If there is one thing the players who were with the Giants last year know about, it’s losing.
They became connoisseurs of defeat and, like sommeliers, they became able to detect the subtle differences in flavor. They know what it feels like, they know what it smells like, they know what it tastes like. They suffered through a year in which the team dropped 13 of its 16 games, most of them ugly and overmatched affairs.
But Sunday’s 20-15 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a soggy opener at MetLife Stadium presented a new bouquet. Not one that stunk of despair but instead had hints of optimism. The result for these new-look Giants with a new head coach may have been the same in the ledger that is the NFL’s standings, but it came with a different vibe in the postgame locker room.
Maybe it was the flash of promise from running back Saquon Barkley, whose 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave a glimpse of things to come. Or the return of Odell Beckham Jr. from ankle surgery last October, as he made 11 catches for 111 yards and resumed his role as the go-to guy in the passing game. Or the way the Giants’ defense did not allow any offensive points to the Jaguars in the final 32:42 of the game and dominated the second half.
It never feels good to lose, but as tight end Evan Engram noted: “Our spirits are up. Definitely.”
“We battled,” Engram said. “We kept fighting. It’s encouraging to see us fight . . . We didn’t see that a lot last year. We’re close and we’re a lot better than we were last year. That’s why we feel encouraged.”
Eli Manning said he is “encouraged by the whole situation.”
“We can get things going and we can play at a high level,” the quarterback said. “We will make it work.”
The big offensive play the Giants were waiting for all game — and really for a number of years — came a little too late. After a sluggish start to his day, Barkley showed exactly why the Giants selected him with the second overall pick. He took a handoff up the middle, broke a tackle, cut to the outside and sprinted down the right sideline for the 68-yarder with 10:39 left in the fourth quarter.
The electrifying touchdown cut the Jaguars’ lead to 20-15 (Barkley was stopped on the ensuing two-point conversion run).
It was the kind of explosive play the Giants had been waiting for all game. Unfortunately for them, it came two snaps after the Jaguars had one of their own on defense. Manning’s pass was batted at the line of scrimmage by Abry Jones, intercepted by Myles Jack and returned for a 32-yard touchdown that made it 20-9 with 11:24 left in the fourth quarter.
That was the insurance the Jaguars needed to pad their lead to two scores. The Giants got the home run from Barkley but were never able to connect again.
Two opportunities for them came with Beckham earlier in the game and on either side of halftime.
On a second-and-12 play from the Jaguars’ 13 in the final seconds of the half, Manning was pressured up the middle and had to throw a floater and hope Beckham could reach it. He could not, and it fell incomplete with seven seconds left in the second quarter. Aldrick Rosas kicked a field goal to make it 13-6.
On second-and-10 from the 33 on the opening drive of the third quarter, Beckham was behind Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey and open in the end zone, but Manning’s pass was slightly overthrown. It, too, fell incomplete. The Giants later settled for another field goal.
Was this a case of the quarterback and receiver being out of sync after nearly a year without game action together?
“We didn’t connect,” Pat Shurmur said, shrugging at those trying to find meaning from the missed passes. “There’s no Hunt for Red October there.”
The key is making sure this doesn’t become another Dead October. Eight days into the month last year, the Giants were 0-5 and their season was over.
“I’m certainly hugely disappointed that we lost for our fans and our ownership and for those players in the locker room,” Shurmur said. “I’m disappointed we lost, but there’s a lot of good in that locker room and they’re going to hang together. I really believe they will.”
“This is 0-1, that’s all it is,” safety Landon Collins said. “I’m confident that it’s not going to be an ongoing thing.”
Now, when the Giants play the Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday, they’ll see just how refined their senses are in distinguishing the subtle difference between losing a game and being losers.