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Giants enter must-not-lose territory vs. Jets

Leonard Williams played his first game for the

Leonard Williams played his first game for the Giants Monday night against the Cowboys. Before that, he was a Jet. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Giants are beyond must-win games.

They are now in must-not-lose territory.

Such is the state of professional football in New York that the Jets and Giants will play on Sunday not to determine which is the best team in the city, but which is not the worst. With three wins between them, neither can imagine the abject humiliation and deflation of losing to the other.

“Definitely don’t want to lose to the Jets,” Giants safety Michael Thomas said on Monday night after the 37-18 loss to the Cowboys.

Of course, after five straight losses, the Giants are hungry to taste victory in any form against any opponent. In some ways, the Jets game comes along as just the next opportunity, the next name on the schedule. But a Giants-Jets game is never that simple.

Especially not for someone who has been a member of both teams in the past few weeks. Defensive lineman Leonard Williams was traded from the Jets to the Giants on Oct. 27 and just played his first game for his new team. Now he gets to play his first game against his old team.

“I think next week will be a little odd,” Williams said. “The Giants and Jets don’t normally play each other in the season, so it’s like ironic that the one time they do make a trade together we play them in the same year after the trade. But at the same time, I think I’ll be more comfortable with my teammates, more comfortable with the defense, and I’ll be able to play faster next week.”

Williams also said it will be “fun” to face the team that recently jettisoned him.

“I’m playing against guys that I know, but it’s still football at the end of the day,” he said. “I’ve played against guys that I’ve known before throughout college, throughout combine, people that I’ve met and stuff like that. So it’s still the same, you know?”

This clash of two teams that share the same stadium — and this year share the same misery — is quite different though. Safety Jabrill Peppers was quick to point out that while the Jets’ record may not be impressive, they did beat the Cowboys for their only victory. The Giants have lost twice to the Cowboys this season by a combined score of 72-35.

The two teams also have very entangled recent histories beyond the Williams trade. In the 2018 draft, the Giants had a chance to select a quarterback with the second overall pick and instead chose Saquon Barkley. That left Sam Darnold for the Jets. Then, this year the Giants selected Daniel Jones as their quarterback-of-the-future. Sunday will pit the two scuffling 22-year-olds against each other for the first time in their careers.

The two franchises usually run like railroad tracks, parallel for miles and miles and miles without ever intersecting the other. But every four years there is a switch in the NFL schedule that brings those tracks together. Sometimes it’s a significant meeting, such as the one eight years ago when both teams were 7-7 and met on Christmas Eve. The Giants won that game, went to the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl. The Jets lost after having gone to back-to-back AFC title games, and they haven’t been back to the postseason since.

The stakes in Sunday’s game won’t be as high as a possible postseason berth. But in a strange way, perhaps it holds even more significance. This is shaping up into a game that won’t necessarily benefit the victor but may cripple the loser. The winning team on Sunday will not be hailed and glorified, but the losing team will be roasted for falling to the lowly fill-in-the-blank.

That is something the Giants are desperate to avoid. For the sake of their psyche and for the sake of their franchise.

“We’re trying to go get a win in the worst way,” Thomas said. “For everyone, for everyone in this organization at the facility, the players, coaches, front office, everybody, we need it. And we’re going to find a way to get it."

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