So here we are, Week No. 13 of the NFL season. And if you thought last week was fun seeing the Giants finally rise into first place in the NFC East, the week of head promises to take on a completely different complexion filled with new challenges.
Let’s run down a few of the top storylines for this week.
1. The Training Wheels Are About to Come Off
The Giants have been gradually improving each week, with most of that improvement coming against teams with losing records.
But starting this week, the training wheels come off, and the Giants will look to stand toe-to-toe with the Seattle Seahawks, the first of four straight teams that have winning records and who will hardly be in any mood to help this young Giants team continue its forward progress.
It’s all about priorities for the Giants, and from the looks of things, they do appear to have their priorities straight. Head coach Joe Judge has refused to use the division standings or the possibility of a playoff berth as a carrot for his young team. He has instead focused heavily on improving because he’s smart enough to know that just because this team is in first place in a weak division, it hasn’t come close to arriving.
That will likely be Judge’s message this week as the Giants go through another round of “Operation Improvement.” And what better way to see just how far this team has come than to take the training wheels off and put it against a better level of competition than what they faced to get into first place?
2. Daniel Jones: Will He or Won’t He?
Daniel Jones has made it clear that he doesn’t want to miss a snap. That’s admirable. But hamstring injuries are very, very tricky and Jones now finds himself dealing with a hamstring strain that, while not catastrophic in terms of severity, might as well be disastrous in terms of his desire to be out there directing the Giants offense.
Various reports have hedged their bets, saying that there is an “outside chance” Jones might be ready to play against the Seahawks on Sunday, but head coach Joe Judge, while no doubt optimistic, is also realistic, telling reporters that right now, there are more questions than answers when it comes to Jones’s status.
The Giants need to consider two things. One, will letting Jones sit on a plane for that long cross-country flight be in the best interest of his ailing hamstring?
And two, Judge already agreed, on the advice of the medical staff, to let Jones return to the game last week only to have to finally pull him when Jones wasn’t “all right.”
Playoffs or no playoffs, the Giants cannot improve as a team without Jones in the saddle. That’s no disrespect to Colt McCoy, the backup who will likely take the snaps Sunday for the Giants, but it’s a fact that Jones is a part of the long term future, and McCoy is not.
And if Judge happens to agree with the idea that this season is about building up the foundation to a point where down the road, the team will focus more on the playoffs, then don’t be surprised if Jones sits on Sunday.
3. The COVID-19 Players Return
Dante Pettis, Kaden Smith, and Matt Peart, the three players who have been on the Reserve/COID-19 list, will be on the field this week.
But how much--if any--they’ll be able to do is another story.
“They have to go through a series of cardiac testing, some other standard procedures to make sure they are clear on everything,” Judge said.
“This isn’t just like they missed one week of practice, and they came on back. These guys have been dealing with something physically for over a week now. They have been sitting in a position where they have been out. We can’t just bring these guys back in the facility and, ‘Okay, they are full go.’
"We have to see these guys move around, make sure their condition level is up. Make sure we’re not putting them at risk of soft tissue injuries and things of that nature because they haven’t been out there moving around.”
An underrated substory here is Pettis, a wide receiver/punt returner whom the Giants picked up off waivers a few weeks ago. Pettis will almost certainly take over for Jabrill Peppers as the team’s punt returner once he’s cleared to go, and just in the nick of time.
Peppers is explosive, and his 11.8 yards per punt return isn’t anything to sneeze at. With that said, his decision making as a punt returner leaves something to be desired. That was on full display this past weekend when he let two catchable punts bounce, one of which he could have fair-caught at the 14 but which instead took a Bengals roll back to the 6-yard line, and the other resulting in a bounce that favored the Giants.
Peppers has enough on his plate as is with playing every snap on defense, so a potential new face at punt returner could take a unit that’s otherwise been good to a new level.
4. Will the “Wayne Train” Be Derailed?
With each passing week, running back Wayne Gallman has gotten better and better, and with that, so has the Giants running game. We’re talking five straight games for Gallman with at least one rushing touchdown and six consecutive games of 100+ yards rushing for the Giants ground game as a whole, with the last three games exceeding 140 net rushing yards per game.
This week, though, the Giants ground game is going to go up against a Seahawks run defense led by linebacker Bobby Wagner, who is tied for fourth league-wide in total tackles (101) with Roquan Smith of the Bears, Blake Martinez of the Giants, and Jaylon Smith of the Cowboys. Wagner might not be the same powerhouse run-stopper he was in his prime, but he’s still a very good defender who can easily muck up a team’s running game,
Wagner’s speed and vision are behind his effectiveness and is a big reason why the Seahawks run defense, currently ranked third in the league (89.3 rushing yards per game), has only allowed just four opponents to run for 100 or more yards, and just one of those four (Minnesota) to top 200 yards.
The Seahawks run defense has been even better in its last three games, allowing an average of 77.7 yards per game, which is the same average as allowed by the Giants run defense.
If the Giants are without Daniel Jones, they might have to rely on the arm of Colt McCoy to win this for them if Wagner and friends shut down the Wayne Train-led Giants running game.
5. Stopping D.K. Metcalf
Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf didn't take too kindly to Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's observation that Metcalf isn't just yet at the same level as former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin"Megatron" Johnson, whom Schwartz coached in Detroit.
Schwartz's words ticked off Metcalf to the point where he had a career day, recording 177 of the Seahawks' 230 passing yards. Seattle's second-year receiver currently leads the league with 1,039 receiving yards and is fifth in receiving touchdowns with nine.
Metcalf was no match for Eagles' top corner Darius Slay, who allowed eight out of the 11 pass targets to the receiver to be completed for 158 of his yards.
The first thought regarding how the Giants might play Metcalf would be to put James Bradberry, who has been nothing short of phenomenal this season, against him.
But Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has moved Metcalf all over the field this year, and for proof of that, look at his route chart from Monday night's game where he was indeed lined up all over the place.
Metcalf's growth in the Seahawks offense has enabled Schottenheimer to better pair him with Tyler Lockette, who also can be a thorn in a defensive backfield's side.
If you're Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, do you have James Bradberry, your top corner, travel with Metcalf, or do you instead bracket Metcalf and instead have Bradberry try to take Lockette out of the game?
The answer to that question could very well be a significant factor in determining the game's outcome.