by Jon Wagner / SNYGiants contributor
The scene at MetLife Stadium was about as different as it could possibly get on Sunday compared to how that building will look and feel for the next game to be played there in five weeks.
Of course, by then, much of the world’s attention will be focused on Super Bowl XLVIII, on February 2. And no matter the weather, the stadium will be packed with fans as the next NFL champion is crowned.
But first, there was a game of far less importance, in front of relatively few onlookers, after many others either vacated their rain-soaked seats or failed to show up in the first place, on a cold, soggy day in the Meadowlands.
In a matchup of the last two NFC East winners (prior to this year) who have fallen on tougher times, the New York Giants (7-9) finished a rough season strongly (7-3) following an 0-6 start, with a 20-6 victory over the Washington Redskins (3-13), who completed the year with eight straight losses.
While the Giants suffered injuries at five key offensive positions, only one appeared serious -- and considering the timing, even that one shouldn’t affect New York’s plans for next year.
Quarterback Eli Manning (the league’s reigning ironman, with 151 straight starts), wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and left guard James Brewer each suffered ankle sprains and missed the second half, as did wide receiver Reuben Randle (who left with a knee injury), and left tackle Will Beatty broke his right leg while awkwardly falling over a pile of players after a deflected pass, in the third quarter.
Each of them should be okay, and since Beatty has plenty of time before training camp next year, his injury will heal in a matter of weeks and shouldn’t be that much of a setback.
Far more positively, wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan (six catches, 90 yards, one receiving touchdown; two rushes, 57 yards, one rushing touchdown) accounted for more than half (147) of the Giants’ 278 total yards of offense, as well as the game’s only two touchdowns.
Jernigan, a 5-foot-8, speedster drafted out of out of Troy University in 2011, had only three career catches on five targets before the season started. And prior to the final three games of the season, Jernigan was targeted just 16 times, while making a mere 10 catches for 92 yards this year, while lacking a career touchdown.
But pressed more into action with Cruz out, Jernigan had 27 targets and 19 catches, for 237 yards, as well as three scores (two receiving, one rushing) over the final three games.
With Randle (just completing his second year in the league) still in the process of learning to become a more reliable receiver; top receiver Victor Cruz missing the final two weeks of this season due to knee surgery; and especially, Nicks uncertain to return next year as a free agent, Jernigan’s increased production might give New York reason to make the previously underused receiver a much bigger part of its offense in 2014.
Jernigan’s first touchdown turned the game while putting the Giants ahead for good.
Washington struck first, with a first-quarter field goal, to lead 3-0, but New York kept the Redskins’ offense in check while allowing just 251 total yards and harassing quarterback Kirk Cousins (19-for-49, 169 yards, two interceptions, three sacks) throughout the game.
After the Giants drove 61 yards on 12 plays only to miss a 50-yard field goal (rather than go for a first down on 4th-and-2 in bad weather) on their third trip, they marched 75 plays on six yards, two possessions later, with Manning (10-for-24, 152 yards, one touchdown, one interception) connecting with Jernigan on a 30-yard catch-and-run, and a 24-yard touchdown pass, to give New York a 7-3 edge, with 5:21 left in the opening half.
That lead was extended to 10-3 on a 34-yard field goal by Josh Brown less than four minutes later, before the Redskins got within 10-6 on a 49-yard field goal, four seconds before halftime.
Although Manning’s backup, Curtis Painter (2-for-8, 11 yards, one interception), didn’t do much, he didn’t need to, since Jernigan gave the Giants’ defense all the breathing room it needed, with a brilliant 49-yard run around the left end, on which Jernigan patiently waited for a hole to open up after making a few nice stutter-step moves in the backfield. The score came on the final play of the third quarter and pushed New York’s lead to 17-6.
Brown added one more field goal, from 38 yards away, with 4:53 left in the game, to finish the scoring.
While the Giants’ poor start to the season cost them a chance to be the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its own building, and caused them to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, New York’s solid finish to the year indicated that a solid enough foundation exists to build upon -- even if the Giants will have a lot of work to do and many decisions to make in the offseason.
And in the meantime, Giants fans can continue to enjoy the fact that for now, New York remains the league’s only team to win multiple Super Bowl titles (XLII and XLVI) in the past seven years.