There is no way anyone can underestimate the Giants anymore.
Maybe they did still have a lot to prove when they rode six straight wins against (mostly) inferior opponents to an 8-3 record. But on Sunday night they beat a legitimately good team in the now-11-2 Dallas Cowboys. No team had been hotter. No team is more well-constructed. And the Giants have now beaten them twice.
What does that mean? It means that even if you think the Giants are still flawed (which they are), they have to be considered one of the best teams in their conference (which they are). It also means that, if they play up to their capabilities they can probably beat anyone in the NFL. The Giants were essentially no-shows on offense on Sunday night except for one glorious moment of Odell Beckham Jr. being Odell Beckham Jr., and they were still good enough to take the Cowboys down.
"I think that everything is in front of us," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "I think that we can be as good as we want to be. As long as we keep our head down and keep grinding away - it is still a long season. We have some games left. But I am planning on playing in January. That is the goal right now, to get through December and play in January."
The Giants, at 9-4 and 1 ½ games up in the wild-card chase with three games to go, will almost certainly be playing beyond their season finale on Jan. 1. How far may depend on how far their defense can carry them or whether their offense ever kicks it in to gear. But they definitely made a statement with their 10-7 win over the Cowboys on Sunday night that, in the words of Landon Collins, "We're a team to be reckoned with."
Here are my five takeaways from that "statement" game:
1. Eli Manning is playing like he's "skittish".
Yeah, that description made by GM Jerry Reese back in 2007 sure seems to apply again to the franchise quarterback. Let's face it, he is taking a beating behind this offensive line and even when he's not it's largely because he's getting rid of the football quickly. It's not as obvious as it was a few weeks back in Minnesota when he was famously bailing out of plays and firing the ball into the ground. But it's close. The pressure is coming from everywhere, quickly - particularly from his blind side right around left tackle Ereck Flowers.
Eventually that's going to take a physical and mental toll.
From an offensive strategy standpoint, that pressure (and lack of competent blocking) is why the Giants' downfield passing attack has disappeared. There's no time for Manning to let plays develop. His best shot at a big play is a quick strike to Odell Beckham, like the seven-yard pass that turned into a 61-yard touchdown on Sunday night. When there is a little bit of time it's only a little bit of time, so Manning's throws are rushed and off target.
But even when there is time, Manning looks … well, jumpy. He seems to be rushing his throws even when he doesn't have to and misfiring - usually high. He doesn't have his usual touch, which was so good in his best seasons. That usually goes first when a quarterback is rattled.
None of this is to excuse him. He's not playing well and, since he's 35, we all have to at least acknowledge the possibility that this is the beginning of his late-career decline. But we've also seen this before. It's what happens to Eli Manning when he's stuck behind a bad line.
2. It might be time to bench left tackle Ereck Flowers.
He is struggling more than anyone on the offensive line, whether it's with his abnormal number of penalties or missed blocks. Even on running plays, more often than not he seems to be running around whiffing at guys he should be hitting.
None of this is to say Flowers is a bust. He was the ninth overall pick in the draft for a reason, and most NFL people seemed to think he was worthy of a pick at least somewhere around that high. He is young and huge and has raw talent and could be a terrific left tackle in the future. But right now he is struggling and the Giants are in a playoff race and this is serious business. If he's a liability on the field, which he is, he can't be on the field anymore.
Now, because the Giants have been so bad about building their offensive line throughout the years, they didn't really have the depth to bench anyone. But now, with Justin Pugh coming back, maybe they do. Brett Jones played well in his brief time at guard, so maybe he could go to left guard and Pugh could move to left tackle - or right tackle if the Giants want to have Marshall Newhouse switch sides. The point is, they have basically one body's worth of flexibility if they want to let Flowers sit and watch for a week.
And they should.
3. Steve Spagnuolo is still a brilliant defensive coordinator.
I know, his performance last year was historically bad, and his previous season as a defensive coordinator (in New Orleans) was even worse. But throughout it all, I kept saying that had more to do with him just not having good enough players. And it turns out that was correct.
Given a $200 million influx of talent, Spags now directs the 14th-best defense in the NFL. But it was what he did on Sunday night where he showed how good he is. With arguably his best pass rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul, taken out of his lineup he got the most out of a bunch of lesser players by being creative. He got a huge performance from rookie defensive end Romeo Okwara, and a great game from linebacker Devon Kennard who played the role of speedy, undersized defensive tackle/end. And he helped fix the Giants' problems with covering tight ends by using safety Landon Collins as a pseudo-linebacker, which also helped the Giants shut down Ezekiel Elliott in the second half.
And on top of all that, he changed up his rush and coverage schemes enough that, in the words of linebacker Jonathan Casillas, he had rookie Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott "flustered" and "frustrated". Some of that had to do with CB Janoris Jenkins taking Dez Bryant completely out of the game, but it wasn't like Prescott had many other options either thanks to Spags' scheme.
4. Janoris 'Please call me Jackrabbit' Jenkins belongs in the Pro Bowl.
It really should've been clear before Sunday night, but the job he did on Dez Bryant should seal it. He was all over him, covering him on eight of his nine targets and not really leaving him open for more targets than that. The one time Bryant caught the ball, Jenkins closed quickly and forced a fumble. He also made an incredibly athletic play to make an interception on a pass where a well-covered Bryant slipped. And the way he made sure Bryant could not make the catch on the Cowboys' final, fourth-down pass was exactly the way a cornerback is supposed to play.
Since the Giants had been so bad for so long, and Pro Bowl recognition usually comes a year after a player or team has a breakout season, it's hard to say how many Giants will make it this year. Safety Landon Collins is probably the only lock from the defense, but Jenkins should absolutely be joining him, too.
5. Undrafted rookie Romeo Okwara had a JPP-like performance.
Now don't get carried away. I'm not talking about JPP in his prime or even at his current ceiling. But the kid was thrust into a tough spot against the best offensive line in football and look what he did: A team-high eight tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, three quarterback hits and a pass defense. He also played on 60 of the 66 defensive snaps, so it's not as if the Giants even tried to rotated him with Kerry Wynn (Owa Odighizuwa was inactive at least in part due to injury).
Who knows how good the 6-5, 265-pound Notre Dame product will be in the long run. But this was a heck of a place to start.