It all starts with the five-word caveat that, when spoken swiftly or written casually, sounds so simple.
If the Giants win out …
There is so much that has to fall precisely the right way for the Giants and their far-fetched hopes — more like dream — of attaining an NFC wild-card playoff berth that the entire wacky scenario might as well stop with the only imperative in their control: Win out. That has essentially been the marching orders since bottoming out to 1-7 in the first half of the season, and the Giants thus far have come close. They are 4-1 in their past five games heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Titans at MetLife Stadium.
In many ways, despite what happens elsewhere, if the Giants — playing for the second consecutive week without star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — somehow make this resurgence stick and finish 8-8, it will be a forceful step forward into 2019, considering how far they had to go to approach fringe contention status.
The quick rundown: The next Giants’ loss means they are eliminated. In the final three weeks of the season, they must win, win, win and need at least two losses each by the Panthers, Eagles, Vikings and Redskins and at least one by the Packers. Analyzed individually, all of these are possible, but the likelihood of it all playing out the way the Giants need it to go is, shall we say, tenuous. A chance is a chance, though, and given where the Giants were in late October, a chance is better than the alternative.
“I think it helps,’’ Eli Manning said. “I think it helps knowing you still have a chance. It’s the mindset that we just have to keep. We have to keep doing our part, and that’s winning football games, and just knowing that there’s still hope if we do our part and get a little help. It keeps everything lively in the locker room.’’
Credit the Giants for playing this appropriately. The postseason is not a topic until someone brings it up. Only when prodded have players bemoaned the tough losses to the Panthers and Eagles that filled the postseason road with so many potholes. Realism abounds in their locker room.
“You either look back and say, ‘What if,’ or you look forward and say, ‘What if,’ and the things right in front of you slip by you,’’ coach Pat Shurmur said. “So no, we can’t do that.”
“Anything is possible, but our focus is going to be on Tennessee this weekend,’’ linebacker Alec Ogletree said. “We can’t worry about the playoffs. I’ve been in those situations where you’re coming down to the last few games of the season, and if you don’t win out, you won’t give yourself a shot.’’
There is it, right on cue. Win out. The remaining teams on the schedule — Titans, Colts and Cowboys — are all hot and heavily involved in the playoff chase. Granted, the Cowboys might have the NFC East title locked up by the time they face the Giants in the regular-season finale. The Titans (7-6) and Colts (7-6) are in a tight battle with the Dolphins, Ravens and Steelers for the one remaining AFC wild-card spot.
For the Giants to continue their winning ways, they will not have to duplicate the 40 points they put on the Redskins without Beckham, who is out again with a quad contusion. The Giants no longer will be able to feast on scraps such as Nick Mullens, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chase Daniel and Mark Sanchez — the quarterbacks they’ve beaten in their 4-1 streak. Marcus Mariotta is not to be confused with Titans/Oilers franchise icon Warren Moon, but he is a gourmet meal compared with the slop recently served up to the Giants’ defense.
Mike Vrabel, a former NFL linebacker in his first year as the Titans’ head coach, said he has not talked much to his team about the playoffs.
“You could talk about scenarios all day,’’ he said, adding there are “scenarios that are crazy that happen in this league every week.’’
Crazy is what has to happen for the Giants to get in, all predicated first and foremost on their ability to win out.
Titans LT Taylor Lewan vs. Giants OLB Olivier Vernon
Lewan looks like an NFL power forward — 6-foot-7, 309-pounds — and has a mean streak. He has been named to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, and his size might engulf the much-smaller Vernon, who will have to use his quickness to escape Lewan’s clutches. Vernon is finally playing the way the Giants need him to play, with 3.5 sacks over the past two games after getting only one sack in his first six games, coming back off a high ankle sprain that forced him out of the first five games of the season. The Titans lost right tackle Jack Conklin last week to a knee injury, and perhaps Vernon moves over to the left side of the defense at times to see if fill-in starter Dennis Kelly can deal with him.
Youth is served: It is not too early to stamp the 2018 draft class as major contributors. Everyone knows about Saquon Barkley, the leader of the pack, but he isn’t alone. The second-round pick, guard Will Hernandez, has not missed a snap all season. The two third-round picks, defensive lineman B.J. Hill and linebacker Lorenzo Carter, are keepers. Hill leads the team with five sacks and Carter (three sacks) is steadily learning how to use his athleticism to his best advantage.
“I don’t know about the ‘rookie wall’ anymore,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “We used to talk about it more, I think, when college seasons were shorter. College seasons now are so stinking long, they go almost as long as pro seasons, and so I think there’s less conversation about that.’’
The formula: It took a while — perhaps too long — for the coaching staff to figure out the best way to operate on offense. Jettisoning two starting linemen helped solidify the pass protection and the run-blocking and the focus has gone away from throwing the ball (39 pass attempts per game the first eight games, 28.6 attempts per game the past five). If it looks old-school, that is because it is.
“Just our identity and being able to run the ball,’’ Eli Manning said. “I think that’s been the biggest difference since the bye. Just an emphasis on running the ball, the play-action. A lot more under center. Not as much shotgun. Not as much seven-step drop. Just having everything build off the run game.’’
Familiar face: This is not unprecedented, but it is unique. Titans coach Mike Vrabel played against Manning three times as a player — including Super Bowl XLII, when Manning gained MVP honors for knocking off the 18-0 Patriots. Vrabel says Manning is “as clean as you would need him to be” and is surprised the 37-year old quarterback has shown such movement in the pocket.
“They still boot with him,’’ Vrabel said. “I think that was the thing that was probably most surprising as I watch the tape is that they’re still able to move the pocket and get him on the edge, create a different launch point for him throughout the game.’’
Let’s chat: Outside linebacker Kareem Martin arrived well-versed in defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s schemes — the two worked together with the Cardinals. Martin did not exactly hit the ground running with his new team but has come on the past month.
“I learned these guys, how they play on the field, a little more off the field, stuff like that,’’ Martin said. “It goes a long ways, especially on defense, where everybody plays off each other.’’
A recent conversation with Bettcher might have been the spark.
“Just hey, let’s start cutting loose, let’s start disrupting, getting off the ball, playing vertical,’’ Bettcher said.
Keeping Jurrell Casey (seven sacks) and Jayon Brown (six) off Eli Manning could be the key to the game and a big challenge to the Giants’ offensive line, as the Titans will be stoked to contain Saquon Barkley and have playmakers in their secondary. Derrick Henry is coming off a career game and must be gang-tackled. The competition rises this weekend. Can the Odell Beckham-less Giants raise their game?
Titans 27, Giants 20