There was a time late in the third quarter when it felt as if the Giants were back. The old Giants. The ones that grinded out victories and championships and would not allow anyone or anything to stand in their way.
On a must-produce drive, Saquon Barkley, who hadn’t carried a football for the team before Sunday in 51 weeks, took a handoff on third-and-2 and was met at the line of scrimmage. Instead of going down, though, he pushed and pushed and pushed and when the whistle finally blew he had gained three yards and a first down.
The fans at MetLife Stadium, who had been sidelined for even longer than Barkley was by the pandemic, began a full-throated chant of "Let’s go, Giants." Wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who had accounted for the Giants’ first touchdown of the season and had two key third-down catches on the drive, began waving his arms in celebration. And on the next play Daniel Jones saw a crease open in the middle of the Broncos’ defense and took off and …
Well, by now you know how this ends. If you have paid attention to this team and this quarterback for any period of time, you understand that these are the moments when things go terribly wrong. It may be a new season, it may be a roster stocked with new playmakers, but the mistakes and miscues by Jones that cripple the Giants at the points at which games routinely hinge remain unchanged.
The Giants were back, alright. Just the wrong, most recent vintage of them.
Jones fumbled, the Broncos kicked a field goal to go ahead 20-7, and everything after that was postscript in a 27-13 loss. That included a before-it-was-too-late opportunity with first-and-goal from the 7 that ended with three incompletions (one nearly intercepted) and a turnover on downs. When Jones’ fourth-down pass to Kenny Golladay sailed incomplete with 6:25 left to end that drive, the once brimming and optimistic stadium emptied with the whoosh of indoor plumbing.
Those who left were the lucky ones. They missed a roughing the passer penalty against rookie Azeez Ojulari that negated a third-down stop deep in Denver territory and a 70-yard touchdown run by Melvin Gordon III on the very next play.
The loss was the fifth straight for the Giants on opening day and the 10th in the last 11 seasons. Barkley finished with 26 rushing yards on 10 carries, and one catch for one yard. Jones was 22-for-37 for 267 yards with one TD.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio recorded his first career September win.
While Jones’ turnover and inability to make clutch plays was certainly at the heart of the Giants’ misfortune, the loss was a complete team effort. A defense that was supposed to be able to carry the team through the early portion of the schedule was unable to make key stops and was shredded by Teddy Bridgewater (28-for-36, 264 yards, 2 TDs).
The Giants took a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter when Jones hit Sterling Shepard on a 37-yard touchdown. Shepard caught the ball at the 21, high-stepped a tackle attempt by rookie Patrick Surtain II at the 17, tip-toed along the sideline, and scooted into the end zone.
From that point through the middle of the third quarter, though, the Broncos took over. They ran 31 of the next 35 offensive plays in the game, scoring a pair of touchdowns in that span. It might have been more had Logan Ryan not stripped Albert Okwuegbunam of the ball at the Giants’ 4. It might have been less had the defense managed to get the Broncos’ offense off the field just once during that span.
Instead, Denver converted a fourth-and-2 from the 49 in the final minute of the first half on a 14-yard slant to Courtland Sutton then went on to take the lead, 10-7, on a 2-yard pass to Tim Patrick with eight seconds left. The Broncos took the opening kickoff of the second half and embarked on a 16-play, 75-yard drive in which they converted third downs with 5, 6, 4 and 7 to go and finally scored a touchdown on fourth-and-1 from the 4. Bridgewater hit Okwuegbunam on that scoring pass before the tight end slipped through a tackle attempt by Blake Martinez and dove for the pylon to make it 17-7 with 6:48 left in the third.
Joe Judge was so frustrated by the result that he threw his challenge flag on the scoring play – a head coaching no-no – just to try to stop the momentum after a replay shown on the video board hinted that Okwuegbunam might have touched the sideline before his lunge for the end zone. The touchdown had already been confirmed by replay officials in New York, though, and the Giants were charged a timeout for the misuse of the red flag.
The Giants started to get something going with their ensuing drive, including that inspiring first-down push from Barkley.
It was short-lived euphoria.
Certainly for the day. And if things continue on their current trajectory for Jones and the Giants, more than likely for the rest of this season.