Keidel: Cardinals Game Will Define Direction Of Giants' Season

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While NFL teams place a rabid premium on winning each week, sometimes a loss is more didactic than devastating.  

The Giants were largely in lockstep with the Patriots in Week 6 - down by one score with nine minutes left in the game — before New England seized on turnovers and attrition. Coach Pat Shurmur said the right things, feeding us the football bromides, asserting that there are no moral victories in pro football. 

But the Giants hung with the best team in the league, without the services of their best player (Saquon Barkley), their all-world tight end (Evan Engram) and their most valued wideout (Sterling Shepard). Daniel Jones was predictably baffled by Bill Belichick's defense, which devours the young. It was the quintessential learning experience.

Greg M. Cooper / USA Today Sports
 

Now the Giants face a squad much more like themselves, when they host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. It's just the third time the Cardinals have played the Giants at the Meadowlands since 2005. And they find each other as teams in transition, with each game a referendum on their rookie quarterback.  

Arizona (2-3-1) rolls out Kyler Murray, the flashy, first pick in the draft. A Heisman winner churned out by the football factory of Oklahoma. The Giants (2-4) are similarly excited about the more understated Jones, whose name, game, and alma mater (Duke) don't beam quite as brightly from the marquee. But the early returns are promising for both rookie passers, each breathing life into their moribund clubs, while also posting a few wins. It's just the ninth time since the AFL-NFL merger that two QBs just selected in the top-10 picks of the draft face each other the same year. 

Jones is a tall, lean, pocket passer. Murray is short, stout and can run like a leopard. It speaks to the parity we enjoy every year from the NFL. While football, like other sports, can be a copycat affair, Jones and Murray prove that you can win with your arm or your legs, with great height or a big heart, by throwing or running the ball. 

For the last few years, the Cardinals and Giants were considered football paupers, two teams in a ham-handed crusade to replace franchise quarterbacks. The Cardinals had Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer, and then plunged into the great QB void, which they tried to fill with Josh Rosen but failed. The Giants have leaned on the clutch genes and indestructible DNA of Eli Manning for the last 15 years. It got them two Super Bowls — against the hated Patriots — but some seriously lean years since. 

Both teams also have questionable coaching. Shurmur didn't prosper in his previous gig as an NFL head coach with the Browns and stumbled out to an 0-2 record this year before benching Manning and handing the keys to Jones. The Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, who had a losing record in the Big 12, got fired from Texas Tech and couldn't even win in college with Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback. 

The Cardinals ride a two-game winning streak into MetLife Stadium, while the Giants have dropped their last two contests. But the Giants are getting Barkley and Engram back on the field, are favored by three points and must bag this game if they are to keep the media and masses from giving up on them, again. With their best skill players in the huddle, the Giants should feast on Arizona's defense, which hemorrhages 414 yards per game, third worst in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 121.8 passer rating against Arizona, second highest in the NFL. 

The Giants' defense hasn't fared much better, yielding 412.3 yards a game. But it has been more robust in recent weeks, and even kept Tom Brady from tossing a TD last Thursday. And fans, for now, still see the sheen Jones had after his first two wins, more than the somber returns from his two losses. And despite tumbling the last two weeks, the G-Men are just a game out of first place in the NFC East. The Cowboys and Eagles, considered Super Bowl contenders in September, are 3-3, and play each other on Sunday, which would leave the G-Men tied for second place if they win. 

So this game against the Cardinals is a ballot box on the season. You can live with a loss in Foxborough, against a team that has its mail forwarded to the Super Bowl. But Arizona has a losing record against almost every NFL club. And the Giants are 81-44-2 all-time against the Cardinals, going back to their days in St. Louis and Chicago. For the Giants, is the first of a stretch of four games against teams that currently do not have a winning record. If Big Blue wants to take a big step toward relevance, it starts in the cold wind and swamp of the Meadowlands against a team from the heat and cacti of Arizona.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel.