Welcome to Week 13! Or, as Brian Daboll apparently prefers it to be known, the starting point of the season. It’s a crucial week for the sliding Giants, with questions swirling over what, exactly, they are – Playoff team? Pretender? – and real concerns about what they can accomplish when their run game fizzles.
The Giants (7-4) have lost three of their last four games and two in a row, including a Thanksgiving Day loss to Dallas. They come off a 10-day break to play host to the 7-5 Washington Commanders on Sunday, another tilt along the knife’s edge that is the NFC East. The Commanders are scorching hot, going 6-1 over their last seven games.
Which Giants team shows up? Here are five things to watch as we find out:
Bark and bite
Teams have been able to limit Saquon Barkley’s contributions in recent weeks, though he is still fourth in the NFL with 992 rushing yards. But the Giants can’t have a repeat of the last two games in which Barkley ran for 22 yards against the Detroit Lions and 39 against the Dallas Cowboys. No one seems convinced the Giants can put up points without Barkley running wild and Washington, which has a talented defensive front, figures to think the same way.
The Commanders allow only 108.4 rushing yards per game, eighth-best in the NFL, and the six rushing touchdowns they’ve given up is tied for the third-lowest total in the league. Daniel Jones might have to have a big day, but the Giants are 0-3 games in which he’s attempted at least 35 passes.
Washington's elite front
Chase Young, the former No. 2 pick in the draft, could make his season debut for Washington on Sunday. He tore his ACL in November of last year. That would add another dazzling talent to the Commanders’ front, which boasts four first-round picks and is a big reason why Washington has allowed only 19.7 points per game (10th). Montez Sweat, who has seven sacks to lead the team, has keyed an effective pass rush and Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne (6.5 sacks apiece) have harried quarterbacks all year, too.
The Commanders have 30 total sacks – for reference, that’s 10 more than the Giants. Offensive lineman Evan Neal is expected to return for the Giants this week, which is good news. Andrew Thomas has allowed only one sack all year, which came on Thanksgiving against the Cowboys, but overall the Giants have given up 33 sacks. Only five teams have allowed more.
If you like your football with three yards and a cloud of those weird loose turf bits, this could be your kind of game. The Commanders like to run – they are fourth in rushing attempts, 10th in total rush yards and 15th in yards per game – and control the ball. They average 32:46 in time of possession, tops in the NFL. During their three-game winning streak, the Commanders have run for 481 yards.
Brian Robinson, who has come back from a gunshot wound with great success, has rushed for 467 yards in eight games and Antonio Gibson has 476 yards in 12 games. The Giants have allowed 329 yards on the ground over their past two games and have only held opponents to fewer than 100 yards three times this season.
If only the Giants had a rushing alternative as good as Washington wideout Terry McLaurin, who gives quarterback Taylor Heinicke a quality target. McLaurin leads the Commanders with 54 catches and his 840 yards, also tops on the team, is eighth in the NFL. McLaurin has 36 receptions in five career games against the Giants, including two touchdowns. He averages 95 yards receiving per game against Big Blue.
Heinicke is 5-1 as a starter, but he’s thrown an interception in five of his six starts and fumbled twice, so perhaps the Giants can force him into a key mistake.
Let’s see your ID
Meaningful December games are a real treat at MetLife, make no mistake. It hasn’t happened much recently. So this game could be a real statement for a Giants team that needs to find some equilibrium after a great start morphed into questions about what their season can be.
The Giants and Commanders currently hold the final two playoff spots in the NFC, but they both have excruciating schedules remaining, including another game against each other Dec. 18. The Giants also will face the Eagles twice (yikes), the Vikings and the Colts. A win Sunday against Washington would be huge – teams that start 8-4 have made the playoffs 81.9 percent of the time since 1990. If a team starts 7-5, that percentage plummets to 54.9.