The New York Giants and Washington Football Team entered the 2021 NFL season with high expectations. Washington is seeking its second straight playoff appearance after winning the NFC East last year; the Giants, despite a 6-10 record in 2020, feel cheated out of that division title after the Philadelphia Eagles pulled their starters against Washington in Week 17.
Now, the two teams come together licking their wounds from disappointing Week 1 debuts. Washington lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury, then blew a fourth-quarter lead at home to the Los Angeles Chargers. The Giants were just as bad, throwing up just 13 points at home to a Denver Broncos team that was 5-11 a year ago. Their offense sputtered despite the return of running back Saquon Barkley and new weapons for quarterback Daniel Jones.
It makes this "Thursday Night Football" matchup a battle of who can solve their problems first. Here's the good news for both teams: their division once again looks like the NFC Least (only the Eagles won their season opener). A win here resets the narrative and puts either team in strong position to succeed.
As for the loser? Through the 2019 season, just 11 percent of 0-2 teams went on to make the playoffs. The jury is out on how much an expanded playoff field improves those odds, along with the new 17-game schedule this season.
The Giants historically have owned this rivalry, with a 105-69-4 record, and they've won five straight against Washington.
But the facts are pretty clear: two straight losses would put your team behind the eight-ball. Who will avoid getting put in desperation mode so early?
New York at Washington
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 16 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Washington -3
Three Things To Watch
1. How will Taylor Heinicke play?
Heinicke has been pressed into action, earning the starting job after going 11-for-15 for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers. He played the majority of the game when Fitzpatrick went down after just 16 snaps on offense.
The journeyman quarterback will be making just his third career start in seven NFL seasons. But Washington fans sure remember the second: an inspired, 306-yard passing performance and two touchdowns (one pass, one rush) that kept them in January's Wild Card playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"Our guys will rally around [Heinicke]," Rivera told reporters this week. "Some guys have an innate ability to create some enthusiasm, some excitement, and that's what Taylor is because of the way he plays. He plays a little bit like his hair is on fire, plays a little bit like a gunslinger."
Can Heinicke rediscover the magic that led Washington to sign him to a 2-year, $8.75-million dollar deal this past offseason? It wasn't his fault Antonio Gibson fumbled in the fourth quarter, leading to the go-ahead touchdown for the Chargers.
But the offense only scored 10 points total once Heinicke entered the game. That's not enough. He's also 0-2 as a starter in a career where he's never played more than eight games with any team. How he'll lead the offense still remains a bit of a mystery; expect more focus on the run in the short term while Heinicke gets comfortable in the pocket. Gunslinging also means turnovers, and this team isn't built to score 30 points. Heinicke needs to take care of the ball.
All eyes will turn to wide receiver Terry McLaurin during the transition. Against the Giants last November, he torched their secondary for seven catches, 115 yards, and a 68-yard touchdown bomb. It's a lot easier for a quarterback to settle in when his top receiver is wide open down the middle of the field.
2. Will Saquon Barkley play? If so, how much?
Before a torn ACL 11 months ago, Barkley was one of the best, most explosive running backs in the NFL.
Last week against the Broncos? He looked like a whole different player.
Yes, it's still early and the Giants were careful with their young star, limiting him to 28 total snaps. Returning from the injury was an accomplishment in itself, Barkley catching one ball and rushing for 26 yards.
Problem was, none of those rushes went for more than five yards. It's clear Barkley's still healing on a team that had the 31st-ranked offense in the NFL last year without him.
"That was a goal of mine," Barkley said of the Week 1 return. "To get out there … now, it's actually getting out there and helping my team win."
Whether Barkley can even make it on the field four days later against Washington is an open question. Behind him? There's not much. Jones was the leading rusher in Week 1, going for 27 yards while Devontae Booker had a measly seven yards on four carries. Jones can't succeed if the Giants remain such a one-dimensional offense.
3. Which defense will create the big play?
Both teams were carried by their defense last season. The Giants ranked 12th overall, 10th against the run, and were second in Red Zone efficiency (limiting teams to 50.85 percent). Washington ranked second overall defensively, second against the pass, and fourth in red zone efficiency, a formula good enough to get them playoff-bound at 7-9.
Those units needed to step up with offenses that struggled to hold onto the football. Each team lost their game in Week 1 due to turning the ball over; they're now facing defenses built for dislodging the football. In a game with limited offensive pieces, a fumble recovery or interception may be enough to tip the scales in this rivalry.
Some key players to watch include cornerback Logan Ryan, who led the way for the Giants in Week 1 with eight solo tackles, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Can he make Heinicke's life miserable in the secondary? On the Washington side, Montez Sweat had a sack that forced a fumble, while linebacker Cole Holcomb was all over the field, recording 11 tackles and helping put the pressure on young Justin Herbert of the Chargers.
Both games last year were decided by defensive stands. The Giants stopped a two-point conversion by Washington that would have won the game in October, then intercepted Alex Smith twice in the fourth quarter to preserve a 23-20 victory in November. Expect a similar outcome Thursday night.
If Fitzpatrick were under center, it's hard to see Washington dropping two straight home games to start the year. Problem is, he's sitting on the sidelines. Heinicke remains an unproven commodity against a Giants defense anxious to prove themselves after letting the Broncos waltz all over the field in Week 1.
It won't take much on the scoreboard to win. One key drive by Jones and a defensive score could do it against a Washington team that may struggle to find its way on offense going forward. Keep an eye on if tight end Evan Engram gets activated Thursday night; he's making progress on his calf injury and could be the extra target Jones needs to get over the hump.
Prediction: Giants 17, Washington 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.