Over the past few minutes, Jones had been so placid — neutral expression, monotone voice, hands stuffed in his sweatshirt pocket — that a reporter felt compelled to ask if winning his first playoff game was fun. (“Yeah,” he replied.) But now, as a team staffer tried to turn off the speakers, Jones flashed a grin. He seemed amused, unsure of what to do for one of the first times all night. The staffer suggested everyone move to a side room. By the time he was asked another question, Jones’s face was back to blank, his mouth a stream of what can only be described as Franchise QB Speak.
“Big win for us,” he said. “Obviously a big playoff game. I thought we played well in all three phases and did enough to win the game. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we have a lot of work to do moving forward.”
On Sunday afternoon, Jones and running back Saquon Barkley authored signature performances in a 31-24 victory over Minnesota, the Giants’ first playoff victory since they won the Super Bowl following the 2011 season. Jones completed 24 of 35 pass attempts for 301 yards and two touchdowns, and on the ground, his team-leading 17 attempts went for 78 yards. Barkley totaled 14 touches for 109 yards and two touchdowns. The Giants (10-7-1) limped into the playoffs, having won just three of their past nine games, but the quarterback and running back have now propelled them into the divisional round, where they’ll face the NFC’s No. 1 seed in Philadelphia.
The victory over Minnesota (13-4), a team many considered much weaker than its record, sustained a surprising surge in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The Giants finished 4-13 last season, revamped the organization with two imports from Buffalo — General Manager Joe Schoen and Coach Brian Daboll — and signed just two free agents to multiyear deals, one of whom was a backup quarterback. They declined Jones’s fifth-year option and didn’t extend Barkley, suggesting this season might be their last with the team.
But on Sunday, the inherited stars propelled the new regime back to old heights. Neither Jones nor Barkley entertained any speculation about what the game meant to their Giants careers, considering the uncertain future.
“I’m focused on what we’re doing right now and trying to win football games,” Jones said.
“I’m not really getting into all that,” Barkley said. “I’m just happy that we won.”
After the game, Daboll said he thought Jones “played good.” Just good? “Yeah. Played good. Good football.”
A reporter suggested Daboll was understating Jones’s performance. Daboll shot back: Why was “good” not good enough?
“I’m not a writer, I’m just a coach,” Daboll continued. “So, look, Daniel, I’ve said it all year: He’s been good for us. Continues to be good for us. He played a good game. I think there was a lot of other people that played good games to help him play a good game and he’ll be the first to admit it. But as a leader on our football team, I’m proud of him.”
In the first quarter, after the Vikings put together a clinical opening drive, the Giants responded with Jones and Barkley. They looked borderline unstoppable, chewing up chunks, as Jones hit Darius Slayton for 22 yards then scrambled for 15 on his own. By the end of the first half, the Giants had seven explosive plays — their per-game average this season.
In the first five possessions, the only one that didn’t end in points came after the Vikings stopped the Vikings. On third and one, Coach Kevin O’Connell called a trick play in which Cousins handed the ball to receiver Justin Jefferson, who ran right and then threw the ball back to Cousins, who was tackled immediately for a loss of two. It was the only time Cousins went backward all day.
In sharp contrast, the Giants spammed what worked. During the week of game study, Giants players said, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka told them to expect a lot of soft, off coverage from Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. The Giants used crossing routes, shallow and deep, over and over, to beat the heavy dose of cover-three and cover-four. Was it surprising Donatell didn’t challenge the Giants receivers by playing more press?
“Not really,” Hodgins said. “They keep stuff pretty simple.”
The next drive, Jones and Barkley marched the offense downfield. Each time they faced a third down, the U.S. Bank Stadium crowd swelled, in part because earlier this week, Giants guard Nick Gates said he’d been “surprised” the fans hadn’t been louder on Christmas Eve, when New York lost at Minnesota on a late field goal. This time, the scoreboard meter kept a steady reading of 115 decibels, the level of a rock concert.
But New York converted all five third downs. The Giants couldn’t finish in the red zone, but their 20-play, 90-yard drive took 10:52 and zapped the Vikings’ defense. It was then, Giants safety Xavier McKinney said, he could tell the offense was locked in.
“[Jones] and Saquon are leading the way,” he said. “I cannot give enough credit to those guys.”
In the second half, as the Giants held a lead, Donatell tried to get more aggressive by blitzing. But Kafka kept the Vikings defenders off balance. In the third quarter, Vikings safety Harrison Smith rushed but was completely fooled by a play-action fake, which gave Jones a crucial extra second to deliver a nine-yard touchdown strike to tight end Daniel Bellinger.
Midway the fourth quarter, after the Vikings tied the game at 24, the Giants leaned on their stars. Kafka called seven straight passing plays, and on fourth and one from the Vikings’ 7-yard line, Daboll went for it. Jones plunged up the middle for the quarterback sneak.
In the huddle, Jones relayed the play call, a dive run up the middle, looked at Barkley and said, “Let’s f—— go.”
“I gave him the look back: You already know,” Barkley said. “That’s the kind of relationship we have with each other.”
Barkley plowed through the line, carrying Vikings Pro Bowl nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds. Barkley fell over the line for the touchdown that gave the Giants a lead they’d never relinquish.
On the next possession, the Giants again faced fourth and one, this time at their own 45. Daboll again went for it, and later, he said he never considered kicking in either situation.
“We have confidence in Daniel moving the pile,” he added. “We’re going to live with the consequences.”
Later, after the defense made its final stop, Giants center Jon Feliciano walked onto the field, clapping his hands over his head in a mock chant of “Skol.” Hodgins, grinning, waved fans toward the exits. Receiver Richie James backflipped.
Then there was Jones, in the middle of the victory formation, having delivered what had seemed so improbable not all that long ago. He and Barkley walked off the field and into the locker room, begging the question of whether their first playoff runs with the Giants would also be their last.