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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Shane Brennan

NFL preview: The mild men of New York have defied doubters all season, and could have another surprise in store

Daniel Jones #8 and head coach Brian Daboll of the New York Giants are seen after defeating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Wild Card playoff game last week (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Back in November, the New York Giants stood as one of the best teams in the NFL by record, flying high with seven wins and just two losses. Yet almost every team fancied themselves to beat them.

It was quite an unusual space to be in - the Giants had won six of their previous seven games yet were lauded as the ‘worst 7-2 team in history’. Questions were asked about whether they had the right core strengths to be Super Bowl contenders as the defence and offensive line seemed subpar, making them bad value for their high win rate. Many onlookers, including this writer, anticipated a dramatic fall from grace in the second half of the season and were almost proved right.

Over the next six games, the Giants lost five and drew one - 20-20 against the Washington Commanders in a game New York could not afford to lose, as the men from the Capitol were a serious threat to the New Yorker’s playoff berth.

But a win in their second game against Washington was a reprieve for the men from the Meadowlands, enough to prove to the doubters that they had the necessary steel to keep heads above water and make it to the playoffs.

The Giants winning so many games was a surprise considering where they left off last season. In 2021 they went 4-13, often attacking without purpose as if they were dancing in the dark, and hadn’t changed much in terms of on-field personnel in the offseason. But the hiring of Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as head coach has proven to be a master-stroke.

Daboll was handed a mixed bag offensively. The Giants had the talented duo of Daniel Jones, a quarterback who is skilled at thinking on his feet and running through gaps, and Saquon Barkley, a once-questionable draft pick that has awakened from his dormant state to be one of the league’s best running backs. The turnaround in the duo’s reputation is a rags-to-riches story born in the USA and has inspired real hope during games when their game plan seemed clear in their heads.

But on the other hand, the offensive line was average at best. It still is, as the Giants have installed low-cost improvements amid financial strain. But Daboll’s world-class play design has been transformative, and he has gotten the best out of his squad.

The Giants’ success has come from the realisation that they were born to run.

Jones and Barkley make more headlines than the club’s corps of wide receivers - a change in the New York mindset that once adored Odell Beckham Jr. And although the mid-season winless run erodes confidence in their Super Bowl credentials, their ability to recover in time for the New Year can be spun in their psychological favour. 

Just as it is important not to peak too early, it’s key that a team does not dip too late. The Giants have the luxury of having their low point firmly in the rearview mirror.

Furthermore, the Big Blue are a team who shows second-half mettle. A strength when sealing come-backs against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1 and against the Baltimore Ravens a few weeks later. A weakness when in too many games they seem to wait until the third quarter to really get going.

Last week against the Minnesota Vikings the Giants leaned on their core strengths to deliver an impressive 31-24 win away to one of the most complete teams in the NFL. And here they flipped their formbook and began the game as the better team instead of waiting until the latter stages to go for the jugular, meaning that their late-game mettle came through when trying to hold onto a lead instead of chasing an opponent that would have few problems remaining in control.

They scored on two first-half drives based around excellently-designed plays, with Barkley the starring man in most. And when a play didn’t go by the book, Jones showed the explosive creativity that, combined with his accuracy when passing the ball, has earned him the tag of ‘elite quarterback’ in the eyes of Daboll and many of the Giants faithful - a label that would have been dismissed as a joke before September.

What faces them now is the biggest challenge to their season. The men who were born to run travel to the Streets of Philadelphia to face the Eagles, a side that once looked unbeatable.

Things are looking good for the Eagles. Jalen Hurts is healthy (enough) after the Pro Bowl quarterback missed two games late in the year with a sprained right shoulder. The NFC postseason runs through Eastern Pennsylvania as they are the NFC top seed. And their rivals are both familiar and beaten - The Eagles went 2-0 this season against the Giants.

Jalen Hurts #1 of the Philadelphia Eagles scrambles against the New York Giants two weeks ago at Lincoln Financial Field. Photo: Getty Images

Unlike the 7-2 record New York held mid-season, Philadelphia’s 14-3 record sells their ability short.

Two of those losses came while relying on backup quarterback Gardner Minshew, the third against an inspired Commanders outfit then filled with belief they could put the pressure on the Giants and topple them.

If New York are going to leave ‘The Linc’ as surprise victors, they are going to need to expose the Eagles’ weaknesses and give their star duo room to run - difficult against one of the league’s most formidable defensive units. 

They are also going to rely on the underdog status that has served this franchise better than most in recent years - since 1990, New York is 6-0 against No 1 seeds in the playoffs, and they famously were the first club to win a Super Bowl without playing any postseason games in their own stadium, doing so in 2008.

The club are known as the makers of fairytales born in the USA. There’s no reason they can’t do it again – if they plan right.

The key to this game will be the running backs rather than the quarterbacks. Miles Sanders scores two touchdowns and was ruthless in the Eagles’ 48-22 win at the Giants in December. Barkley’s ability to make big plays when backs are against the wall will be crucial to Daboll’s plans, especially seeing as the Giants are not the best when it comes to blocking the blitz defence, and the Eagles have made 70 sacks this season - the third most in NFL history.

25-year-old Barkley knows his legacy could depend on a big result tonight. 

“You’ve got to do it in both — regular season and postseason — throughout your whole career,” Barkley said this week. "There’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs, but you’ve got to try to be a consistent player.

"You want to create a legacy. You look at all the Giants greats — they did it in the postseason.

“You’ve got to be above the Xs and O's,” Barkley added. “They’re going to scheme it up to get you one-on-one and you’ve got to find a way to create the extra yards. Whether it’s the toss (move) or spin or using speed or whatever, I feel like that’s what separates me from a lot of other backs. And hopefully, I can continue to show that throughout the rest of the playoffs.”

A win tonight would boost the Giants’ stock immeasurably weeks before the Super Bowl. From the Streets of Philadelphia, they can reach their glory days.

NFL Divisional Round - All Sky Sports

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Kansas City Chiefs 9.30

The Jaguars pulled off the seemingly impossible last week when going from being 27-0 down to 31-30 victors, so they are hard to write off. However, in Arrowhead stadium the Chiefs will be in inspired form, and Patrick Mahomes will want to make use of the home crowd as top seeds considering an AFC Championship game could be moved to a neutral venue, giving them perfect motivation to run riot under the Missouri sky.

Verdict: Chiefs

New York Giants @ Philadelphia Eagles, 1.15am (Sunday)

It would be the easy thing to predict that the Eagles would win this one. Mind you, that would probably be the smart thing to do as the Eagles have been impressive week in, week out, and comparisons are being drawn to their Super Bowl-winning team from five seasons ago that were also the No 1 seeds. But the Eagles have the feeling of a team that can be taken by the right challengers, and the Giants have nothing to lose and will play with a sense of freedom. This one should be close.

Verdict: Giants

Cincinnati Bengals @ Buffalo Bills, 8.0 tomorrow

These sides have developed a closer bond since Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest when they met just three weeks ago. That incident, combined with a host of other adversities that Buffalo have endured this season, give Josh Allen and Co. plenty of sources for motivation.

It is the first time that Joe Burrow and Josh Allen have faced off, and Burrow has posted more impressive stats over the season, but the Bills defence has the experience to unsettle Burrow and his young crew of receivers. Offence will make the headlines, but defence will decide this game, and the smart money is on Buffalo’s

Verdict: Bills

Dallas Cowboys @ San Francisco 49ers, 11.30 tomorrow

Two great rivals in one of the classic clashes of the NFL, this will be a game to savour. Brock Purdy and the 49ers were excellent last week when dismissing the Seattle Seahawks and bring a lot of good vibes into this home clash against Dallas. Dak Prescott passed for four touchdowns last week and has had an excellent season, but his Dallas offence can often follow blowout scorelines with off days. Cowboys kicker Brett Maher had an awful game against the Buccaneers last week, and if he is not back to his usual reliable form the Cowboys could leave easy points on the field early on. If that happens, the 49ers should pull away.

Verdict: 49ers

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