They dusted themselves off after a five-game losing streak to start the season and delivered a month’s worth of victories to position themselves for an unlikely playoff push in an NFC East that looked nothing like the great division it once was.
They took to first-year coach Joe Judge’s demanding style and looked like the tough-minded team he vowed they’d become, a team that would be worthy of playing in the nation’s most demanding market.
They went to Los Angeles in early October and nearly shocked the Rams, then went to Seattle in early December and did stun the Seahawks — with backup Colt McCoy at quarterback — in one of the biggest upsets of the season.
They demanded a seat at the playoff table and earned it, elevating expectations to a level rarely seen since their fourth Super Bowl run after the 2011 season.
But three weeks and three grievous defeats later — capped by Sunday’s 27-13 loss in Baltimore — and the Giants have issued a final answer about who they are in 2020: They’re simply not good enough. The fact that they somehow are alive in this wacky divisional race, thanks to losses by Washington and Philadelphia, doesn’t negate that reality.
Maybe one day this coach and this team will be fighting for a playoff spot with a legitimately reliable team capable of playing with the NFL elite. That day is not now. And unless this team makes substantial improvements in the next year or two, it may not be for quite some time.
After that stunning 17-12 win in Seattle, where they extended their winning streak to four games and became the favorites to win this dreary division, they faced three more potential playoff teams and went meekly in all three games.
They were outscored by a combined 73-26 in losses to the Cardinals, Browns and Ravens. They produced just two touchdowns in that span, with Sunday’s not coming until the fourth quarter, when Daniel Jones found Sterling Shepard when it was far too late to matter.
Jones returned from hamstring and ankle injuries and moved around well enough, but he had neither the benefit of good blocking — he was sacked three times in a row on one series — or big-time receiving performances to help his cause.
Judge delivered a meaningful vote of confidence during the week when he said Jones will be his quarterback moving forward. But you simply cannot say with any reasonable assurance that Jones will become the answer at the team’s most important position. We have seen glimpses, for sure. But we have not seen sustained periods of performance that can match the teams with undeniably good quarterbacks.
Jones is like the rest of this team: a work in progress whose future has yet to be determined.
Judge remains convinced there is enough to work with, that things are headed in the right direction and that life someday will be vastly better than the 5-10 reality of the here-and-now.
"In terms of the foundation and culture, we’ve improved a lot across the board, a lot of parts, a lot of development," he said. "The end result is we’re looking to get going in this program. I feel we’re on the right track, moving in the right direction."
But the Giants now must learn the lesson these last three losses delivered — that being good one week does not guarantee being good the next.
"We have to just know that the next games aren’t promised," defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. "We have to stay hungry and we have to keep going to get it. We’re not going to just win because we’ve been winning. We have to go earn it and make the plays to win."
Perhaps the Giants themselves were guilty of admiring their work during the four-game winning streak and bought into the hype after the Seattle win. Perhaps they thought they were better than they actually were, a message that was hammered home when they were vanquished by quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson in quick succession. These Giants were simply no match for the Ravens, who have overcome COVID-19 issues that imperiled their season and are within range of a well-earned playoff berth.
The Ravens jumped ahead 14-0 in the first quarter and coasted to a 27-6 lead before the Giants answered with their only touchdown of the afternoon.
One important voice in the Giants’ locker room is convinced that better days lie ahead. Even if you can’t see it just now.
"I believe in the culture set," said safety Logan Ryan, who signed a three-year contract extension on Christmas Day. "I believe in the work ethic we put in each and every day. You don’t always get the result, but [you] really see people’s true character when they put their all into something and don’t win, how they come back to work the next day. We’ve got some good pieces here to build off of. Joe sets a demanding culture to do things the right way. You do them even when you lose, you keep doing them, and one day the wins come your way."
That day, however, is not now.