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Giants 31, Cardinals 28: 4 things we learned

Momentum really is a thing

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Sports fans love to talk about a team having “momentum” when they are playing well. It’s not clear whether any such thing exists. Former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver used to dismiss such ideas, saying that “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.” Weaver might have second thoughts if he were still here to witness recent performances of the New York Giants.

The Giants outlasted the Arizona Cardinals, 31-28, after being behind 20-0 at the half and 28-7 with 4:09 gone in the third quarter. What in God’s name did we learn from this perplexing game?

The Giants have heart

The last time we saw the Giants in the 2022 season, they were completely dismantled (for the second time) by the Eagles. You might imagine that loss would undo all the positive things they accomplished last year. It didn’t seem that way, though. Giants fans, analysts, and media mostly forgot about that game and worried whether the Giants might regress in 2023 due to the tough schedule.

Last week against Dallas, though, it looked like the Giants still had a hangover from that Divisional Round game. That was partly dismissed as the result of several plays early in the game that put the Giants in a 16-0 hole in the rain. Surely today against the lowly Cardinals, a new and improved version of the 2022 team would emerge.

Well, no. Not in the first half. The Cardinals’ offense moved up and down the field against the Giants’ porous defense, and the Arizona defense looked like the reincarnation of the Steel Curtain. During Giants games I like to be on the app formerly known as Twitter to see what the Giants’ community and beat reporters have to say as the game is going on. When I logged on early in the second half, I realized that the app always greets me with the following:

Yeah, I said to myself, what the heck IS happening to this team?

I think I underestimate the role of emotion in professional sports, but it’s definitely there. I don’t know if the Giants took the field last week against Dallas doubting themselves because of how the 2022 season ended, but they seemed to give up by halftime. Watching their desultory performance in the first half in Arizona, I had to wonder whether this team lacks something inside that makes the great teams great. It may be heart. It may be lack of leadership. Whatever, it wasn’t there. The Giants went to the locker room with their tails between their legs down 20-0.

Then the second half began. I don’t know what happened in the locker room. Whatever it was, they came out strong in the third quarter and scored. The defense didn’t get the message, allowing Arizona to drive 75 yards in eight plays, plus a two-point conversion, to restore the lead to 28-7. That seemed to be the dagger.

It wasn’t. From that point, the Giants scored 24 unanswered points to win the game. Even more amazing, it was the offense showing emotion...even Daniel Jones, the most uninteresting man in the world. The defense held on, but it was the offense that won the game. I’m not sure how much it means - Earl Weaver may rear his ugly head when the Giants play the 49ers in four days - but for now, I believe in emotion in sports. I’d like to see Jones demonstrate it more often.

The Giants do in fact have a passing offense

It’s clear that the Giants want to pass the ball more. That’s the formula in the NFL these days. There was little evidence of that against Dallas, and not much more in the first half against Arizona, when Jones looked unsettled, made several bad plays, and the offense was sloppy and ineffective.

Finally in the second half, the Giants unveiled an effective passing game. Electric rookie wide receiver Jalin Hyatt was the spark, hauling in a deep pass for a 58-yard gain that turned the game around. A completion to Darren Waller and a Daniel Jones zone read later, the Giants were on the board. Hyatt had another catch, this one for 32 yards, on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, and by game’s end it was clear that Waller is going to be Jones’ get-out-of-jail-free card this season, routinely helping the Giants move the chains. Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton also made plays. Only Parris Campbell has yet to get untracked. The Giants seem to be using him close to the line of scrimmage; I’d like to see them make use of his speed downfield every now and then.

In the end, Jones finished 26 for 37 with 321 yards passing and 2 TDs. I’m not sure how often he can do that, but at least we know that it is possible. For $40M, it should be possible sometimes.

Was last week an aberration for the OL, or is this the new normal?

Last week might have been the worst performance by the Giants’ offensive line in the Super Bowl era, which is saying something considering the past few years of ineptitude on the line. The Cardinals’ pass rush is not the Cowboys’, but they did sack Sam Howell six times last week.

This week the Cardinals got a decent amount of pressure on Daniel Jones, but nothing out of the ordinary. Jones was sacked three times, one of them from behind just short of the line of scrimmage by Dennis Gardeck when he had decided to pull the ball down and run. Josh Ezeudu had a false start on the Giants’ first play, and Evan Neal seemed to play at least somewhat better than his disastrous performance against Dallas. In crunch time in the second half, the line seemed to provide adequate protection, allowing Jones to throw deep and intermediate routes several times.

I don’t expect to see the Giants become Dolphins-Norths, but giving Jones time to open things up by throwing (and sometimes completing) deep passes will be an important thing to keep an eye on going forward. Next Thursday with Nick Bosa And Friends welcoming the Giants to the Bay Area may not be the best time to pass judgment on that, but it’s clear that making opponents worry about Hyatt and Slayton deep will be important for opening up the intermediate portions of the field.

The Giants’ defense is not yet capable of dominating an opponent

One thing some of us expected coming into this season was that the Giants’ defense would be less porous than it was last year. Growing pains for rookie cornerbacks Tae Banks and Tre Hawkins III were expected, but up front it was thought that the Giants would be stout. Leonard Williams was healthy, and the Giants added defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches to shore up the run defense. They also signed free agent Bobby Okereke to finally have a good pursuit linebacker who could shut down the run on the second level. Micah McFadden was thought to be improved from Year 1 as well.

In the first half, though, Cardinals running back James Conner ran roughshod over the Giants’ front-line defenders. There was a stark difference between series when Dexter Lawrence was on the field vs. when Robinson, Nunez-Roches, and D.J. Davidson (for some reason Jordon Riley, who played well vs. Dallas, was inactive) were lined up, and Leonard Williams seemed to come out of the game quite a bit. In particular the second-line IDLs were on the field several times when Arizona was deep in Giants territory, including when Conner waltzed in for Arizona’s first touchdown from the 5-yard line and when Arizona quarterback Joshua Dobbs ran up the middle for 23 yards and a score later on. McFadden whiffed on tackling Dobbs. Maybe the IDL and LBs aren’t solidified yet?

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale should give a lecture at practice this week notifying the Giants that is it permitted to rush the passer. Two games in, the Giants have zero sacks. It’s true that the Cardinals ran mostly a quick-hit offense, but the Giants did fairly little to make Dobbs uncomfortable. Azeez Olulari once again was sidelined with an injury, and while his replacement, Jihad Ward, occasionally created pressure, fellow starting edge defender Kayvon Thibodeuax was mostly being stuffed by whoever blocked him, including tight end Zach Ertz.

In the defensive backfield, Tre Hawkins gave up a short TD and Banks had some good and bad, as did safety Jason Pinnock. Free safety Xavier McKinney also whiffed on Dobbs’ TD run, and we are still waiting for him to make one of the plays that makes him think he is worthy of a lucrative second contract.

But in the end, the defense was solid enough to hold the Cardinals at bay for most of the second half and give the offense the chance to get the Giants back in the game. In the end, that’s all that matters. Against Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk on Thursday, though, a better effort will be needed.