Image Credits: Bruce Kluckhohn.

The 2022 Wild Card game against the Minnesota Vikings got off to a very inauspicious start for the New York Giants. On the first play, Kirk Cousins completed a pass to All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson for 10 yards, and then running back Dalvin Cook ran right up the gut for nine. The Giants’ star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence committed a neutral zone infraction, giving the Vikings another first down. All told, the drive would last 12 plays, including four catches from Jefferson, take up almost seven minutes and end with a quarterback sneak for a touchdown. Then, on the first Giants play from scrimmage, a 12-year gain by Saquon Barkley was called back for holding on left guard Nick Gates.

The Vikings’ Skol-chanting crowd was in a deafening frenzy.

And then the magic started. On 1st-and-20, Daniel Jones hit Richie James over the middle for 13 yards. He followed that up on 2nd-and-7 by slipping inside an outside rush around rookie right tackle Evan Neal by Za’Darius Smith for a seven-yard first down. After completing a 22-yard crosser to Darius Slayton, Jones repeated his scrambling feat by slipping inside an outside rush from Patrick Jones Jr. for a 15 yard gain. Jones capped off the run with a tasty stiff-arm of future Hall of Fame cornerback Patrick Peterson. On the next play, center Jon Feliciano delivered a crushing pulling block to spring Barkley for a 29-yard touchdown. Every play of the drive was successful, excepting the initial 12-yard Barkley run that was called back for holding. It was a thrilling start to a game that would go down to the last play, an inexplicable decision by Cousins to throw a 3-yard pass to tight end T.J. Hockenson on 4th-and-8 that sealed a 31-24 victory for the Giants and a date in Philadelphia with the NFC East rival Eagles.

But the first drives were deceptive in every respect but one. Jefferson would catch only three more passes, and Barkley would finish with only 9 rushes for 53 yards. The receiving stars were Hockenson, who tormented the Giants with 10 catches for 129 yards, and 2020 Bills’ 6th-round pick Isaiah Hodgins who caught 8 passes for 105 yards. What remained constant was Jones’s rushing ability. His seventeen total rushes nearly doubled Barkley’s and outpaced the 15 carries from the Vikings’ Cook.  He finished with 78 rushing yards compared to Cook’s sixty. Considering the stakes, it was Jones’s finest performance as a pro, as he also went 25-34 through air for 301 yards and two touchdowns.

It was also the last game, outside of a sparkling second half performance against the Arizona Cardinals last year, where Jones performed like a number six overall draft pick and franchise quarterback. In 2023, devastating injuries to Andrew Thomas, Saquon Barkley and rookie center John Michael Schmitz, combined with a tough early schedule, resulted in a complete meltdown of the Giants’ offense. Then Jones suffered a neck injury followed by a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his season in Week Nine.

Now it’s fair to question whether Jones can recapture the magic from 2022  and his playoff win in Minnesota, and so it is perhaps fortuitous that the Vikings are the first team on the Giants’ 2024 schedule, albeit this time in the Meadowlands before a friendly crowd celebrating the beginning of the storied franchise’s centennial season.

Jones may have a comfort level facing the Vikings, but many things have changed. Gone is his star sidekick, Barkley. The Vikings defense is now led by accomplished coordinator Brian Flores, and their secondary no longer looks like the Swiss cheese 2022 outfit that finished second-to-last in yards conceded. It’s unlikely that the Giants will craft a game plan that involves handing the ball fewer than ten times to a running back. The fearsome Viking pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter have been replaced by Andrew Van Ginkel, Jonathan Greenard and rookie Dallas Turner who are all new to Flores’s defense.

The Giants receiving corp no longer resembles a M*A*S*H ward and is bolstered by a new 6th overall pick, rookie Malik Nabers out of LSU. The offensive line is healthy and solidified by veteran guards Jon Runyon and Jermaine Eluemunor. Perhaps, most importantly, this will be Jones’ third year in Brian Daboll’s offense and third year with offensive coordinator Mike Kafka. Even going back to college, Jones has never enjoyed this kind of continuity.

As for the Vikings offense, they are in the process of choosing a starting quarterback. Will it be Jets castoff Sam Darnold or rookie J.J. McCarthy, fresh off his NCAA championship-winning season at Michigan? Neither prospect is as intimidating as facing Kirk Cousins who is now playing on a fresh $180 million contract for the Atlanta Falcons. The Giants won’t have to worry about tight end Hockenson torching them for over 100 yards either, because he tore his ACL on Christmas Eve in Detroit and won’t be ready for Opening Day. Perhaps covering tight ends won’t be such a concern this year, as the Giants’ interior linebacking crew, led by Bobby Okereke, is much improved. That should also help in defending the Vikings’ run game which is now led by 3-time 1,000-yard rusher Aaron Jones, formerly of the Green Bay Packers.

And that’s not the only change that favors the Giants defense. The Vikings interior line is unsettled and center Garrett Bradbury proved no match for Dexter Lawrence in the 2022 Wild Card match. The Giants’ edge rusher situation will be greatly improved with major free agent signing Brian Burns joining a more seasoned Kayvon Thibodeaux and a healthy Azeez Ojulari. If the secondary can slow down Jefferson, it could be a long day for the Vikings offense as they break-in a new QB.

Much might depend on Jones’s legs. The game plan in 2022 accounted for right tackle Evan Neal’s difficulties in pass protection by including both designed quarterback runs and quick scrambles when edge rushers committed too much to Neal’s outside. But in the first game back from an ACL injury, do the Giants want Jones rushing 17 times? Can Neal get fully healthy and hold up better in the pass game so that Jones can connect with his speedy receiving corp?

It seems that the Giants caught a break in getting the Vikings in Week One. They won’t be facing a top quarterback well-versed in the team’s offense, and they won’t be facing Hockenson. The Vikings pass rush might take time to develop with all new players on the edges, and that’s important because the Giants offensive line will need time to gel, too.

Much the same story will play out the next week in Washington. The Commanders will also be breaking in a new QB playing behind a revamped offensive line and missing its edge rushers. Is it too much to hope that that Giants can start the season two-and-O?

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