After the Jets put on the most pungent performance in the NFL on Sunday, you had to wonder if authentic NFL football would be played at the Meadowlands this season. In an area that's an odd soup of smoky industry and swampland, many often ask what that rancid smell is wafting from the wetlands. "It's just the Jets” has been a fair response for years.
But as we know there are two teams who do business at MetLife Stadium. And while the Giants kicked off their 2020 campaign with a hard-fought 26-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, there isn't the sense of doom from Big Blue that follows Gang Green.
The Giants simply lost to a better team, particularly with Ben Roethlisberger back under center. After a shaky first few drives, No. 7 returned to the Big Ben form that has made him a star for 17 years, in a league that eats its own after three or four years. And what should make Giants fans feel warm on this chilly morning is the fact that they have a future star quarterback and a team that plays with purpose.
The game was a push until deep into the third quarter. With 3:17 left, Jones scrambled to his left at the Steelers’ 13 yard line. As he tried to toss the ball across his body, a pursuing Bud Dupree swatted Jones' right wrist, causing the ball to flutter in the air and allowing defensive lineman Cam Heyward to haul it in his bosom.
Before that pick, which was the pivot point of the game, Jones threw a 45-yard strike to a dashing Darius Slayton that hit him in stride, right in his hands, at the goal line, just as two Steelers were converging. It put the G-Men up 10-3 and gave fans a sense that these Giants were different from the baffled, backbiting clubs of the recent past.
Jones wasn't the only Giant on the field, of course. Slayton is blossoming, and just proved that last year's eight touchdown grabs were no fluke. Newly signed free agent linebacker Blake Martinez was roaming and drilling runners like Carl Banks used to, seemingly in on every tackle. The Giants' defense as a whole was flying to the ball and getting their fair shots on Big Ben, who was just too seasoned to let blitzes rattle him for four quarters. It proves the imperative of having a franchise quarterback. Indeed, if these were last year's Steelers sans Roethlisberger, the Giants likely would have throttled Pittsburgh by two touchdowns.
Sure, the NFL doesn't make its money in moral victories, and a loss still hurts, but you keep seeing improvements from Daniel Jones, despite who or where he plays, which is the sign of big paws on an NFL puppy. Next week he will do something else you haven't seen. And Saquon Barkley, who may have had his toughest day as a pro, won't be stifled to six yards on 16 carries again this season.
And even with Barkley's rare four quarters of quiet and two picks from Jones, it took supreme effort from Big Ben, a strong fill-in off the bench from Benny Snell Jr., and a highlight-reel catch-and-run from wideout James Washington in the fourth quarter just for Pittsburgh to win the game. Even with their miscues and muted running game, the Giants had more first downs and ran just as many plays (64) as Pittsburgh. And the Steelers defense, which ranked third in the NFL last season and led the league with 54 sacks, got to Jones just three times.
While you try not to get too elated or deflated after one game, the Giants flashed something that has been glaringly absent since Tom Coughlin was booted from the premises: they played with a refreshing toughness and teamwork that we didn't see under Ben McAdoo or Pat Shurmur. There were no freelancing stars, or well-paid mercenaries just worried about their stats. And that is a promising sign from the head coach.
Many of us scratched our scalps when a franchise as old, wise, and proven hired someone as young and unproven as Joe Judge to coach the club. But we should also remember the Steelers, the exemplar of stability, who have had three coaches since 1969, took a chance on three thirty-something rookies named Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. Not that Joe Judge is in that orbit, or will ever be, but you can tell when a team plays hard and well for its coach. You can clearly see the Jets don't. And you clearly saw that the Giants do.