By Paul Schwartz
The call was for a naked bootleg, meaning Daniel Jones was to roll out to the side knowing he would not have blockers in front of him. His first read was to try to get the ball to Saquon Barkley. There were less than two minutes remaining and a first down would seal the deal for the Giants.
Jones never made the throw. Barkley was covered, as the Panthers detected he would be the target on this third-down play. Jones never hesitated. He took off, using his long legs and deceptive speed to slip past the line of scrimmage. He needed 6 yards to pick up the first down. He finally slid down after picking up 11 yards.
One run by Barkley and two kneel downs by Jones and that was that. The clock ran out and the Giants and new head coach Brian Daboll were 2-0 after a tense 19-16 victory in the home opener Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
“They did a really good job and DJ made a play,” Barkley said. “It’s a players’ league. That’s something that coach keeps telling us, it’s a players’ league and your players have got to make plays, your guys have got to be guys. In that situation he was.”
In that situation, Jones and the Giants have failed so often the past few years that a sense of dread accompanied these late-game scenarios. The Giants survived a missed field goal at the buzzer last week to upset the Titans in Nashville and did just enough on offense and leaned on a depleted defense to win their first two games in a season for the first time since 2016.
That Jones was able to run out the clock was a step forward for a quarterback who is playing for his Giants’ future, as he does not have a contract for 2023.
“I thought he made great decisions with the football in his hands,” Daboll said. “He took care of it; he led the team down again to finish off a drive to win the game. … So, that’s two good weeks I’d say for Daniel.”
And he used his smarts and his legs to get it done at the finish.
“Want to keep the clock moving with a completion or a run,” Jones said. “I thought they matched Saquon and I saw a lane to get up and get the first down.”
Jones was able to get the offense in the end zone only once, on his third-quarter pass to rookie tight end Daniel Bellinger to tie the game at 13. If not for Graham Gano, it would not have been enough. The 35-year-old kicker went 4-for-4 on field goals, and in the fourth quarter drilled kicks from 51 yards to give the Giants a 16-13 lead and from 56 yards with 3:34 remaining for the decisive points.
There was plenty of time for the Panthers (0-2) to ruin the mood of the towel-waving crowd of 73,843. They picked up two first downs and faced a third-and-6. The Giants needed a defensive stop to secure the game and they got it when safety Julian Love stormed through and dropped Baker Mayfield for a 9-yard loss, forcing a Panthers punt. The Giants got the ball at 2:06 and never gave it back.
The Giants limited Mayfield to 145 passing yards and did not allow running back Christian McCaffrey to wreck the game. McCaffrey did his damage on the ground with 102 yards, but 49 of them came on one play. The Giants were more concerned with McCaffrey as a pass-catcher and assigned safety Xavier McKinney to shadow him out of the backfield. McCaffrey caught four passes for 26 yards.
“He’s one of the best backs in this league and it wasn’t easy,” McKinney said.
“Easy” and the Giants are not simpatico. Barkley after a 164-yard rushing eruption in Nashville was stopped cold in the first half — five rushes for 3 yards. He ran for 69 yards in the second half to finish with 72.
On defense, the Giants were again without Azeez Ojulari and rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, their top two pass rushers and defensive lineman Leonard Williams, one of their best players, went down midway through the third quarter with a knee injury.
With the game tied at 16, Barkley gained 18 yards on back-to-back runs, caught a pass for 9 yards and Gary Brightwell on his second NFL rushing attempt gained 14 yards to convert a third down. It was just enough to get Gano in range from 56 yards out.
“Dabes looked at me and kind of just pointed and said ‘Go out’ and said ‘Hey, can you make this’? and I looked over and said, ‘Yeah’ and laughed,” Gano said. “And then I got out there and I was like ‘Man, this is a long one. The wind is blowing our way.’ But yeah, you just try to hit it the same and make sure you hit it pure.”
The offense heard boos in the first half but not at the game’s end.
“Well, I’d say whether you score a lot or not, it’s important to figure out a way to win the games,” Daboll said. “You can win a game a variety of ways. You can also lose it.”
So far, Daboll and the Giants have been finding ways to win it.