The Giants had almost every tool to beat the greatest quarterback ever on Monday night. The missing element? Their own quarterback’s play.
Daniel Jones threw two costly interceptions, including a game-turning one with 12 minutes left that allowed Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to score a touchdown and take a lead they would never relinquish in their 25-23 victory at MetLife Stadium.
Though Jones was able to march the team down the field for a touchdown with 28 seconds remaining to bring them within two of the lead, converting two fourth downs and then hitting Golden Tate in the back of the end zone with a pinpoint 19-yard pass for the score, his late delivery on a two-point conversion pass for Dion Lewis – one that drew a pass interference flag that was controversially picked up by the officials – symbolized the kind of maddening inconsistency that is costing the Giants victories.
The loss dropped the Giants to 1-7 on the season. It was their sixth loss by 10 points or fewer, third in a row by three points or fewer. This one would have been a huge boost for the Giants, bringing down one of the top teams in the conference as well as a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Instead, it wound up as another potential victory thrown onto the grown pile of losses.
Most of the players and coaches said there were other factors in the game and did not pin the decision on the two second-half turnovers that led to 10 Tampa Bay points. Jones, to his credit, knew better.
"Those were costly mistakes for us," Jones said.
The fourth-quarter turnover by Jones was an awful decision, the kind that has haunted him throughout his young career, as he was being yanked down by defenders and still tried to hit Tate near the sideline. Sean Murphy-Bunting stepped in front of the receiver and picked it off. The first pick at the start of the third quarter was similarly a play when Jones was under pressure and, as Bucs coach Bruce Arians put it, Jones "tried to do too much."
When asked about the coaching staff’s weekly insisting that Jones either take a sack or throw the ball away in such situations, and the quarterback’s apparent mental block against doing so, Joe Judge practically sighed.
"It kind of sounds a little redundant when you put it that way," he said. "But we’re just going to keep on coaching it hard. We have to find inventive ways to coach it and drill it. And then as the player keeps on working he’ll experience it through play."
Said Jones: "When you are out there and competing and playing hard you have to be able to understand that part of the game and understand when it’s over. I have to do a lot better job there."
Jones’ 34 turnovers in 20 career starts is the most by any quarterback in that many games since Ryan Leaf posted 41 in 1999.
Six plays and 66 yards after the fourth-quarter pick Brady lofted a pass for Mike Evans to make a diving catch in the end zone and give the Bucs a 22-17 lead with 9:02 left. A field goal with 3:41 left made it an eight-point lead with 3:41 left.
That gave Jones the chance to redeem himself. He hit Darius Slayton to convert a fourth-and-5 and scrambled for 15 yards and a first down to bring the Giants to the Tampa 43 at the two-minute warning. He converted another fourth down, this time with 16 to go, on a 20-yard completion to Sterling Shepard. Then, with 28 seconds left, Jones hit Tate to make it 25-23.
After the failed two-point play, Tampa Bay (6-2) recovered the onside kick to end the game.
The Giants led 14-6 at the half after Lewis made a beautiful sliding catch in the end zone and Wayne Gallman charged in from the 2 behind rookie linemen Andrew Thomas and, in his first career start, guard Shane Lemieux. The Giants were the first team to hold Brady and the Bucs out of the end zone in the first half all season, and the defense kept that going deep into the third quarter before Brady finally hit Rob Gonkowski to put the Bucs ahead, 15-14. The Giants retook the lead on Graham Gano's field goal in the final seconds of the third quarter, but were unable to hold onto that advantage when Jones’ ill-advised interception came with 12:01 remaining.
Jones completed 25 of 41 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns, but beside the turnovers he was also 0-for-5 on deep passes for Slayton and Shepard who were open downfield. Those were lost opportunities. More damaging, though, were the lost possessions.
"I told Daniel both times [after the interceptions], ‘Just be patient with it, stay committed to it, we’re going to need you to make plays down the stretch,’" Judge said. "Obviously on that final drive he made a lot of big plays for us."
Young players make mistakes. That’s a given. The key to their development is that they not make the same mistakes over and over again.
That is the cycle Jones finds himself in.
"There are a number of situations that are similar and I need to improve and learn and correct those mistakes," Jones said. "I’ve got to be able to apply an idea regardless of the play and the situation."
Until he does, he and the Giants will be stuck in the same rut.