By all rights, the Giants had no business being in this game: On the road. Against a superior Rams team that is a little more than one season removed from a Super Bowl appearance. With Saquon Barkley gone for the season. With an offense struggling to score touchdowns. And with a defense previously incapable of preventing them.
Yet there they were, with a chance to at least send the game into overtime and perhaps even pull off a seismic upset.
That didn’t happen, of course. Not after a blown coverage — maybe their only defensive mistake of the game — gave the Rams a gift of a 55-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. And not after another devastating turnover by Daniel Jones, this one an interception near the goal line in the final seconds as the Giants attempted to drive for a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie it.
In the end, the Rams escaped with the 17-9 win, extending the Giants’ record to 0-4 and preventing Joe Judge from getting his first win as an NFL head coach.
But if what we saw on Sunday is any indication, that first win will come in fairly short order. Especially now that the Giants begin their division games in an NFC East that has gotten off to an absolutely miserable collective start. Consider: Even with no wins, the Giants remain in contention because Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington each has only one.
Given how humiliated the Giants were last week in a 36-9 home loss to the 49ers, the fact that they were competitive against this team was remarkable. There are no moral victories in the NFL, that’s a fact, but there are important moments in a team’s development, and this very well might have been one of them.
"I’m proud of the way our guys fought," Judge said. "I’m proud of the way they played. They’re an improved team from last week. We have to keep pushing on and going forward."
It might seem weird reading this about a team that went a second straight game without a touchdown, but this was a well-coached game by Judge. His clock management was quite sound, especially the way he preserved his timeouts in the second half, made intelligent choices on fourth down and gave the Giants a chance to even things up at the end.
His offense clearly needs to be better. It barely has a pulse with a combined six field goals the last two games. But this was a team on Sunday that did the best with what it had.
Jones is a continuing concern, a young quarterback who made yet another egregious turnover at a critical moment in the game. But for the most part, Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett played to his strengths.
Unfortunately for the Giants, Jones isn’t capable of completing drives, and that might end up being a deciding factor in whether he survives with this team and in this league. But if the coaches know he can’t make the high-degree-of-difficulty throws that only the great ones can make, they have to do their best to put him in positions in which he can thrive.
Jones is the first to know he has a long way to go, and though Judge would never say as much, he understands his second-year quarterback’s limitations.
"It’s certainly frustrating for me, there at the end of the game, with a chance to score and to tie up the game," Jones said. "To not do that is certainly frustrating . . . Just can’t force the ball in those situations."
If the light comes on just a little bit for Jones, and if the defense can show this kind of improvement after last week’s meltdown against the 49ers, there is at least some hope for what lies ahead.
But while the execution came up short on Jones’ interception and the defensive lapse on Cooper Kupp’s fourth-quarter score, Judge’s own performance was good enough. He was smart. His team played tough. And his decisions under pressure were well-thought-out and sensible.
Judge is a stickler for situational football; it’s something he learned from Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, two of the most meticulous coaches on the planet. And it’s that attention to detail that showed up against the Rams and will continue to show up as Judge progresses as a head coach.
There still are no tangible rewards for his preparation, but those will come shortly . . . as long as the Giants can carry out his vision and meet his uncompromising expectations.