The first major decision the New York Giants made on their roster this offseason was to not invest in quarterback Daniel Jones. Back in April, the Giants had the chance to lock in Jones for the 2023 season for just $22 million. But the Giants new brain trust of general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll decided they didn’t want to hitch their wagon to Jones just yet. They declined Jones’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract. Refusing to extend a quarterback’s first contract is almost always the first step to parting ways with a team’s highly-drafted signal caller. But the Giants insisted they were not giving up on him.
“We’ve done everything possible to screw this kid up since he’s been here,” Giants owner John Mara said about Jones last January when he introduced Schoen as the GM. “We keep changing coaches, keep changing offensive coordinators, keep changing offensive line coaches. I take a lot of responsibility for that. But let’s bring in the right group of coaches now and give him some continuity and try to rebuild the offensive line and then be able to make an intelligent evaluation of whether he can be the franchise quarterback or not.”
That evaluation is complete. Jones delivered his greatest game on his career’s biggest stage on Sunday, leading the Giants to a 31-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings to advance to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Jones completed 24 of his 35 passes for 301 yards (8.6 yards per throw) with two touchdowns and no turnovers. He also ran the ball 17 times for 78 yards and a touchdown, picking up a whopping seven first downs on the ground (Jones almost doubled Saquon Barkley’s carries). Jones is the first quarterback in NFL history with 300 or more passing yards, two or more passing touchdowns, and 70 or more rushing yards in a playoff game, according to NFL Research.
Most importantly, Jones had essentially zero mistakes (his 11 incompletions were mostly drops or smart throwaways). The game was New York’s first playoff victory since winning the Super Bowl after the 2011 season, more than a decade ago—which was appropriate since they were wearing the same away uniforms they wore in that playoff run. This is where I should probably disclose that I grew up rooting for the Giants, and I promise you this is the most fun Giants team there has been since that Super Bowl squad. And even if the Giants don’t make it back to the Super Bowl, Jones had earned himself a lot of money entering contract negotiations this offseason, and even more respect in the tri-state area.
The Giants moved the ball on Sunday as well as they have all season. New York had 26 first downs on 68 plays for 431 yards (6.3 yards per play) and went 9-of-15 on third and fourth down combined. The Giants had four touchdown drives, all of which were at least 75 yards. New York’s opening drive was capped by a Barkley run where he weaved in and out of Vikings defenders like a Ferrari passing Subarus on the highway.
Barkley, who like Jones is in the final year of his rookie contract, proved he is back to his pre-ACL tear form this season with otherworldly explosiveness and feel. For the first time since his rookie year, Saquon managed 1,300 rushing yards and double-digit rushing touchdowns. But just like Jones has had a night-and-day change going from 2021 offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to Daboll and new play caller Mike Kafka, Saquon has become a better downhill runner. While Barkley had just nine carries against Minnesota, he also caught five passes and accounted for 109 total yards and two touchdowns. On New York’s second drive they needed just four plays to go 81 yards, with receiver Isaiah Hodgins catching a 14-yard touchdown over the middle.
Hodgins scored this touchdown by beating veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, a former no. 5 draft pick and three-time first-team All-Pro player. While Peterson’s best days are long behind him, Hodgins beating such a decorated player to give the Giants the lead embodies the Giants season.
Hodgins was a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft, who had just four offensive snaps in his NFL career entering this season. The Giants scooped him up after he was cut from Buffalo’s practice squad in November, presumably because Schoen knew him from Buffalo. The Giants lost receivers Sterling Shepard, Collin Johnson, and Wan’Dale Robinson to season-ending injuries, traded Kadarius Toney, and benched Kenny Golladay, allowing Hodgins to end up third on the Giants in receiving yards this year (351). On Sunday, he had eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown—plus four crucial first downs. Hodgins seemingly does all the little things well. In the second quarter, the Giants faced a third-and-7 and tossed the ball to Hodgins 6 yards downfield. Hodgins, knowing the situation, made sure to fall backward to ensure he got the first down.
It’s not a sexy play, but it’s a savvy one by a player who embodies the ethos Daboll promised to bring to the Giants: being smart, tough, and dependable. This team is built on so many incredibly unsexy players—punt returner turned starting wide receiver Richie James; right guard Mark Glowinski; safety Jason Pinnock, who was cut by the Jets just one year after he was a fifth-round pick; journeyman defensive back Fabian Moreau, who has been moonlighting as the Giants’ no. 1 cornerback for months; and former Cowboys linebacker turned Packers castoff Jaylon Smith, who has become a starter in New York. The Giants entered this season spending essentially a third of its budget—about $60 million—on players who were either hurt or not playing for the team (or in Golladay’s case, borderline exiled from the team).
But nobody has come to represent that ethos better than Jones. He has curbed his ghastly turnover problem by playing smart. As a rookie, Jones led the NFL with 18 fumbles. His 2.3 interceptions plus fumbles per game were the second-most of any quarterback in any season since 1995. Flash forward to 2022, and Jones had just six fumbles and threw an interception on just 1.1 percent of his passes, the lowest rate among all qualifying quarterbacks. That decision making combined with Jones’s rushing ability—and willingness to lower his shoulder for yardage and run four plays in a row to the point of exhaustion—has made the Giants offense legitimately potent. Just the threat that Jones could run opened up more passing lanes Sunday against Minnesota, and the Giants were able to do whatever they wanted on offense for most of the game.
At the beginning, it looked like the Vikings offense, with a higher-paid quarterback and far more recognizable skill-position players, would be able to keep pace. Minnesota’s opening-drive touchdown looked effortless. But then the Vikings began beating themselves. A weird lateral from Justin Jefferson to Kirk Cousins that lost two yards on third-and-1, a penalty that negated a fourth-and-1 conversion, and ultimately, a Cousins checkdown on fourth-and-8 on Minnesota’s final offensive play that came up short of the sticks.
Many will point to how that embodies the literal shortcomings of both Cousins and the Vikings. But in fairness to Cousins, he largely played well. He completed 31 of his 39 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns (plus rushing for a third), and did not commit a turnover. He’ll be heavily criticized for only getting Jefferson seven catches for 47 yards, including just two catches for 10 yards after the first quarter.
But the Giants keyed in on Jefferson after the first drive, and the Vikings used this to their advantage. The Giants double-covering Jefferson opened things up for Minnesota’s second touchdown, and then the Giants triple-covering Jefferson helped create the Vikings’ third touchdown. Another Jefferson double-coverage opened up T.J. Hockenson to convert a crucial fourth down. Jefferson’s box score was weak, but his presence was a major reason why the Vikings were able to move the ball. Blaming this game, or this season, on Cousins not getting the ball to Jefferson is not fair.
We’ve known the truth about this Vikings team for months. They were quite literally the luckiest team in NFL history—at least in terms of how they played versus their record. Minnesota went 13-4 despite being outscored by their opponents this year. They were the first team in NFL history to go 11-0 in one-score games. #Nerdmath suggests the Vikings were about an eight- or nine-win team that fell ass backward into a 13-win season. The Vikings were a guy at a roulette table who had put his money on red and won 11 times in a row, and the casino was offering to comp their room to get them to stay longer.
The blame will be laid at Cousins’s feet, but the defense is this team’s issue, and Jones and the Giants were ready to exploit it. The Giants had five explosive plays over 20 yards, tied for the most the Giants had in a game all season (matching their output on Christmas Eve against … the Vikings). Minnesota allowed the second-most passing yards and most passing first downs this season, and their defensive weighted DVOA (which counts more recent games heavier) ranked 28th in the NFL. The Vikings punched above their weight winning the NFC North weeks in advance, but this was never a championship-contending team. Ironically, these Vikings still need what they’ve always needed: a third wide receiver and better cornerbacks.
Meanwhile the Giants head to Philadelphia for the divisional round, where they will take on the Eagles. For all the parallels to the 2011 Giants’ Super Bowl season, this run actually has more in common with 2007: that year the Giants lost twice to Dallas, then beat the NFC East champ Cowboys in the divisional round when Dallas was coming off a bye. The Giants get the same chance to do that next week in Philadelphia.
But no matter how this season ends, Jones will be getting paid. A four-year deal for $120 million with about $70 million guaranteed is likely the absolute floor. His real deal will likely be far bigger than that. But those details can wait. The Giants didn’t invest in Jones last year, but they won’t hesitate to do it now.
After the win, Jones spoke to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. Jones used the time to give his typical, milquetoast answers: praising the defense and his offensive linemen, but saying there was more work to do—blah blah blah. Then Jaylon Smith crashed the interview, throwing an arm around Jones and looking directly into the camera.
“That’s my quarterback!” Smith yelled, turning to look Jones directly in the eye as a huge smile came across his face. “That’s my quarterback!”
The Giants weren’t sure about it last year, but they are now.