The train ride home from Baltimore had some pretty transformative properties for the Giants.
When they boarded the cars, they were fresh off a 27-13 loss to the Ravens. After a third straight defeat, it felt as if they had been doomed to elimination from the race for the NFC East title.
By the time they disembarked in New Jersey, though, the strangest thing had happened. The Giants were still alive.
Though they had done almost nothing to help promote their cause or further their season themselves, they remain in contention for the division title and a playoff berth.
Welcome to the NFC East in 2020, a pitiful division filled with teams that seem incapable of winning important games. So despite an early afternoon in which hardly anything went the Giants’ way, the rest of the day worked out perfectly for them. First-place Washington lost to the Panthers, 20-13, and Dallas beat Philadelphia, 37-17.
Their scenario now is pretty straightforward. If the Giants (5-10) beat the Cowboys (6-9) and Philadelphia (4-10-1) beats Washington (6-9) next week, the Giants will be the NFC East champs and will host a playoff game.
Anything else — including ties — and their season will end on Jan. 3.
The immediate aftermath of Sunday’s game had far less of that Lloyd Christmas "so you’re telling me there’s a chance" optimism. Interviews with reporters felt very much like a postmortem on the season, with more talk about the direction of the franchise and the foundation for future successes having been established than chatter about the game itself.
"A lot of players, a lot of development from young guys and new guys in this program," Joe Judge said, sounding as if he were eulogizing his first season as head coach of the team. "I feel that we are on the right track and moving in the right direction."
The Giants seemed destined to be playing a meaningless game next week against the Cowboys, their official elimination only hours away.
"We can only control what we can control," wide receiver Sterling Shepard practically sighed. "Our focus is on Dallas right now. That’s where my focus will be immediately."
What he didn’t know at the time was exactly how much control the Giants would have.
They still need help. But more importantly, they still have to win, which has proved to be the most difficult aspect of this year. That was evident on Sunday in a game the Giants entered with the knowledge that a victory was of the utmost importance.
Lurking beneath the mathematics and standings machinations that kept the team alive was the fact that the Giants looked nothing like a team that deserves to be playing beyond its 16-game regular-season schedule. They were outclassed by the Ravens (10-5), an opponent that currently has twice as many wins as the Giants but might not make the playoffs. Baltimore had three players with at least 77 rushing yards and racked up 433 total offensive yards.
"They were the better team today," defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence said. "We have to live with that."
Daniel Jones started for the Giants after missing two of the last three games with hamstring and ankle injuries. His battered legs looked fine. Almost nothing else for the Giants did.
The first drive of the game established the Ravens’ dominance. They marched 82 yards in 13 plays and went ahead 7-0 on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson to Marquise Brown. After the Giants went three-and-out, the Ravens drove 65 yards in 10 plays to go up 14-0 on J.K. Dobbins’ 2-yard TD run.
The Giants ran just three offensive plays in the first quarter. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is their lowest total in an opening quarter in at least the last 40 years.
The Giants finally managed a touchdown on a 15-play, 76-yard drive. but it would have never gotten across midfield without a roughing-the-punter penalty against the Ravens on fourth-and-23 from the Giants’ 22. Jones’ 3-yard TD pass to Shepard made it 27-13 with 8:40 left and was the team’s first touchdown in more than nine quarters of play.
That was as close as they would get, and it felt as if their season was over, too.
"We don’t have any control over what happens with other teams, other games played," Judge lamented soon after the loss. "We had that control in our first 15 games."
What he didn’t count on was a 16th with at least a chance at the postseason.