Brian Daboll’s message to the Giants entering Sunday night’s must-win game against the Washington Commanders oddly was, in part, that it isn’t a must-win game.
The rookie head coach doesn’t care much for all the shifting playoff probabilities and outside noise labeling this NFC East clash at FedEx Field as do-or-die.
So even though a defeat would severely hurt the Giants’ chances of making the playoffs, Daboll has chosen to try to relieve the pressure of getting that result.
“I’m not saying it’s right or wrong,” Daboll said of his reluctance to build up the game’s magnitude. “That’s just my philosophy: Let’s focus on what we can control. How we prepare, play and coach, that’s what makes the difference. ‘What if this happens?’ None of that really matters.”
That’s fine, but Daboll is still winless in the division and winless in his last four games, coming off a gigantic beatdown by the Giants’ most hated rival at home. And he has four games to avoid a huge late-season collapse.
So his strategy begs the question: how is this firing up the Giants’ players for Sunday? And how are they receiving it?
Largely, they seem to have received it as a reminder to stay consistent and not change their mindsets or actions because of the magnitude of the moment.
“What it means, to me, is that nothing is going to affect our preparation,” safety Jason Pinnock said. “No matter if there’s pressure or people say it’s a must-win or whatever. We don’t focus on any of that. This is a professional environment. We focus on how we prepare, and I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think that’s the aura of this entire locker room right now.”
Special teams ace Carter Coughlin echoed Pinnock.
“To me, it’s about keeping things constant,” he said.
Coughlin said every week in the Giants’ full-team meeting, Daboll shows the players a slide of a mountain with their games as gradual steps on the climb to the top.
So if Daboll were to suddenly tell the team that the whole season rode on one game, it wouldn’t be consistent with his typical message.
Maybe that’s why Daboll has shifted away from his early-month emphasis on the big picture importance of “meaningful games in December:” to keep the team locked into a steady process.
“And if you need motivation to play in a game like this, a division game, then you shouldn’t be here,” Coughlin said excitedly on Friday, as if he were ready to charge down on Sunday’s opening kickoff right then and there.
Coughlin is correct: Players already know this is a big game. They don’t need to be told how high the stakes are. Still, this is a bottom-line business.
So veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith, for example, sees less nuance in the situation.
“We wanna win,” Smith said. “I wanna win. We wanna win. That’s my take on it.”
It was strange this week, too, when players such as rookie edge Kayvon Thibodeaux reminded reporters that a loss doesn’t shrink the Giants’ playoff odds to zero.
Thibodeaux did it with a sense of humor: He said when you’re a kid, if your momma says you’re “definitely” going to get your “butt whooped” as a threat, she provides more incentive to listen than when she says you “might” get your butt whooped.
That’s the score on Sunday: the Giants will be less likely to make the playoffs if they lose to Washington, but they won’t be out – especially with the Seattle Seahawks (7-7) continuing to lose.
In fact, the Giants’ magic number appears to be nine.
If they can find two more wins in their final four games against the Commanders, Vikings, Colts and Eagles, a 9-7-1 final record would get them into the postseason provided the Detroit Lions (6-7) and Seahawks don’t win out.
So Daboll isn’t wrong: the Giants still can lose this game and get in, and become the first team ever to reach the playoffs with fewer than two division wins in the current 32-team format since 2002.
But is that an effective pre-game message: that a win is important, but a loss won’t kill you?
We’ll see on Sunday night.
JONESING’ FOR A PRIME-TIME WIN
Daniel Jones is playing in his first-ever Sunday Night Football game. He enters 0-9 in his career in prime time: 0-6 on Monday Night Football and 0-3 on Thursday Night Football.
Saquon Barkley had Jones’ back this week, though. He argued that Jones’ comeback win over the Green Bay Packers in London this season was basically a prime-time game with the whole world watching.
And Barkley reminded everyone that Jones won a playoff-like game in 2020 over the Dallas Cowboys under Joe Judge that would have gotten the Giants in if the Eagles hadn’t laid down against Washington.
“The year I tore my knee, they had to beat Dallas to get into the playoffs. They did that,” Barkley said. “D.J. was the quarterback there, too. That’s kind of been the [outside] theme, ‘Oh, you guys haven’t been in these types of games before.’ But it’s like two, three years ago, we were in a type of game like this.”
This is only the Giants’ second prime-time game of this season. They lost at home to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys, 23-16, on Monday Night Football in Week 3.