EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - This was a big test for rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, and he didn't exactly pass it. Against the first elite defense he's faced in his young career, this game proved he wasn't quite ready.
But it also proved something else important.
The Giants aren't quite ready yet, either.
Much as they loathe the word "rebuilding" around the Giants offices and think they have a chance to make a playoff run, this 28-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings exposed them as the non-contender that they are. The signs have been there all season for anyone who wanted to look, even if Pat Shurmur thought the switch from Eli Manning to Jones might give his team enough of a jolt to get by.
And it did, temporarily, against two of the NFL's lesser teams. This was a big step up in class - into a class the Giants don't yet belong.
"You can't get discouraged," a defiant Giants coach Shurmur said. "I'm looking for guys who get discouraged. Those are the guys we're going to get out of here -- the ones that get discouraged. You can't get discouraged. We didn't make enough plays."
"We just have to stay the course," tight end Evan Engram added. "There's nothing to be discouraged about. There were plays that could have been made. We make those plays, then it's a different ballgame. So there's nothing to really get discouraged about. We're fine."
They may be fine, but they're not good. They're certainly not good enough to really compete with teams like the Vikings. And while they're right that they shouldn't get discouraged, the reality is they're still facing an almost certain loss in New England on Thursday night against the defending Super Bowl champions - another team that appears to be way out of their league.
There are things to like about this Giants team and reasons to be encouraged about their future. There are also built-in, obvious excuses for what's going on, like the fact that Saquon Barkley wasn't available on Sunday (though he might be on Thursday night). But even with Barkley the truth is the Giants are still, to some extent, a rebuilding team. They aren't elite yet, and they're not even close in some parts of their lineup. They can win games. They might even be able to win enough to stay in the playoff race this season.
GM Dave Gettleman just has a lot of work to do in some important areas before they can consistently compete against the best. For example …
- The offensive line is good, but not great, and pretty inconsistent. Left tackle Nate Solder admitted he hasn't played well this season. Right guard Kevin Zeitler, one of Gettleman's prized offseason acquisitions, has been good at times and struggled at others (in part due to injuries). At their best, they've been fine. At their worst … well, against an aggressive Vikings defense that didn't seem worried about the Giants' Barkley-less rushing attack, the line play was ugly. Jones was sacked four times and the stat book says he was hit eight times, thought it sure seemed like a lot more.
- There is no true No. 1 receiver. Maybe Sterling Shepard can be one. Golden Tate once was one. But right now, none of them are playing like the go-to guy that Jones can lean on all the time. Even Shepard admitted he could have, should have held on to the touchdown pass he got knocked away late in the game. Tate, one game back from his suspension, is already unhappy with his role in the offense. Between the two of them they caught eight of the 16 passes thrown their way.
- The linebackers are terrible. And sure, it hurt that they were without Alec Ogletree (hamstring), Lorenzo Carter (neck) and Ryan Connelly (knee), but really, was this unit that good when they were in there? The Vikings just took advantage of them, with screens and crossing routes, and a ton of cut-back runs and play-action that had everyone overrunning everything. They are literally a gaping hole in the middle of the field.
- They have no pass rush. None. Kirk Cousins was struggling so much that a national storyline was whether the Vikings blew it by giving him a fully-guaranteed, $84 million before last season. Then he comes in and goes 22 for 27 for 306 yards against the Giants - including 278 yards in the first half? He was sacked twice. Both were coverage sacks. Other than that, he had all the time he needed.
Again, they're not completely terrible in those areas. Their offensive line and defense were good enough to dominate the Redskins and, for a half, the Bucs. But definitely not the Vikings and almost certainly not the Patriots. Those are two elite teams. And really, the Vikings are probably more on the second tier.
The Giants proved to be several tiers below.
They will get there, eventually. Barkley will be back. Jones looks like he's going to be a good one. And they have some really talented young players on defense, like defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, cornerback DeAndre Baker and safety Jabrill Peppers. Maybe Carter and linebacker Markus Golden (4 ½ sacks) could become good pass rushers too.
Until they all arrive, though, and until Jones can do better than 407 yards and two touchdowns in a two-game span, mediocrity is the Giants' reality. Maybe even mediocrity-at-best. That's where their talent level is. This roster, as is, is not good enough to be a contender.
Maybe someday. But not yet. And the way they played against the Vikings on Sunday, it doesn't even look like it'll be someday soon.