehow let a punt sail over his head and then scrambled to get it. But compared to the misadventures the Giants had with every punt and kickoff earlier in the season, he is a welcome alternative.