For the second week in a row, the Giants will be watching Washington play a prime-time game of interest to them.
Last Sunday, it was the regular- season finale against Philadelphia, and the Giants’ playoff hopes hinged on a Washington loss. Doug Pederson and Nate Sudfeld took care of that.
This week, it will be an NFC wild-card game, with Washington hosting Tampa Bay on Saturday night. The Giants won’t have a particular rooting interest in that contest, but there undoubtedly will be many who watch and think: That could have been us.
Had the Giants won one more game this season, they would have been hosting the Bucs. They would have been gearing up for Tom Brady and Jason Pierre-Paul and Todd Bowles and all the other juicy storylines that would have surrounded the matchup.
And while it was that Eagles flop last Sunday that ultimately made the Giants spectators to the postseason, and Joe Judge’s lecture on playing to win each and every game to its fullest was heard by some as griping by a six-win team, the Giants know there were plenty of opportunities for them to have avoided that precarious position in Week 17 . . . and a seat on the sofa in Week 18.
"The reason we didn’t make the playoffs is we didn’t win enough games," co-owner John Mara said this week. "We had to win one more game to get into the playoffs. That’s on us. We can’t blame that on anybody else. We would have taken it, but we didn’t deserve to be there."
Washington, though, does. Even with its slightly-better-than-the-Giants 7-9 record. Even while it prepares to face the greatest quarterback of all time with the virtual assurance that he will not be pulled for Sudfeld in the fourth quarter of a close game.
The Giants would have taken it. Washington took it.
"You play who’s out there," Washington coach Ron Rivera said earlier this week when his division title was overshadowed by the controversy the Eagles kicked up. "I’m not apologizing for winning . . . A lot of people are happy about [the Eagles’ quarterback decision], a lot of people aren’t happy about it, and that’s just tough. So many things have happened in this world that are tough, that are hard. This is just a game that we’re playing, and we play the game as it comes to us. And I’m not going to apologize."
Rivera knows that feeling of being in the playoffs and having to defend your right to be there when the rest of the world is looking at the berth with skepticism. He was the coach of the 2014 Panthers, who won the NFC South title with a 7-8-1 record and had been the most recent NFL team to reach the postseason with more losses than victories. They went on to beat the 11-win Cardinals in the wild-card round.
Those Panthers, despite their losing record, were a more polished and experienced team than he has now. They were 12-4 in 2013. Washington was 3-13 a year ago. The team had just hired Rivera and thought it had a future franchise quarterback in Dwayne Haskins, who had just wrapped up his rookie season. Alex Smith, who may start at quarterback on Saturday night, wasn’t sure he would ever be able to walk again.
And now Washington is facing Brady and his campaign to prove he can win it all without Bill Belichick after the Patriots’ coach spent the past 17 weeks proving he certainly can’t do it without Brady.
"That’s all right. Giving us a chance is all we want," Rivera said. "All you need is hope . . . That’s why we’re going to show up Saturday night and play hard. That’s the only thing we can do. We can’t do anything else. We can’t run and hide. We’ll show up, we’ll go out on the football field, and when the ball’s kicked off, we’ll play for 60 minutes and see."
If Washington gets trounced, the Giants will reflect on their regular-season game against the Bucs, against whom they lost one of their many heartbreakers, 25-23. They likely would believe they could have done much better than their division rival.
If the Bucs lose, the Giants will think about the two times they beat Washington themselves and wonder if it could have been them advancing to the divisional round.
It’s a no-win situation for the Giants. What’s worse, it’s a no-play situation, too.