LANDOVER, Md. — The Giants, slowly but surely, believe they are putting it all together on offense as the season heads for home, but that momentum and improvement will face a stiff and unforeseen setback, as they will not have Odell Beckham Jr. for Sunday’s game against the Redskins at FedEx Field.
In an unexpected turn of events, Beckham practiced most of the past week, was limited on Friday with a bruised quadriceps that coach Pat Shurmur did not declare to be anything serious then did not make the trip south Saturday with his team. He will miss his first game of the season in what has been a strong comeback from ankle surgery that landed him on injured reserve and forced him out of the final 11 games in 2017.
The first time the Giants revealed anything was wrong with Beckham was Friday, when he was limited in practice. Shurmur said the quad issue first surfaced two weeks ago, when Beckham got tripped and leg-whipped by linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill on the final play of the 25-22 loss to the Eagles. Beckham did not report any injury, though, practiced fully the next week and played 66 of the 72 offensive snaps in the 30-27 victory over the Bears, throwing a touchdown pass and also catching a touchdown pass.
“He’s going to be fine,’’ Shurmur said Friday, revealing the bruised quad had “been lingering” but adding “he’s playing’’ against the Redskins.
Clearly, something changed less than 24 hours after Shurmur expressed confidence in Beckham’s health. The stiffness in the quad did not improve the way the Giants anticipated it would and Beckham will be sent for addition tests to make sure the injury is indeed a bruise and not something more serious.
No, he is not playing against the Redskins, and just like that, the Giants’ top target in the passing game is unavailable. There is no suitable replacement. In reserve opposite starter Sterling Shepard, the Giants have Bennie Fowler, Russell Shepard, Corey Coleman and Jawill Davis. Combined, the four reserves have 20 receptions this season. Beckham has 77 receptions for 1,052 yards and six touchdowns. At least the Giants will have pass-catching tight end Evan Engram in uniform. Engram missed the past two games with a strained hamstring.
At 4-8, the Giants have won three of their past four games, but the end is nearing for them and they are feeling it. If they lose Sunday, they are officially eliminated from playoff contention. In truth, they were never involved in any semblance of playoff contention, not after going 1-7 in the first half of the season and certainly not after blowing a 19-3 lead two weeks ago in Philadelphia.
“Yeah, that one sucks,’’ rookie Saquon Barkley said. “Obviously part of you wants to look back and say we let that one slip away, but you can’t focus on that. You’ve got to move on, and we did. We moved on, we came out and played a tremendous Chicago Bears team, had a slow start on offense in the first half, defense played lights out, and even though Chicago was able to come back and fight, we found a way to win, which we didn’t do prior to that week. I think we definitely learned from that lesson.’’
The Eagles loss, coupled with the Week 5 reversal of fortune — a stirring 31-30 comeback victory over the Panthers devolved into a 33-31 loss on Graham Gano’s 63-yard field goal with one second remaining — are the two the Giants (4-8) look back on and shake their heads.
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Looking back, though, does no good. It is already the second week in December and the Giants have yet to win a game in the NFC East, going 0-4. This is unacceptable. The first encounter with the Redskins in late October was the Giants at their absolute worst: Their lone touchdown came with 17 seconds remaining. Eli Manning was sacked seven times. The Giants ran for 37 yards and gave up 182 rushing yards. It was a lopsided 20-13 loss, the nadir of the season.
“I think the one thing that we can do is finish the right way, because we certainly didn’t start the right way,’’ Shurmur said.
The Redskins (6-6) have not done much winning since, dropping out of first place and riding a three-game losing streak. The Giants can show how much they’ve improved since the first meeting. That is about it.
“I believe this whole thing is a learning moment that’s building up to be a great story one day,’’ Barkley said. “Even though it may not be a great story right now, it will be.’’
Redskins RB Adrian Peterson vs. Giants LB Alec Ogletree
This, of course, is not a one-on-one battle, but these are the main combatants in a confrontation that should determine the outcome of the game. With Mark Sanchez at quarterback, the Redskins will have to rely heavily on Peterson (192 rushing attempts for 856 yards and seven TDs) because they do not want to throw it too often. Back in late October, Peterson ran for 149 yards on the Giants and scored on a 64-yard burst late in the fourth quarter. The Giants are now without strong safety Landon Collins, their leading tackler who is headed for shoulder surgery. Ogletree is coming off a two-interception (the first run back for a touchdown) performance against the Bears, but he will be needed this week to fortify what has often been a suspect run defense that allows nearly 125 yards per game.
The Redskins are no pushovers on defense, and running on them is no joyride. There’s a potential problem looming: Can the Giants hold in check tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis? Can Mark Sanchez get them the ball? And can Odell Beckham Jr. escape the clutches of Josh Norman? Have to think Saquon Barkley plays a big role here.
Giants 24, Redskins 16
Mark it down: Mark Sanchez was unemployed when the Redskins came calling and signed him Nov. 19 after starting quarterback Alex Smith was lost for the season with a broken leg. Sanchez was to serve as backup to Colt McCoy, but McCoy broke his leg in last week’s loss to the Eagles. Just like that, Sanchez — once the great hope of the Jets — will start a game for the first time since Thanksgiving 2015, when he suited up for the Eagles in Detroit. Sanchez’s offensive coordinator that day was Pat Shurmur. The last time Sanchez, somehow just 32 years old, started and won a game was Dec. 28, 2014, when he was with the Eagles and beat the Giants at MetLife Stadium. Sanchez has played in seven games since the start of the 2015 season.
Stop and Go: Saquon Barkley remembers the first time he ran against the Redskins, though it was a day to forget. He got the ball 13 times and gained just 38 yards, a paltry average of 2.9 yards per attempt. His longest run was nine yards. Sure, he caught nine passes but for just 73 yards. The Redskins are injury-ravaged as Barkley gets a second chance to go at them.
“I wouldn’t say they’ve vulnerable, I think they’re still a really good defense,’’ Barkley said. “They have been letting up more runs than they were the first half of the year, but they’re still a great defense and you still got to respect those guys from the front seven to the back end.’’
New guy in the building: Shurmur never criticizes his players in public, even when there are egregious mistakes. He lost seven of his first eight games in his first year as Giants head coach before this recent uptick. Everyone watched to see how he handled himself amid the losing.
“He kept a good mentality,’’ Eli Manning said. “It’s tough on coaches, it’s tough on everybody when you’re losing, but he kept his cool and told us to keep fighting, told us he believed in this team and we were close to kinda turning that corner. We kept working and everybody made changes, everybody made adjustments to try to figure out how we can get going.’’
Audition time: Spencer Pulley moved into the starting lineup in Week 7 and has remained as the starting center. Pulley, 25, started all 16 games last season for the Chargers and is looking for a football home. He hopes he plays well enough to convince the Giants he can be their answer moving forward.
“I believe we have a really strong room,’’ Pulley said. “We all trust in each other, it’s a very intelligent and hard-working, tough group that has the team first and when you have that it solves a lot of issues.’’