It’s always tough to be the road team on Thursday Night Football, but that task is even more difficult for an extremely banged-up Giants (2-3) squad that heads to Gillette Stadium to take on the unbeaten Patriots (5-0).
New York travels up I-95 to New England with the very real possibly it will be without sensational running back Saquon Barkley, backup runner Wayne Gallman, top pass-catcher/tight end weapon Evan Engram and starting wide receiver Sterling Shephard. More than half the Giants rushing attempts and receptions to this point in the season will be sidelined Thursday night. That’s a huge blow to the visitor’s ability to move the football and score point on offense.
It leaves developing rookie first-round pick Daniel Jones set to meet up with New England’s dominant, No. 1 defense with extremely limited weapons to work with.
“I don't see them holding back anything,” Bill Belichick said of the Giants offense transitioning from franchise legend Eli Manning to Jones. “He's very athletic, he's mobile. I wouldn't say he just goes back and starts running, but if he needs to run, if the protection breaks down or if there's an opening there. If he gets outside of the pocket, he can cause a lot of damage with his speed and his ability to extend plays. But, he's a very accurate quarterback and has good poise. He's shown good toughness in the pocket. He's been hit a few times, but he just stands in there and keeps ripping it. So, he's been impressive.”
Jones took over for Manning – the man of Patriots fans’ Super Bowl nightmares – in Week 3. He’s notched a 2-1 record as a starter, has a touchdown pass in each of his first three starts and is completing 64 percent of his passes. Of course he’s also been sacked nine times, lost three fumbles and thrown four interceptions.
In other words, he’s an inexperienced rookie quarterback.
Now he’s undermanned offensively going against not only the best defense in football, but one that’s putting up historic numbers and must prepare for the matchup on a short week.
On the other side of the field is Tom Brady, who has the same short week to work with, but as he explains it, obviously a lot more experience to pull from to prepare.
“I’m pretty efficient with my time,” Brady said of a possible short-week advantage. “Any time you have experience doing things like I do – like you guys do when you’ve been in your job for a long time, like a lot of people do when they’ve been in their job for a long time – you know what works, you know what doesn’t work. You just try to get to the things that work and that you know are going to be successful. So, whether that’s your preparation, how you study, how you utilize your time – I think there’s always a balance for a player between your mental preparation, your physical preparation, your emotional preparation and how you try to be at the peak for all three of those phases for the particular game that you’re playing. So, you don’t have the physical time to practice, so mentally, you’ve got to take advantage of that, get your body right, be prepared and then go out and execute at a high level.”
Beyond Jones’ first trip to Foxborough for a matchup with an experienced future Hall of Fame passer 20 years his elder, here are some key aspects of Thursday night’s cross-conference battle to keep an eye on.
On target – After limping off with a hamstring injury in the first quarter last week in Washington, Phillip Dorsett was absent from the practice field this week. Even though the injury is reportedly “minor,” he seems unlikely to suit up against New York. Julian Edelman continues to deal with his chest/rib injury. He’s performed through the pain – including a 100-yard effort last weekend – but playing two games in five days is probably going to be an even bigger test of his gritty toughness. Given the limitations of the tight end position, Brady is going to be taking the field with few truly trusted targets. That leaves room for Josh Gordon, who’s been lackluster so far, to step up to the plate for greater contributions against New York. Or, maybe this is a game where Brady has to turn to undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers with at least a few targets. Brady has to throw the ball somewhere and the options are a bit limited right now. He and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will need to figure it out against a Giants pass defense that ranks 28th in the NFL.
Keep on running – Sony Michel and the Patriots running game got things going in the second half against Washington. New England finished with season-highs of 130 yards and a 4.8-yard average. Michel had a season-long 25-yard run and 91 yards on just 16 attempts, including running behind new fullback Jakob Johnson. With the limitations at receiver and issues the offensive line has had with pass protection, there’s no reason not to at least try to keep the positive momentum going on the ground against a Giants rush defense that’s in the bottom half of the league.
Third and strong – The Patriots have allowed eight third down conversions (8 of 63, 12.7 percent) in five games. Let that sink in for just a second. Opponents are averaging 1.6 conversions per game. The Jets never had a single conversion in 12 tries in Week 3. Washington had just one in 11 chances last Sunday. Before you can score points against the Patriots defense you need to stay on the field and drive the ball. That’s been damn near impossible through five weeks. It’s not likely to change too dramatically with Jones’ limited offense and weapons on Thursday night.
Tough to tackle – If there is one area the New England defense could work on – and we’re nitpicking like a coach would here – it’s tackling. It was an obvious issue against the Redskins on Steve Sims’ 65-yard end-around. It was an issue a week earlier in Buffalo against aging back Frank Gore. It’s a minor gripe, but tackling might be the one thing the Patriots defense could actually do a little bit better.
Inside pressure – One of the better, more ascending players on the Giants roster is first-round rookie defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. The former Clemson star has two sacks and double-digit pressures from the inside. The best way to get to Brady has always been through inside pressure and New England’s line continues to work through things early in the season. Lawrence is a big, strong, athletic talent who could be a challenge for center Ted Karras and the interior of the New England line to deal with.
Weather the storm – The weather report for Thursday is not all that good. There could be heavy rains and high winds throughout New England, including at Gillette. That might screw with the passing game. It could give new fill-in kicker Mike Nugent some issues. It’s a challenge for everyone who touches the football, including rookie Jake Bailey in his duties as a punter, holder and kickoff specialist. Weather games – if wind gusts reach 30 mph as some are forecasting – can bring unique issues and be a form of an equalizer. Maybe the weather won’t be as bad as predicted, but if it is you would think it would be another area that Brady would have an advantage dealing with over the younger passer Jones.
Prediction – The Patriots are once again a big favorite, upwards of three scores. The Giants would be an underdog even at full strength on normal week, but with all the injuries on the road on a short week New York is in a really, really tough spot. But, Brady and his offense also have their own issues to deal with. The lone proven, reliable unit in this game is the Patriots defense that should keep chugging along and is likely to give Jones and his limited weapons major problems. The overall scoring could be down for New England, which has had issues moving the ball at times in recent weeks. Still, there is no reason to expect the game to be in question late, even in bad weather. Let’s go with the 27-9 victory for Brady and Co. to advance to 6-0 and cruise into the partial bye week heading toward a Monday night meeting with the Jets.