TAMPA, Fla. — Unless a team faces the possibility of being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, players and coaches will almost never label a game a must-win situation.
Especially a game that’s played on Oct. 1.
But for all practical purposes, the Giants’ game against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium is must win. At 0-3 and reeling from a pitiful start that makes them by far the biggest surprise from a negative point of view in the NFL this year, they need this game almost as much as they would a late December matchup against the Cowboys, Redskins or Eagles in a tight divisional race.
Yes, they would still have 12 games left to salvage the season if they were to lose in Tampa and drop to 0-4. But for a team with this much hype and promise coming into the season, and for an offense that has shown life in just one of the first 12 quarters of play so far, the stakes for this game simply can’t be underestimated.
Even now, history isn’t on the Giants’ side. Since the NFL went to its current playoff format in 1990, only three teams have made it to the playoffs after starting 0-3 — the 1992 Chargers, the 1995 Lions and the 1998 Bills.
At 0-4, the list goes down to one. Only the ’92 Chargers rallied from losing the first month of the season to reach the postseason, as coach Bobby Ross led the Chargers to an 11-1 to finish AFC West title. In fact, that Chargers team is the only one to get to the playoffs after an 0-4 start since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
It may turn out that this year’s Giants are indeed done, and that they never fully recover from this horrendous start. With the offense only coming alive in the fourth quarter of last week’s 27-24 loss to the Eagles — a 24-point outburst — only sustained production over a long period of time will tell us that Ben McAdoo’s attack will be playoff-worthy.
The Giants talked all week about positive signs against the Eagles, even before they finally put points on the board when it was almost too late. And yes, they did move the ball well, using a quick-passing attack to minimize the Eagles’ dominant pass rush and keep Eli Manning upright from start to finish. He wasn’t sacked once, the first time the beleaguered offensive line produced a clean sheet since the Giants’ last visit to Philly in the next-to-last game in 2016.
But there’s no way the Giants can keep up that style of play on offense, with Manning releasing his passes in an average of a scant 1.86 seconds by far the quickest of any quarterback in Week 3. To his credit, McAdoo admittedly had to try something different, and having Manning use mostly three-step drops was a smart and effective strategy.
That approach will only get you so far, though. Defensive coordinators will quickly figure out that the best way to contain the quick passing game is to sit on the shorter routes and interrupt the slant passes and hitch routes that are ordinarily so effective. McAdoo will have to be creative in designing schemes that will attack a defense’s weakness and dictate the terms of engagement; too often, McAdoo has been left without answers to contend with opposing defenses, particularly when teams use a conservative two-deep zone to limit the long passing game.
Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the game’s rare receivers who can turn a short pass into a touchdown, and his play in the red zone was a huge key in last Sunday’s comeback in Philly. But McAdoo needs to develop more balance to make Beckham an even greater threat, and that means having a running game that can be even moderately effective. At this point, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust would be an improvement for a ground game that is virtually non-existent. It doesn’t help that both Orleans Darkwa (back), who has shown to be a niftier, more instinctive runner than starter Paul Perkins, and veteran third-down back Shane Vereen (hamstring) are both gimpy.
Rookie tight end Evan Engram is developing into an indispensable part of the offense, and Brandon Marshall finally seemed to be more comfortable in the offense last week after two poor games. Sterling Shepard continues to be a capable complementary receiver.
The defense needs to start imposing its will, too. The Giants struggled against the Eagles, especially against the run, and there’s no way this team should even think about a playoff push without significant improvement in the weeks ahead. Maybe the return of middle linebacker B.J. Goodson, who had a monster game in the opener in Dallas with 18 tackles, will help. It would also help if second-year cornerback Eli Apple starts playing more like a first-round cornerback, because teams have clearly identified him as the weak link in the secondary. His technique was a mess against the Eagles, and two big pass interference penalties proved critical in the outcomes.
“Obviously, 0-3 is not where we want to be,” guard Justin Pugh said. “You don’t want to press, you don’t want to push too hard or do too much, but come in here and give a little extra to these guys. We’ve got to go out and get a win on Sunday.”
Pugh has been here before; as a rookie in 2013, the Giants started off 0-3, and the losing streak ballooned to 0-6 before they finally got a win. The Giants got back to 5-7 and were briefly in contention in the NFC East.
A win in Tampa, and they can at least breathe easier, especially in a division that does not appear to have a dominant team. At least not yet.
A loss on Sunday, though, and it’s just about over.
If it isn’t already.