If there is one thing football players hate more than losing, it’s hypotheticals. They live in a world in which results are concrete and speculation over what might happen and what could have been is as useless as a leather helmet.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to consider alternative histories.
So before the Giants face the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday in their most important game of the season, one they are treating with all the urgency and significance of a playoff contest, let’s consider what happened a week ago.
The Browns came into MetLife Stadium averaging more than 40 points in their previous two games, and the Giants held them to 20. It was, in retrospect and even at the time, a pretty strong accomplishment.
"Is 20 a whole lot of points given up? Of course not," safety Logan Ryan said right after the game.
Which brought about a question that dabbled in the conjecture players find so confounding: Would the Giants have liked their odds of winning that game had they known they would limit the Browns to what amounted to half their recent offensive output?
Said linebacker Blake Martinez: "I’d rather you tell me we hold them to 20 points and we score 21."
Unfortunately for the Giants, no one can tell him or anyone else that. Because 21 points might as well be 21,000 for the Giants' offense at this point in the season. And in that most recent game against the Browns, they managed only six.
With a playoff spot still within their grasp and two games left on the schedule, the Giants’ main problem is their inability to score points. It’s been an obstacle for the team all season, but coming down the stretch, it has become an anchor. They’ve managed only 13 total points in their past two games and have not scored more than 19 in any game since Nov. 15.
It’s gotten so bad that it’s forced coach Joe Judge to turn to two traits that seem to be in conflict with the personality he has displayed throughout his first year on the job.
The first was desperation play-calling, including a fake field goal from deep in the red zone on the Giants' first possession of the game against those Browns. It was their first fake field-goal attempt since 2006.
The second? Snarkiness.
"I’ve done a lot of studying on this, and in 100% of NFL games, the team that scores more points wins," he said last week, channeling the kind of sarcasm and irritability that reminded many of Pat Shurmur, his immediate predecessor in the job.
He apologized for that tone — or came as close to doing so as an NFL head coach can — saying he did not want to come off as "a complete wise guy." But the Giants’ predicament has driven him to such a disposition, along with a very real projection for this game.
They could hold the Ravens, a team that outscored the Browns in a shootout two weeks ago and enters Sunday’s game having scored 121 points in their past three games, to 20 points on Sunday. Maybe even fewer. The Giants’ defense is that good.
But what good would it do if their offense can’t score?
Having quarterback Daniel Jones back on the field and closer to full strength and speed might help the struggling unit, but even when he was unencumbered by the hamstring and ankle injuries that have troubled him during the past month, the Giants were a stagnant offense. They are averaging 17.4 points per game this season, and only the Jets are worse.
In this game in particular, it will be part of the Giants’ game plan to get an early lead and force the Ravens and Lamar Jackson to become a passing team playing from behind. In their last three games, though, the Giants scored zero, zero and three first-half points, the first time they scored three or fewer points in the first half in three consecutive games since 1992.
If the Giants lose on Sunday, they could be eliminated by the time they get off the train after traveling home. A win by Washington over Carolina or by Philadelphia over Dallas would knock them out of the NFC East race. If the Giants win in Baltimore for the first time since 1963 (an eye-catching expanse of time that deserves an asterisk; the Giants have played there only twice since that game 57 years ago against the Colts, both resulting in losses to the Ravens), they’ll remain alive heading into Week 17 no matter what else happens.
The Giants can’t do that with defense alone. Last week proved that. For the Giants to remain relevant, the offense will have to show up and save the season.
"We’re absolutely capable of more points," Judge said.
Maybe. But until those words leave the realm of the hypothetical and become a reality, that sentence will remain a supposition as useless as any other.