LANDOVER, Md. - Not even Tom Coughlin, king of stoicism with lips as straight as a hyphen, could keep a straight face. Asked after Thursday night's game whether tight end Larry Donnell has exceeded his expectations by not only catching three touchdown passes in a 45-14 win over Washington but being the team's leading receiver a quarter of the way through the season, Coughlin gave a one-word answer.
And then the grin.
Of course he has. The Giants may have hoped that Donnell would evolve into such a force, but there's no way they could have expected it.
"Probably so," Eli Manning said, giving one of the only honest answers to the question about Donnell exceeding expectations. "He just hasn't had a whole lot of game action. I was hoping he would be able to play to this level, I really was. I was excited about the possibilities for him this year."
Then there he was, scoring three first-half touchdowns on a national stage in prime time, then wiggling on a literal stage for his first postgame conference. And it wasn't just the phone in his pocket that buzzed with 161 Facebook messages while he answered questions.
"Too many lights, too many cameras," he said bashfully.
It was the kind of performance his teammates have been seeing for the better part of three seasons, since he was a rookie on the practice squad in 2012 and a little-used backup in 2013.
"He's a star, man," safety Antrel Rolle said. "He's worked his butt off all through training camp to be in the position he's in today. Other people may not know what he's capable of, but we know . . . I told him to keep climbing."
Donnell was one of the only bright spots in the first two weeks of the Giants' season, and now that the offense is clicking, he continues to be a go-to guy. His three touchdowns were the most by a Giants tight end since Joe Walton in 1962 (Donnell, for the record, said he never heard of the guy). His 25 receptions in the first four games projects to 100 in 16 games. Only one player in Giants history has had more catches in a season than that (Steve Smith with 107 in 2009). Even if his pace slows a bit, Jeremy Shockey's record of 74 receptions by a tight end in 2002 seems to be in sight at this early stage of the season.
A month ago, Donnell wasn't even a lock to make the 53-man roster, and this week, everyone will want him on their fantasy team. But he was far from the only star of the game.
Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes and ran for a fifth while completing 28 of 39 passes (18 of his first 20).
"I'm starting to like the offense," he said coyly, reflecting on the difficulties this preseason and in the first two weeks of the regular season that now seem ages ago. "We had to come together."
The secondary picked off four passes from Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins and forced two fumbles. "It's like Christmas," Rolle said of all the opportunities. "You want games like that."
Most importantly, the Giants won their second straight.
"That was the whole thing, to leave here 2-2 and 1-0 in the division," Coughlin said. "It's exciting to be in the hunt."
Donnell said his performance was "a dream come true" and noted there was "more room for improvement." He's looking to keep pushing the boundaries of his abilities. Asked if he kept any of the footballs from his touchdown catches Thursday night, Donnell said no. "There's more coming," he said.