It's too early in the season to have playoff hopes eliminated. It's not too early in the season to realize that a 1-3 team does not have a great shot at reaching the postseason, especially when those teams have tough upcoming games.
That's the spot the New York Giants and Washington Redskins find themselves in entering Thursday's game. Both teams are 1-2, with the Redskins having games against Seattle and at Arizona on deck. The Giants have hot Atlanta at home followed by road games at Philadelphia and Dallas. A loss by either team Thursday would put it in a dangerous hole.
Giants reporter Dan Graziano and Redskins reporter John Keim talked about the matchup:
John Keim: Did the Giants' offense finally start to show progress last week, and if so, where?
Dan Graziano: I think the Giants started to show progress in Week 2 but were undone by fourth-quarter turnovers. The progress in Week 3 was on the scoreboard, where the Giants exceeded 27 points for the first time since Week 1 of 2013. The Texans helped them out with turnovers, and the fact that the Giants got the first lead of the game (even though it wasn't until the second quarter) allowed them to run their offense the way they want to run it -- no-huddle, rhythm-based, leaning hard on the run game and the short passing game. Rashad Jennings had 34 carries, which seems like a lot with a game just four days later, but he got 176 yards on them, and Eli Manning completed 75 percent of his passes by keeping everything right around the line of scrimmage. It's not going to win any awards for excitement or creativity, but the Giants' offense is designed to be simple and take the pressure off the quarterback, and what we saw Sunday was the first real, extended, successful demonstration of the way it's supposed to look.
Scoring points doesn't seem to be the problem for Kirk and the Miracles down there, but that game Sunday against the Eagles looked like a bloodbath. Just how banged-up is Washington coming out of that game?
John Keim: Very. They have a lot of players who can't wait for Friday to begin healing. They lost corner DeAngelo Hall for the season and have a number of other players banged-up, including defensive end Jason Hatcher. He's the key to any sort of interior pass rush and has been terrific in the first three games. DeSean Jackson still has a shoulder issue; starting guard Shawn Lauvao was downgraded and could miss the game (not a big loss, though). Tight end Jordan Reed remains sidelined. Although Niles Paul has done well in his absence, Reed is a better playmaker -- but can never stay healthy. The Redskins already lost nose tackle Barry Cofield for at least half the season. The backups have done a good job for the most part, but you never like to go to your bullpen so often this early on.
Was that one win enough to calm the masses, or are there still some big concerns with the G-Men?
Dan Graziano: Concerns definitely remain, because I still think this team lacks depth and has personnel deficiencies in key areas. Victor Cruz is their only reliable threat at wide receiver until Odell Beckham comes back, and even then, Beckham is a rookie who's never practiced. Larry Donnell is catching a lot of passes, but he's a woeful blocker and certainly no threat to do anything exciting after the catch. The offensive line had a good game Sunday, but it's still counting on often-overmatched guys such as J.D. Walton and rookie Weston Richburg in the interior. The Giants are making a position switch at safety this week, benching struggling Stevie Brown for Quintin Demps, who was signed as a kick returner. The Giants underwent a major rebuild in the offseason, signing more free agents than any other team in the league. But the facts of the league and of free agency are that that's not the way to rebuild a roster, and the likelihood is that this season will be about making progress and finding out what holes still need to be filled next offseason. So they're feeling good now, coming off their first win, but tough times still loom ahead, and it's going to be tougher for them to run with offenses like Washington's and Atlanta's than it was to run with an Arian Foster-less Houston.
About that Washington offense ... it sure doesn't look as though the Bengals have skipped a beat without Jay Gruden, but how are things different now that he's running the show in D.C.?
John Keim: There are a lot of similarities between what the Redskins do now and what they had done the past four seasons. The run game is about the same, but the passing game is a little different -- a lot of it in terminology and philosophy. Gruden likes the dropback passers and was working hard on trying to develop Robert Griffin III into one before his injury. Gruden will call some zone read, but not as much as his predecessor (especially with Kirk Cousins at quarterback). He will call bootlegs, but by and large he prefers his quarterback in the pocket. The biggest difference is probably how he handles players. Gruden is much more of a player's coach. That can carry negative connotations, but he's definitely not averse to criticizing or getting on a guy. But his criticism does not sting the same way as with previous coaches. Gruden has brought a new vibe to the Redskins. We'll see if that works. If it doesn't, I'll be writing in a few years how the new guy is working to change the culture and has brought a new energy. I have experience.
Meanwhile, Tom Coughlin keeps plugging away, although he always seems right next to the hot seat, if not directly on it. How is he handling all the changes: a new offensive system, some overhauled areas? Seems like a job for a young guy. How does he do it -- and how much longer will he do it?
Dan Graziano: John, I honestly think Coughlin is the best coach in the league. And the reason I say that is I believe that coaching is about figuring out the kind of people and team you have and finding the right way to manage them. Few are as consistently excellent at it as Coughlin is. Last week, after meeting with his team captains, he decided the right move was to loosen things up. He allowed them to play rap music during stretching on Friday -- which never happens -- and after that day's practice he had a punt-catching competition between the offensive linemen and the defensive linemen. He said the message was, "I still believe in you, and things will be OK if you just relax and let your ability take over." The players all talked Sunday about how much they appreciated the lighter touch. It reminded me of December 2011, when they were 7-7 off a loss to Washington, and he came in and gave the players a speech about how great life was and how awesome it was to have a chance to still make the playoffs. When Coughlin has to ride the team hard, he rides it hard. When he has to lighten up, he lightens up. His genius is in his ability to figure out which time is which. And as the Giants undergo this overhaul incorporating so many new players, new coaches and new systems into the mix, he remains their greatest asset. I don't think a Coughlin-coached team will ever win FEWER games in a season than its talent level dictates it should.
Now, with us, Coughlin is still kind of a grouchy guy pounding on the same old stuff, including his insistence that his team be able to run the ball. Jennings had 176 yards on the ground Sunday, but Washington has been super-stingy against the run. Without Cofield especially, how have they been doing this, and do you expect the Giants to have a tough time running the ball this week?
John Keim: They've done an excellent job stopping the run, especially the past two games. Part of that has been facing weakened offensive lines, but an equal part is that they did a nice job in the front seven. Chris Baker took over for Cofield, and while the Redskins are better with those two on the field at the same time (Baker had been at end, but is a natural nose), they're fine with the current setup. Baker is a strong player who uses good leverage and can handle double teams. Jarvis Jenkins returned to starting at left end and has been fine. And Hatcher, provided he's healthy, has been terrific. They've tackled much better, and that's made a difference. So, yes, I'd expect the Giants to have a tough time running the ball. Throwing it might be another story; it all depends on whether Washington can pressure with a four-man rush. It's been hit (10 sacks one game) or miss (zero sacks in the other two) this season.