The Giants beat the Vikings 31-24 in the wild-card round on Sunday. Here’s a look back at the franchise’s first playoff win in 11 years:
Don’t rewrite Daniel Jones’ history
There’s a temptation to rewrite history now that Daniel Jones has ascended to franchise quarterback status. And those whose support of Jones never wavered during the lean times have earned a victory lap. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t real flaws that warranted skepticism.
Everyone can agree coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen are pretty sharp football minds. Well, that duo reviewed Jones’ first three seasons and elected not to exercise his $22.4 million fifth-year option for 2023 as one of their first major decisions.
A $22.4 million salary for next year would be a bargain at this point, but the brain trust understandably chose not to guarantee that amount in case Jones flopped. It was essentially a $10 million hedge against Jones, as the Giants brass knew they could always retain Jones for $32.4 million with the franchise tag if he made a Year 4 leap.
The Giants will happily pay that $10 million difference — and potentially much more in a multi-year deal — because Jones had to earn it by producing an exceptional season that continued in his first playoff game.
What’s most impressive about Jones’ development is that there were questions about if it was even possible to improve some of his deficiencies. Some view pocket presence as an innate skill, and Jones’ clearly lacked it as he fumbled at an alarming rate early in his career. But those ball security concerns have disappeared.
Jones’ ability to sense danger in the pocket and immediately escape has been a drastic difference from previous seasons. He did so repeatedly Sunday, scrambling six times for 59 yards.
Even though Jones’ raw athleticism was evident in his first three seasons, he didn’t often use those skills to make plays when things broke down. He mostly either held the ball too long in the pocket or took off running. But this season he has shown a marked improvement in throwing on the run.
On Sunday, there was the 19-yard strike to wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins along the sideline while drifting to his left in the fourth quarter. Earlier, he started to scramble, which put linebacker Eric Hendricks in conflict. Hendricks’ hesitation allowed Hodgins to uncover, and Jones hit his favorite target for a 32-yard catch-and-run to set up a touchdown.
Daniel Jones rolling left. What a catch by @IsaiahHodgins!
📺: #NYGvsMIN on FOX
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/AJ2krfYypW pic.twitter.com/QxL9FFb4Zn
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2023
Jones even bought a few extra yards on a scramble with a pump fake when he was well past the line of scrimmage. Whereas he seemed to play robotic over the past two seasons when there was such an emphasis on avoiding turnovers, he’s managed to achieve that goal while playing much more instinctively.
Daboll arrived in New York with a strong reputation for developing Bills quarterback Josh Allen from a raw rookie into an MVP candidate. In some ways, Daboll’s work with Jones is more impressive. Allen was unmolded clay with an abundance of talent, so Daboll was able to build him from the ground up.
But Jones already had experienced three years of NFL coaching, plus four years at Duke with quarterback guru David Cutcliffe. Jones was hardly a blank canvas, but Daboll and his staff have pushed the right buttons to bring out the best in Jones.
The best of Barkley
With Jones shouldering more of the offensive load recently, running back Saquon Barkley has looked fresh as a complementary piece. He only had nine carries on Sunday, but he produced 53 yards and two touchdowns. He also added five catches for 56 yards.
Barkley charged out of the gates this season, averaging 22 carries for 103.4 yards per game during the Giants’ 7-2 start. But a combination of factors — a shoulder injury, missed time by key blockers, attention from opponents — led to a midseason slump when he averaged 13.3 carries for 38 yards over a four-game stretch.
SAQUON TO THE HOUSE 🏠
📺: FOX pic.twitter.com/GvPirYvcUl
— New York Giants (@Giants) January 15, 2023
Barkley has rediscovered his early-season juice after being limited by a neck injury in the Giants’ 48-22 loss to the Eagles in Week 14. In the four games since then, Barkley is averaging 13.3 carries for 70.5 yards per game.
Part of the skepticism with the Giants’ fast start was that it was so reliant on Barkley. Opponents eventually adjusted and were able to contain the Giants’ rushing attack. The Giants’ ability to adapt on the fly into an effective passing offense has been stunning. And now Barkley has been able to exploit defenses that suddenly need to worry about the Giants’ underrated group of receiving threats.
Star left tackle
Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas nearly pitched a shutout on Sunday, allowing one pressure on 44 dropbacks. That’s no small feat considering Thomas was matched up against Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, who combined for 20.5 sacks during the regular season.
Thomas’ dominance has been an underrated factor in Jones’ breakout season. It’s impossible to quantify how much a quarterback’s play improves when he’s confident his blindside will be protected. Thomas also showed his athleticism by pulling and bulldozing cornerback Duke Shelley on Barkley’s 28-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
It’s hard to understand why the Vikings wasted 25 of Hunter’s 61 snaps on the left side. Hunter had six pressures while rushing on the other side against rookie right tackle Evan Neal, who struggled during the regular season matchup, as well.
One difference in the playoffs is that all restrictions are removed from players. It makes sense to preserve players during the lengthy 17-game regular season, but things change in the win-or-go-home playoff setting.
Jones’ incessant running on Sunday was one example of that shift in mindset. Another was the workload of the front four. Outside linebacker Kavyon Thibodeaux (93 percent of the defensive snaps), defensive tackle Leonard Williams (91 percent) and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (89 percent) rarely left the field.
That trio played a ton of snaps throughout the season, but their playing time was scaled back at times. They’ll have seven months to rest after their final game, so there’s no need for load management now.
The silver lining of the prolonged absences of cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and safety Xavier McKinney is that the Giants were forced to play younger players. That experience gave defensive coordinator Wink Martindale confidence to make an in-game adjustment to get safety Justin Pinnock on the field.
The Giants had been using linebacker Landon Collins, safety Tony Jefferson and slot cornerback Darnay Holmes in a sub package on passing downs late in the season. The Giants used that personnel grouping in the first half, but Martindale made a switch in the third quarter.
Collins played two snaps on the Vikings’ touchdown drive on their first possession of the second half, getting beat by Hockenson for a 19-yard completion. He was then replaced by Pinnock, which enabled Martindale to use McKinney in the box, where Collins had been playing. Pinnock played deep, as he had during the seven games McKinney missed with broken fingers.
Rookie Dane Belton took over after Pinnock suffered an abdominal injury midway through the fourth quarter. Daboll said Pinnock and outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, who left in the first half with a quad injury, are “day-to-day.”
More to Wink than meets the eye
Martindale has proven to be more adaptable than expected based on his reputation as a blitzing mad scientist. One of his strengths has been his ability to connect with his players.
Martindale has built genuine trust and confidence by maintaining open lines of communication with players. He even affords them input on strategic decisions.
“One thing I love about Coach Wink is I can tell he’s adaptable because he comes up to the players during the game and is asking us, ‘What are you guys feeling? What do you want to do?’ Williams said. “He even came up to me and Dex before that last three minutes of the game and he said, ‘Do you guys want to put dime (package) on the field or what do you want to put on the field?’ He wants our input.”
That’s not something all coaches do, especially in their first year with a team. But Martindale leads with an empowering touch that gets the most out of his players.
Trouble in the slot
Holmes had another rough game in coverage, allowing catches on all seven of his targets for 47 yards. Tight end T.J. Hockenson burned Holmes with a stick-nod route to gain 28 yards on a second-quarter touchdown drive.
Here come the Vikings 👀
📺: #NYGvsMIN on FOX
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/AJ2krfYypW pic.twitter.com/ds4IDMOVxI
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2023
But Holmes was active near the line of scrimmage. He blew up a screen to running back Dalvin Cook for a 3-yard loss on the first play of the fourth quarter. Then Holmes dropped Cook for a 4-yard loss on a quick pass on the first play of Minnesota’s drive after the Giants had taken a 31-24 lead.
Holmes has always demonstrated instincts and aggressiveness when playing downhill. The problem is his primary role involves coverage downfield, and that’s been a struggle. Holmes’ skill set could translate better to safety if the Giants are interested in a position change in the offseason.
For now, the Giants have other options in the slot. Nick McCloud, who is bigger than Holmes, has been the nickel cornerback when opponents are in two-tight end sets. Meanwhile, rookie cornerback Cor’Dale Flott, who was drafted in the third round to play in the slot, has better coverage skills than Holmes, but isn’t as strong against the run.
Each players has strengths and weaknesses, but the coaching staff seems most comfortable with Holmes getting the majority of slot snaps.
Steady special teams
Special teams is an area that typically only stands out when things go wrong. So the Giants’ maligned special teams unit deserves credit for a solid performance against the Vikings.
Jamie Gillan, who had a punt blocked at a crucial moment in the regular season loss to the Vikings, only punted twice. The Giants nearly came up with a game-changing play on one of them, as gunner Nick McCloud hit returner Jalen Reagor as he fielded a third quarter punt. Reagor fumbled, but the Vikings were fortunate to recover the loose ball at their own 24-yard line.
Reliable kicker Graham Gano had a low-stress day, making a 25-yard field goal on his lone attempt. The importance of special teams will grow as the Giants advance deeper in the playoffs.
Assistants in demand
Not surprisingly, the Giants’ performance has generated head-coaching interest in their coordinators. Offensive coordinator Mike Kafka has reportedly received interview requests from the Panthers, Texans and Colts. The Colts have also reportedly requested an interview with Martindale.
Those interviews can take place beginning on Tuesday, but Daboll said the coordinators will wait until after Saturday’s divisional round matchup with the Eagles. That makes sense since the Saturday game left the Giants with a short week.
If the Giants beat the Eagles, Kafka and Martindale could handle their interviews on Sunday since there will be an extra day of preparation for the NFC Championship Game. If the Giants lose to the Eagles, Kafka and Martindale will be free to interview whenever they please.
A happy co-owner
Giants co-owner Steve Tisch has kept a low profile in recent years, so it was surprising when he released a statement after Sunday’s win.
“My family and I are proud of the players, coaches and staff and how everyone throughout the entire organization has worked together to make this a successful season,” Tisch said. “We are happy for the Giants fans who have endured some tough times with us in recent years. We appreciate their support, passion and enthusiasm.
“Joe and Dabs have laid the foundation for continued success. We all agree there is much work left to be done. Their shared vision and constant dialogue is always about what is best for the organization, as is their consistent approach day in and day out and the great communication with John (Mara) and me.”
The tone of the statement was unusual, as it sounded like something that may have been released if the Giants lost the game. But Tisch, who pushed for an overhaul last offseason, clearly felt compelled to comment on the early success of the new regime.
(Photo: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)