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The Giants remain New York City’s best NFL team. But that’s faint praise

<span>Photograph: Rich Schultz/Getty Images</span>

Photograph: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Three days after he compared himself to the head of a stinking fish, New York Giants head coach Joe Judge led his team to victory on Sunday. Call him the Sturgeon General. His defense played so well that the opponent benched their quarterback (the achievement was tempered by the fact that the quarterback in question was Sam Darnold, who has recaptured the lousy form that saw him traded from the New York Jets).

The 25-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers hiked the Giants’ record to 2-5 in Judge’s second year as coach. That is a slight improvement Judge’s first year in charge, when the Giants lost six of their first seven games. Because the NFC East was so horrid in 2020, the Giants rallied to go into the last night of that season with a chance to win the division title.

That did not happen, because the Washington Football Team beat the Philadelphia Eagles, who benched their quarterback even though they were only a touchdown behind. But the Giants had reasons to feel good about this season. They’d won five of their last eight games in 2020, and the elite running back Saquon Barkley would return from knee surgery.

And then the Giants lost their first three games … then lost Barkley to an ankle injury, in a Week 5 loss to the Cowboys. Barkley has missed the last two games and is expected to miss the Giants’ game Monday night against the reeling Kansas City Chiefs. Barkley has played in only 20 of the Giants’ 39 games in the last three seasons.

The susceptibility of any NFL bell-cow back to injury makes you wonder why the Giants chose Barkley with the No 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft – until you realize that the top quarterback thought to be available then was Darnold, who went to the Jets at No 3 (in a resounding tribute to the drafting acumen of New York City’s NFL teams, Josh Allen went to Buffalo at No 7, and that Lamar Jackson guy went 32nd, to the Ravens.)

Related: OK, now it’s time to worry about the Kansas City Chiefs

The Giants took Barkley, in large part, because they thought they could squeeze another decent year or two out of quarterback Eli Manning before moving on. That quarterback turned out to be Daniel Jones, who has been inconsistent and turnover-prone, although he can take a pounding and did make a sweet one-handed catch Sunday on a pass by wide receiver Dante Pettis.

Jones produced enough offense to propel the Giants, who were without Barkley and four other offensive contributors because of injury. The less-than-capacity crowd at MetLife Stadium, disgusted with the home team a week earlier in a grim 38-11 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, were relatively supportive on Sunday, particularly given the Giants’ patchwork lineup.

“I didn’t feel like the villagers with pitchforks were out,” Billy Fishkin, a long-time Giants season-ticket-holder told me.

A contending Giants team, the older pro football team in the nation’s biggest metropolis, just makes the league more interesting. They played their home games for 31 years at the Polo Grounds, for crying out loud, followed by another 17 years at the old Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River. Fans have kept season tickets in their families for generations.

The Giants may soar when Barkley and the other injured players return, but a playoff berth already looks unlikely, especially because the Dallas Cowboys, with the fully healed quarterback Dak Prescott, have emerged as one of the top teams in the NFC. With three wildcard teams now per conference, the Giants are not mathematically out of contention.

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman knew when he drafted Barkley that he’d be setting himself up to be second-guessed for ages. But the Giants find themselves digging out of another hole. They could have had Allen or Jackson, who had only won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 at Louisville. But Barkley it was.

Judge, the 39-year-old former assistant to Bill Belichick, might buy himself another year if the Giants finish this season strong. But chances are that they will finish with a losing record and won’t make the playoffs for the fifth straight year. They have not won a playoff game since Manning led the 2011 Giants, 9-7 in the regular season, to an upset victory in Super Bowl XLVI.

The New York Football Giants, established in 1925, were among the league’s classiest teams for two notable runs in the last 35 years under former coaches Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin. Everyone expects mediocrity from New York’s other NFL team, the Jets, who have not won the Super Bowl in 52 years. The Giants can’t get out of their own way now, too.

They have company in their own division. Washington and the Eagles both lost dismally Sunday to join the Giants at 2-5. The Giants have a game against putrid Miami and both games left against the Eagles, though they have to get through the seething Patrick Mahomes, the surging Derek Carr and the GOAT Tom Brady before the schedule eases.

That is why Sunday’s Giants’ victory felt like a one-off. Judge was not asked a single question at a post-game news conference about the larger significance of the victory: that it might have represented a turnaround, a launch point, especially after the awful loss to the Rams, one of the league’s top teams.

“You guys ask me all the time, how do I see the guys come to work, how can I gauge the mood in the building? I tell you all the time, I do it based on how they show up to work, how they meet, their intent in their actions and what they’re doing, how they practice on the field, so that’s my barometer. That’s my measuring stick right there,” Judge said.

“When the team comes in, they work, they prepare and they do everything necessary to have success, they work together,” Judge added. “That’s when you know your team is moving in the right direction. I see it from our guys every week.”

Well, that is good to hear, anyway. Still, not much is expected. Paid attendance on Sunday was 10,000 short of capacity. A resale ticket to the season finale at home against the Football Team on 9 January can be purchased for a mere $23. Last year was an aberration. Another football season in New York seems decided before the first pitch of the World Series.

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