There are times when quarterbacks make big plays in games that are easy to recognize. Precision touchdown passes, long runs and comeback drives jump out on stat sheets and highlight reels.
The most important play Daniel Jones made in Sunday’s way-too-exciting 23-20 win over host Washington was a sack.
On the last meaningful offensive snap of the game just before the two-minute warning, Jones dropped back on third-and-6 from the 50, and with the ball precariously away from his body and poised to be thrown, he was drilled from behind by blitzing rookie safety Kamren Curl.
It was the kind of play that throughout Jones’ career has led to numerous fumbles and turnovers, the football knocked free of his grip and handed to the opposing team.
But not this time.
This time Jones held on to it. He took the sack, yes, and the Giants had to punt and give Washington a chance to tie or take the lead late. But he didn’t fumble.
"That was an important moment in the game," tight end Evan Engram said.
Two plays later, safety Logan Ryan picked off Alex Smith with 1:15 remaining to seal the victory. It was the fifth takeaway of the game for the Giants, who did not have a turnover themselves.
After watching a 17-point lead dwindle to three, Ryan and Jabrill Peppers came up with a pair of picks in the final 2:18, allowing the Giants to improve to 2-7. Both wins have been against Washington (2-6).
The win did more than just prove the obvious, that the team has a better chance of succeeding when Jones limits costly mistakes. It also propelled them back into the conversation in the NFC East. Their next game is against the first-place Eagles (3-4-1), who had a bye this week.
"Everything is right there in front of us still," defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. "Our record doesn’t show the type of talent and team that we actually have."
They still have most of the second half of the season to prove that.
"We’re done coming up short," Ryan said. "We had eight games of learning how to win, we had eight games to get to know each other, we had eight games with a first-time head coach and all that stuff. But it’s time. Winning is a mentality, it starts in your mind, and I feel like we played like winners."
It started with Jones, who had been much maligned in recent weeks. He completed 23 of 34 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown and had no turnovers for only the second time in his career.
Jones came close. He fumbled in the fourth quarter and recovered the loose ball himself, and an early pass to Engram bounced off the tight end and was ruled an interception on the field (replay correctly overturned it).
"That’s been a focus of mine," Jones said of eliminating gifts to opposing defenses. "Obviously, I know the importance of holding on to the ball."
As for that last play when he didn’t fumble, he said: "I just have to hold on to the ball and that keeps us in a position to set our defense up with a long field . . . I’m always trying to hold on to the ball and do my best to secure it. I guess right there I was able to do it."
It’s something the Giants have been trying to instill in Jones for some time: that there is no need to try to squeeze production out of every snap and to be less reckless. Besides keeping the ball through the jarring hit on that blind-side sack, Jones threw the ball away on several occasions when earlier in the year he might have tried to force something and watched it result in a turnover.
It sounds like a silly thing to focus on, but for the Giants, such plays have been lethal in the past.
"I saw him make a lot of really good decisions," Joe Judge said. "He was in conflict in the pocket throwing the ball away a couple of times . . . The goal is to end every drive with a kick: a field goal, an extra point or a punt. We were able to end it there with a punt, gave us a little bit of field position, and the defense went out there to make a play."
Besides the two late interceptions that sealed the win, the Giants used three takeaways in the first half to score 10 points.
Peppers recovered a fumble that was kicked around on Washington’s first offensive snap, which led to one of Graham Gano’s three field goals, and Madre Harper recovered a muffed punt forced by Cam Brown and Cory Ballentine to set up Wayne Gallman’s 2-yard touchdown run. After Engram’s 16-yard touchdown reception, Blake Martinez picked off a pass with 49 seconds left in the half to preserve a 20-3 advantage.
"That’s a big part of the game," Judge said of turnovers.
He says that after just about every game, usually with resignation at how they cost his team a chance to win.
This time he was able to point to them — and the lack of them — as the key to the Giants’ path to victory.
Daniel Jones wishes every week was Washington Week. His career numbers against the Washington Football Team and the rest of the NFL:
W-L Comp./Att. Pct. Yards TDs INTs Rating
Vs. Wash. 4-0 86/126 68.3 901 8 3 100.0
All the rest 1-16 389/639 60.9 4,004 24 18 79.7