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Are all NFL games equally important?

Joe Schoen may have a point

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NFL: New York Giants Training Camp Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

With the New York Giants opening their 2023 season against the division rival Dallas Cowboys, and given that the Giants went 1-4-1 in the NFC East last season, it was not surprising that GM Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll got repeated questions from reporters last week about the importance of winning division games this year.

Schoen would not take the bait, however. His answers were:

“I would just say every week is important. Every team we play, we’re going to want to win those games, so whether it’s Dallas, Philadelphia, whoever it is, each game is equally important.

“No more important? They are all important.

“They are all important. I mean, we were 1-4-1 in the division last year and we made the playoffs. They are all important.”

He can’t really mean that, can he?

Perhaps Schoen was just blowing smoke. Maybe he didn’t want to put undue pressure on his team by making the opening Cowboys game a matter of life and death for the Giants’ chances this season. Maybe he feels that the roster isn’t quite there yet when it comes to competing with the likes of the Eagles.

Or maybe he was onto something. Most of us tend to see division games as elevated in importance because, well, they more directly affect the team’s chance to win the division, and because familiarity breeds contempt. If we think back to last season, though, how did the Giants get into the playoffs? If the Tennessee Titans make a very reasonable length field goal at the end of the game, or if the Jacksonville Jaguars get one more yard on their final pass play, the Giants do not make the playoffs. Neither of those was a division game.

Compare the Giants’ fate to that of the Washington Commanders, who finished 8-8-1 and missed the playoffs. Washington actually beat both Dallas and Philadelphia once last season. It did them no good because they couldn’t beat the Giants, but they still finished 2-3-1 in the division, better than the playoff-bound Giants’ 1-4-1.

The difference? Washington blew a third quarter lead and lost to the AFC’s Tennessee Titans 21-17. They also blew a fourth quarter lead against Minnesota and lost to them too. Win either of those games and the Commanders would have finished 9-7-1, ahead of Seattle’s 9-8, and the NFC East would have placed all four teams in the playoffs.

How about the 2022 Detroit Lions? After a horrendous 1-6 start, they put things together and won six straight to get to 7-7. They dominated the Giants and looked like a sure playoff team. All they had to do was take care of business against three inferior teams: Carolina, Chicago, and Green Bay (all of whom were beaten by the Giants). The Lions dispatched their two division foes - in fact they finished 5-1 in the division last year. It must have felt great for Lions fans watching their team take down the hated Packers twice after losing of 32 of their 44 previous meetings. Inexplicably, though, they laid an egg against terrible Carolina with a post-season berth right in front of them, losing by two touchdowns after being behind as much as three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Bye-bye, playoffs.

Do the Giants actually have a difficult 2023 schedule?

There’s no way to really know until the season is well underway and we see which teams surprise and which ones disappoint relative to their pre-season hype. To be sure, one team that is definitely not being hyped outside of their own fandom is the Giants. Here are their projected win totals from various sources:

Assessments that peg the Giants’ schedule as one of the more difficult ones are based on two facts:

  • The Giants play the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys twice each, as they do every year, and these were two of the best teams in the NFL last season.
  • The Giants play all the teams in the AFC East this year. Every one of those teams is a potential playoff team, unlike last year’s AFC South, which was considered weak.

The Giants also play all the NFC West teams this year, but that division does not seem as fearsome as it has been in recent years. The point, though, is that Philadelphia, Dallas, and Washington are in the same boat as the Giants, playing those same eight non-division teams.

The schedule makers do try to make things more competitive within each division with the rule that determines the other three games: Each team plays one team from the other two divisions in the conference and one of the divisions in the other conference, determined by the division standings from the previous year. That means the Giants get games against three third place teams, while Philadelphia gets three first place teams, Dallas three second place teams, and Washington three fourth place teams.

Averaged over many seasons that makes life more difficult for division champions and easier for the bottom feeders. In any given year, though, that intent is subverted by what happens to each team in the off-season. Here are those three games for each NFC East team:

  • Eagles: Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Kansas City
  • Cowboys: Carolina, Detroit, Los Angeles Chargers
  • Giants: New Orleans, Green Bay, Las Vegas
  • Washington: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver

Who has the advantage in those matchups? The Giants get a Saints team led by Derek Carr that has done little since Drew Brees retired and Sean Payton left; a Packers team without Aaron Rodgers, Allen Lazard, and Randall Cobb; and a Raiders team led by Jimmy Garoppolo, with Darren Waller on the opposite sideline, and with a head coach who has yet to prove himself. Are any of those teams up-and-coming? Do all of those games seem winnable for a good team? No, and yes.

The Eagles catch a break with re-building Buccaneers and Vikings teams, but the Chiefs are as formidable as it gets. Dallas gets a very beatable Carolina team albeit one with rookie No. 1 pick Bryce Young, but they also get a Lions team that is the NFC North division favorite and a Chargers team with a healthy Justin Herbert, healthy starting receivers and offensive line, plus innovative ex-Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore replacing the ultra-conservative Joe Lombardi. Even the last-place Commanders will have to face a Bears team that has added many offensive and defensive pieces and a Broncos team that now has offensive guru Sean Payton designing the offense rather than the overmatched Nathaniel Hackett and a formidable defense.

Of course the Giants want to beat their division foes more than any other teams. Focusing on them too much would be a mistake, though. Joe Schoen’s admonition is best heeded by the players. Take care of business against teams like New Orleans, Green Bay, and Las Vegas, and play .500 against the rest of the schedule, with or without division victories, and a second consecutive playoff berth should follow.

The goal is to get in and improve over the course of the season while doing so. Good things can then happen, even from a Wild Card berth. Just ask the 2007 Giants, who lost twice to the No. 1 seed Cowboys but eliminated them in the Divisional Round, followed that with a defeat of the Packers, who had beaten them 35-13 early in the season, and then of course knocked off the seemingly unbeatable Patriots in the Super Bowl after losing to them in the final game of the regular season. None of that would have happened had they not beaten non-division opponent Buffalo to clinch a playoff spot.

Beat Dallas Sunday night? That would be great for Giants fans...but not if they lose to lowly Arizona the following week.