Saquon Barkley likes to say he is the biggest competitor he knows.
But when it became clear that the Giants were about to lose to the Cowboys on Monday night, their 11th straight loss in prime time and their 10th loss in 11 games against their NFC East rival, a team Barkley has never beaten in his career, he wasn’t even thinking about it.
Yes, he saw the final offensive play the Giants ran, a pass from Daniel Jones that was intercepted by Trevon Diggs with 1:11 remaining. And he saw David Sills, the intended target on the pass, slip during his route to allow the costly turnover. He even looked up at the big video boards and wondered for a moment if Diggs had actually made the catch or trapped it against the turf.
Then he looked to his right and something far worse than the 23-16 score that would stick as the final on the scoreboard.
He saw his teammate and best friend, Sterling Shepard, sprawled on the ground, the medical staff running to comfort him, players from both teams gathering around him, and a cart coming to carry him off. He didn’t want to go anywhere near the scene and took a knee off by himself, but when he and Shepard caught each others’ eyes, Barkley knew it was bad news.
“It was definitely a gut-punch ending,” Barkley said.
And it had nothing to do with the Cowboys.
Shepard, the longest-tenured and perhaps most-respected player on the Giants, suffered what almost certainly will be confirmed by a Tuesday MRI to be a major left knee injury. The wide receiver wasn’t even running — he was barely moving, in fact — when he collapsed to the ground in pain clutching that limb. After he fought back from a torn Achilles last December to return this season, Shepard’s 2022 campaign almost certainly is over.
The first loss of the Brian Daboll era came with that kind of jolt back to sobriety after a giddy 2-0 start to the season.
Now, with all the emotions they carried out of MetLife Stadium on Monday night, the Giants have to rally to face the Bears on Sunday.
“I think you just take it for what it’s worth,” Daboll said of the loss. “We didn’t do a good enough job, all of us, and you recognize that, you own it, take responsibility for it and move on. You can’t let these things linger just like you can’t let a win linger. You have to move on and get ready for the next opponent.”
Still, the Giants seemed more shaken by Shepard’s fate than their own in a somber postgame locker room. That Shepard had to be helped into that space with a member of the medical staff under each of his arms basically carrying him through the tunnels of the stadium made it even more difficult to stomach.
“Man, it hurt me when I saw him go down like that,” fellow wide receiver Kenny Golladay said. “It still hurts. It choked me up a little, to be totally honest.”
The game was a back-and-forth contest in which the first 12 points came on two field goals by each team before Barkley gave the game its first big offensive play, a 36-yard touchdown run for a 13-6 lead with 5:31 left in the third quarter. The Cowboys answered with a 1-yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott with 27 seconds left in the third.
Dallas (2-1) took the lead for good at 20-13 on CeeDee Lamb’s one-handed, 1-yard touchdown grab with 8:30 left in the game. It capped a drive in which Lamb and Cooper Rush connected four times for 48 yards, including a huge 4-yard gain on fourth-and-4 from the Giants’ 41. The Giants also committed a defensive offside penalty that allowed the Cowboys to convert a third-and-1 early in the possession. Dallas tacked on a field goal with 5:58 left to make it a two-score game.
The Giants closed to 23-16 on Graham Gano’s 51-yard field goal with 3:37 left, and a third-down stop with 1:52 remaining forced a Dallas punt. The Giants had the ball at their own 9 with 1:45 remaining and no timeouts. Three plays later, Jones threw the interception and Shepard was carted away.
“It’s the NFL,” Barkley said, citing the 1972 Dolphins as the only team that actually did win ‘em all. “You have your ups and downs, peaks and valleys. You can’t get too high.”
Now the Giants have to figure out how not to get too low after the loss.
And the one to Dallas, too.
Notes & quotes: Leonard Williams (knee) was inactive, ending a streak of 114 straight regular-season games he had played since the start of his career. The Giants certainly missed him as they allowed 178 rushing yards to Tony Pollard (105) and Elliott . . . WR Kadarius Toney (hamstring) did not play. Neither did WR Wan’Dale Robinson. That still did little to increase the role of Golladay (three targets), who dropped a key fourth-quarter pass.