The New York Giants were not about to let the Washington Commands tie them up again.
Two weeks ago in MetLife Stadium, Taylor Heinicke’s 28-yard touchdown pass to rookie Jahan Dotson with 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter led to a scoreless overtime period and a 20-20 stalemate between the 90-year rivals.
Fast forward to Sunday night in FedExField. Trailing by eight points, the Commanders took possession at their own 43-yard line with 1:47 left in the final quarter. Forty seconds later, they were a yard away from a touchdown and potential two-point conversion that would have left the teams tied at … 20-20.
That scenario was at hand when rookie Brian Robinson bulled his way across the goal line. But the touchdown was nullified by an illegal formation penalty that set Washington back five yards.
From the six, Heinicke heaved the ball into the ground as he was chased by hard-charging linebacker Azeez Ojulari. On fourth down, Heinicke threw into the end zone for Curtis Samuel, who couldn’t secure the ball because he was so tightly covered by Darnay Holmes.
“If you’re able to watch the film and see all fourth downs, Heinicke and 10 (Samuel) is the guy he goes to,” Holmes said. “I knew, it’s fourth down. I’m going to have to plaster. That’s just what it was. He ran his first route, a slight fade, and from there they just plastered. And from there, I had to keep my eyes on the man and once the ball was in the air, make a play on the ball.”
Holmes said it was the biggest play he has made in his three seasons with the Giants.
“And I feel like there are many more plays to be made,” he said. “I’m just excited for the moment. I’m not the type of guy that’s going to ride this wave. At the end of the day, I’m going to go home, get that ball, go to Jersey, see my baby girl and my lady, and just keep on moving forward.”
As are the Giants. Their first victory since Nov. 13 improved their record to 8-5-1 and jumped them above the 7-6-1 Commanders and into sixth position in the NFC postseason race. The top seven teams make the playoffs.
That remains far from Brian Daboll’s field of vision. He cares only about the next game, which is Saturday afternoon in Minnesota against the 11-3 Vikings, who Saturday executed the greatest comeback in NFL history by overcoming a 33-0 halftime deficit to defeat Indianapolis in overtime, 39-36.
“Enjoy this one here on the way home, and then get ready to go play another team,” Daboll said. “That’s what you got to be. I just don’t believe in riding roller coasters in this league.”
Despite that seemingly risk-averse philosophy, Daboll was not afraid to take chances in the game, and they paid off for the Giants.
Rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux gave the Giants a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter when he sacked Heinicke for a nine-yard loss and forced a fumble he recovered and took into the end zone for the team’s first defensive touchdown of the season.
“If you ask me what happened – when I saw him, I was like, ‘Shoot, he still got the ball,’ so when I hit him, I can tell you what happened after that, I have just seen it and kept going,'” Thibodeaux said.
After the defense forced a Washington punt, the Giants embarked on their longest drive of the season, a 97-yard, 18-play marathon that took 8:35 to complete. But it seemed they would come out of it with just three points when they faced a fourth-and-nine at the Commanders’ 35-yard line. But after a timeout, Daboll greenlighted the Giants’ bid to go for it, and Daniel Jones made the decision pay off with an 11-yard pass to Richie James.
After the two-minute warning, Jones connected with Isaiah Hodgins for a 19-yard advance. Two plays later, Saquon Barkley took a direct snap and scored on a three-yard run off left tackle to extend the Giants’ halftime lead to 14-3.
Daboll said much planning went into the decision to go for it on fourth down, and he has long discussions with his analytics staff each week.
“You don’t know when that’s going to come up or how things are going to evolve,” he said. “Do you go for it on fourth and three, or do you do this? There are so many things that come up. Do you have discussions during the game? Yeah. And I have a line that goes to special teams. I have a line that goes to offense. I have a line that goes to defense. And I have a line that goes to (offensive assistant/game manager) Cade (Knox) and (director of football data & innovation) Ty (Siam).
“I have confidence in Daniel. I have since I’ve been here. Each game is different. Decision-making processes are different. We talk about those things on Wednesday and Thursday. I’d say we spend a lot of time, meeting time. So, when we get to the game, I can live with those decisions because we’ve studied them. We’ve discussed them. It’s what we believe in doing for that particular game. And if they work, it’s a great call. And if they don’t, they don’t. But I can live with the process of how we try to come to those conclusions each week because of the time spent. And I’d say those two guys do a great job – Ty and Cade. And they spend a lot of time on it. We have a lot of good discussions. I might not always agree with them on Wednesday and Thursday, but we keep on talking about it and going through certain situations. I’d say we try to be as detailed and thorough as we can.”
Daboll, with input from Knox and Siam, made another key decision that greatly benefitted the Giants in the fourth quarter.
Their lead was down to five points, at 17-12, when the Commanders drove from their own nine-yard line to the Giants’ five, where they faced a third-and-four. Heinicke was sacked for a four-yard loss by Dexter Lawrence and Ojulari. He fumbled and Leonard Williams recovered the ball for the Giants, but the officials ruled Heinicke was down by contact.
Up in the booth, Knox and Siam thought otherwise and relayed that conviction to Daboll, who challenged the call. After review, referee John Hussey announced the play was reversed and the Giants took the ball at their own 14-yard line.
“They’re really two guys that I lean on a lot during the week in terms of management, clock management, fourth-down decisions, overtime decisions,” Daboll said. “I thought everybody contributed to the win. Those two guys were certainly a big part of it – two Ivy Leaguers – so, I try to listen to the Ivy Leaguers.”
Given the holiday gift of reversal, the Giants, thanks largely to Barkley, seized the moment.
Barkley entered the fourth quarter with just 32 rushing yards. He added 57 in the decisive final quarter. Immediately following Hussey’s announcement, he had four consecutive carries, for 12, 15, 14, and three yards. After Jones ran for seven yards, Barkley picked up four more on two attempts. After an incomplete pass, Graham Gano kicked his second 50-yard field goal for the final eight-point margin.
“I saw an explosive, downhill, powerful runner,” Daboll said of Barkley. “And I was proud as heck of the kid.”
Barkley knew those final minutes of the fourth quarter were his time to excel.
“You’re aware of the situation,” he said. “Being (my) biggest critic, I really wish I found a way to end the game by putting it in the box or finishing the drive with the ball in our hands. But we were able to get down the field, and get points out of it. And kind of came out, gave that look to (our) O-linemen. And (they) had their look in their eyes, so I knew what kind of drive it was going to be. They kept leaning on them all game. When they needed it most, they made big holes for us. And we made a pop.
“I feel like I got into a groove. I wish I got into that groove a little earlier, but I guess I caught fire at the right time. That’s the beauty of it.”
It certainly was for a Giants team now firmly in control of its postseason destiny.