There are reasons to believe the Giants can steal one Monday night at Tampa Bay and inch their way into the playoff conversation.
The 3-6 Giants, with their heart-and-soul running back Saquon Barkley expected to return after missing four games with an ankle injury, are creeping back toward being at full strength offensively with their skill-position players around quarterback Daniel Jones.
They’ve won two of their past three games and are coming off their bye week, so they should be well-rested.
For the 6-3 Buccaneers, there has to be at least a seed of doubt lingering in their minds coming off two curious losses to the Saints and Washington Football Team. Tampa Bay started the season winning six of its first seven games and appeared to be on cruise control to win the NFC South, but has looked vulnerable in the past two games.
Tampa’s loss to New Orleans came with the Saints playing Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Then came the loss to 3-6 Washington, a 29-19 result that left the Bucs locker room anything but harmonious afterward.
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians publicly tweaked Tom Brady for the two interceptions, though one of them didn’t appear to be Brady’s fault as it deflected off his receiver.
Later, a snippy Brady petulantly cut his postgame press conference short when he didn’t like the tone of reporters’ questioning.
The day after his public poking of the GOAT, Arians walked back some of his criticism.
Then this week, yet another Antonio Brown controversy broke out (what else is new?) when the Bucs receiver, who’s incapable of staying away from off-field issues, was alleged by his former chef to have bought a bogus vaccination card, causing the team to respond, insisting that it had done its due diligence on the matter.
Distractions, distractions. Music to the ears of the Giants, who desperately need a win to remain relevant in the NFC playoff race.
“I don’t think we have given any team our best shot yet,” former Giants and current Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said this week. “We try to forget we’re the Super Bowl champions, but you’ve got to understand all 31 teams are looking to play their best against us. I don’t think we’ve been playing our best ball, but we’re capable of playing our best ball. Once we do that, you’ll see the true Buccaneers come out.’’
The Giants, of course, would like to delay that moment for another week.
With Barkley back, among their skill-position players, the Giants will be missing only receiver Sterling Shepard, who didn’t practice all week because of his quad injury.
Remarkably, the Giants have yet to play a single game this season with Barkley, Shepard, tight end Evan Engram and receivers Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney on the field together. Barkley and Shepard have each missed four games, Golladay has missed three, Engram two and Toney one.
The closest the Giants have been to full strength at their playmaker positions most recently was in their Week 4, 27-21 road win over the Saints, when the offense looked diverse. Only Shepard was missing for that game.
“When we had all of us at almost full strength was the Saints game [and] I feel like we played pretty well,’’ Golladay said. “Everybody touched the ball. D.J. was able to pretty much hit everybody. That’s one of those good games when you come back and you’re smiling the whole time you’re watching the film.
“That’s pretty close to what I envision,’’ Golladay said, referring to what the Giants offense is capable of. “[Barkley] had a long touchdown reception, then he capped it off with the game-winning rushing touchdown. That’s a pretty damn good game.’’
With a salty Brady, who hasn’t lost three consecutive games since the 2002 season, on the other side of the field, the Giants likely will need that kind of production Monday night. They’re not going to win this game scoring 20 points, which is what they’re averaging this season (19.9), ranked 24th in the league.
“We’re certainly excited about where this team’s going,’’ Jones said.
“When we’re at full strength, it’s very exciting,’’ Golladay said. “We’ve just got to see how it all shakes out Monday. People have got to step up and we believe they’ll step up. I don’t feel like we’re running out of time.’’
Perhaps not. But, to borrow from one of New York’s favorite sporting icons, Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early.
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