Mathematically speaking, this is not a must-win game for the Giants. But considering their fragile psyche after two botched fourth-quarter performances, their NFC East game Thursday night against Washington is about as close to must-win as you can get before the calendar flips to October.
The Giants cannot afford to ruin another opportunity like the ones presented them against the Cowboys and Falcons. A win over Washington might help soothe two weeks' worth of angst over clock management, turnovers and whatever else went wrong in their 0-2 start.
A loss here, and there is reason to think this will amount to a lost season leading to a host of changes.
The fact that this is mostly a young and rebuilding team makes it all the more urgent that the Giants see some tangible positive results from their hard work.
The Giants would have beaten the Cowboys in what would have been a stunning upset were it not for Eli Manning's ill-fated decision to tell running back Rashad Jennings not to score on two straight plays near the goal line when the Giants had the chance to go up two scores. And they would have iced the Falcons by going ahead by three scores in the third quarter had Manning not fumbled inside the Atlanta 10. Instead a 20-10 lead frittered away into a 24-20 loss.
The result has been an avalanche of criticism aimed at a rebuilding team whose collective mind-set is extremely vulnerable. That's why Tom Coughlin has gone to great lengths to try and mitigate the noise coming from outside the locker room by reinforcing the positives he has seen in both games -- namely that the Giants had a fourth-quarter lead each time. The coach knows this is a treacherous spot for his players, because he has presided over two straight losing seasons and has seen the psychological damage that losing can cause his players.
Jon Beason offers much-needed veteran leadership, and the middle linebacker is expected to return from a knee injury, so there's some hope there. But the Giants will be without standout cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (concussion), and Victor Cruz (calf) is still a week away from returning.
Manning will need an improved effort, especially if he's in a position to put the game away in the fourth quarter. But Washington poses some strategic challenges different from the more pass-centric approaches of the Cowboys and Falcons.
Washington offers more of an old-school, ground-oriented approach, and the team leads the NFL with 171.5 rushing yards per game. That will put the onus on the defense to stop the visitors and give Manning some time to get the offense moving.
"It's a defensive game," linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "It's important for us to be able to come out and stop the run -- that's obvious. I think people understand the task that we're up against. We have to stop the run against one of the best running football teams in the NFL."
Washington coach Jay Gruden prefers a more conservative approach with starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, who replaced the injured Robert Griffin III in the preseason. Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones already have combined for 331 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
"They're one-cut runners," Giants safety Landon Collins said, referring to a style in which the running backs take the ball, quickly read where the hole is and then make one move up the field. "They're going to hit the hole hard, and they're going to try and make something happen after that."
Given the Giants' challenges in stopping the pass the first two games, dealing with a run-oriented offense might work to their advantage. Easier said than done, though, because Washington already ran effectively against two stout defenses in the Dolphins and Rams.
A daunting challenge, to be sure, but one the Giants need to overcome if they want to have some semblance of a chance moving forward. It's about as must-win as you can get this early in the season.