Keidel: With first win in tow, now is the time for Giants to prove they're truly improving

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If you knew nothing about the pandemic, and someone told you a football game would feature a team with no wins against a team with no name, the empty arena could make sense to you.

This is the NFL in 2020, however, where teams play in cavernous stadiums, fans and friends carved out, with eerie echoes drifting from end zone to end zone.
But, even by the surreal standards of sports these days, the sleepy cage match between the Giants and the Washington Football Team was tough to swallow.

Still, Big Blue bagged their first win of the season, snaking past Washington, 20-19, in a game that highlights a vital contrast between the Giants and their MetLife roommates, the Jets. One 0-5 team was still playing hard, and while the Jets couldn't even score a point against the team that previously fired their current head coach, the Giants, no matter how slowly or sloppily, slapped a crooked number on the win column.

In the cutthroat climes of the NFL, you don't make excuses for wins any more than you do for losses. Maybe the Giants did little to distinguish themselves from the Washington team that has no handle and no franchise quarterback. But Daniel Jones threw a rare dime to Darius Slayton for a touchdown, plugging into the connection that seemed to be blossoming last year. Blake Martinez tackles everything that flinches (the free agent LB from Green Bay is second in the sport, with 64), and the Giants defense, at least, looks competent.

But the rest of the 2020 season, with all its oddities and morbidity, will be a twin-test on the head coach and quarterback. How hard, and well, the Giants play the rest of the way will tell us if rookie coach Joe Judge still has the ear and respect of his squad. The goal with Big Blue, unlike Gang Green, is not to Tank for Trevor, no matter how sublime the Clemson QB may be. Judge was hired to turn this tanker around, one play and one player at a time. So while wins will be elusive, the Giants are still considered a valid NFL team, with a history to back it up.

Judge is being asked to win with a skeletal offense, one missing its best player (Saquon Barkley) and most reliable wideout (Sterling Shepard), with an offensive line still in rebuild. And, wonderfully athletic tight end Evan Engram, a darling of many fantasy football rosters, has been all but muted, as even when he scores a touchdown, as he did against Dallas a week ago, it gets called back.

So it lands on Judge's most important pupil, Daniel Jones, who has regressed from his ephemeral "Danny Dimes" glory one year ago. Maybe it's the lack of weapons. Maybe it is, as Boomer Esiason asserts, that Jones plays too carefully, and needs to let a few rip for the sake of the team, and his confidence. Jones relied on his legs yesterday and led the club in rushing, with 74 yards on seven carries, including a huge dash down the middle for 49 yards in the first half that set up a field goal. Jones is hardly Lamar Jackson, but it's plays like that, along with his improved accuracy, that had Giants fans drooling at his potential.

No matter his crew around him, Jones must be better than his three touchdowns and six interceptions for the season suggests; he still completes about 61 percent of his passes, but he tossed 24 TD passes last year against just 12 INT, a ratio the opposite of his current one. Good players will shine even in the darkest pockets of the sport, but Jones must again prove he was worth the sixth overall pick in the NFL Draft.

The Giants play four of their next five games against teams with one win right now, sporting a combined record of 4-17-2 (if you include the Eagles' current record twice). As Halloween approaches, the Giants will dress up as an improving pro football team. They have four weeks to prove whether they really are, or are just masquerading as one.

Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel