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Giants eye redemption in wild-card matchup vs. Vikings

The New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings gave the world a Christmas Eve thriller — a game that ended on the final play with the longest of kicks.

And almost as soon as Greg Joseph’s 61-yard field goal sailed through the uprights and gave the Vikings a 27-24 win, the Giants seemed to know they would all meet again. 

Now here they are, the second-seeded Vikings (13-4) facing the sixth-seeded Giants (9-7-1) in a wild-card playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon. It’s the rematch the Giants wanted of a game they think they should have won against a team many think is a vulnerable high seed.

For a deeper dive into the rematch, here’s a conversation between FOX Sports NFC North writer Carmen Vitali and NFC East writer Ralph Vacchiano, as they look back on Round I and look forward to Round II of this matchup:

RALPH VACCHIANO: Carmen, I have to be honest: I’m not sure the Giants should feel overly confident about facing anyone in the NFL playoffs. They have played over their heads all year long. I mean, it’s been impressive to see, and they’re so well-coached. But their talent level just isn’t there to match any of these teams.

Ask any of their fans, though, and for weeks they would’ve said “We want the Vikings.” I think the Giants wanted them, too. They think they should’ve beaten them. The Vikings may be 13-4, but everyone thinks they’re ripe for an early upset.

So my question for you is this: Are they?

CARMEN VITALI: Look, I understand the Vikings are hard to trust. This is a team that has historically crumbled in key moments captained by a quarterback known for the same. They finished 2022 with a negative point differential, becoming the first team ever to get to 13 wins under such circumstances, and their four losses were all, predictably, brutal. They got blown out by the Dallas Cowboys by historic proportions, as I’m sure you recall Ralph, and needed to complete the largest comeback in NFL history to beat a Jeff-Saturday-led Colts team in overtime. 

Still, they went 5-3 against teams that finished 2022 with a winning record and 3-2 against playoff teams. Yes, the last time around against the Giants was another one of those close calls, but like the game against Indianapolis: they pulled it out. They’ve found ways to do that all season. They forced overtime and ended up with a win over the Buffalo Bills because of a fumbled last-second kneel down at the goal line. They have absolutely no fear of being behind in a game, and that can be dangerous.

If firing on all cylinders, they also have one of the most potent offenses in the league thanks to Justin Jefferson and his league-leading receiving yards total. The support of new head coach Kevin O’Connell has also paved the way for a career resurgence for Cousins in which he passed for the second-highest total of his career. Not to mention, the Vikings have one of the best left tackles in the league in Christian Darrisaw and can fall back on a run game led by Dalvin Cook. 

Their weaknesses lie on the other side of the ball, where they’ve taken up residence in the run-defense basement. That happens to be a strength of the Giants, no?

So Ralph, what matchup do you think will be the biggest determining factor in the outcome of this game? I’ve already hinted at mine.

VACCHIANO: That matchup against the Colts is the one that makes me think people are right about the Vikings being vulnerable, by the way. I know they won, but … what a disaster!

Anyway, yes, the Giants are a very strong running team. Saquon Barkley had a bit of a drop-off toward the end of the season — his last 100-yard game was Nov. 13 and he dealt with a shoulder injury the last month or so. But he still finished with a career-high 1,312 yards. And Daniel Jones turned out to be one of the best running quarterbacks in football, with 708 yards of his own.

Which makes the way they attacked the Vikings in that last game … weird. Well, maybe not weird, considering the Vikings have the second-worst passing defense in football. But still weird for them. They had 45 pass plays and just 21 running plays. They came out firing, with what I think is the worst receiving corps in football, and Daniel Jones somehow threw for 334 yards.

I think they’re going to try that again, in the hopes that it opens up the running game late. So my key factor might be the Vikings’ pass rush. Danielle Hunter was a force in that first game. The Giants’ offense line is spotty at best. If the Vikings can pressure Jones and knock him off his game, the Giants won’t be able to duplicate what they did last time.

What’s your key matchup? And also, is the Vikings defense as bad as the numbers say it is?

VITALI: I’m going to have to wholeheartedly agree with Barkley against the Vikings run defense. They’re allowing 123.1 rushing yards per game, ranking 20th, and 4.52 rushing yards per play, which ranks 22nd. Barkley had an even six yards per carry against them in the last go-around, which figures to repeat this time. Barkley also punched it into the end zone, which also figures, given that the Vikings rank 19th in goal-to-go defense and 21st in red zone defense.

In short, you don’t get to a negative point differential without a pretty generous (to opponents) defense. In totality, Minnesota is allowing 388.7 yards per game to opponents, which is the second most in the league. But the one saving grace of this unit is the takeaways. They seem to come up with them when they matter most and are tied for eighth-most in the league, registering 25 in the regular season. Essentially, the defense is the reason they’re in so many one-score games but is also the reason they win so many one-score games? Again, this team is just confusing and no one has really been able to fully encapsulate who they are or what to expect from them.

You mentioned the Giants were so well-coached, which is perhaps the reason they’re in the postseason at all. What is it that Brian Daboll has brought to the team in his first year that has had the biggest impact on the team’s success, would you say?

VACCHIANO: This is vague and simplistic, but he’s just a good coach. They really haven’t had that since Tom Coughlin left. I mean, they like him and they believe in him too, which is nice (though that always comes from winning). But mostly, he took a look at what he had on his depleted roster and seemed to say “How can I make this work?”

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That’s important. He didn’t force a system. He took advantage of what he had — a mobile quarterback and a powerful running back. He got them to play largely mistake-free football and didn’t take many chances, because they’re not good enough to rally when those chances don’t work out. Even on defense, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale saw he didn’t have enough talent, so he went blitz-crazy. He decided to cause chaos with what he had.

That’s what I think good coaches do. They maximize their talent. They bend their schemes to what their players can do. And he got this Giants team believing that if they could drag opponents into the fourth quarter, all they needed to do was get one break and they would win.

From afar, it looks like Kevin O’Connell’s had a similar effect on the Vikings. Is that right?

VITALI: He’s galvanized the team and empowered Cousins in a way Cousins hasn’t been by past coaches. On Thanksgiving, Cousins got downright emotional at the podium talking about how supported he feels from the top down. That’s the culture O’Connell has built. His offensive system isn’t anything new for Cousins. He belongs to that Shanahan/McVay tree. But his constant adjustment and evaluation as the season has gone on has allowed him to put his own stamp on the copycat system. 

O’Connell isn’t without his hiccups, either. He is a first-time head coach, after all. And it shows sometimes in questionable playcalls and clock management decisions. But the belief he has in his team is returned to him so that even when he does make a mistake, he is lifted up by his staff and players rather than buried. It’s a heartwarming story, really.

But enough of that sunshine and rainbows. Only one team is going to be happy Sunday evening. Who is it gonna be?

VACCHIANO: I’m all about sunshine and rainbows! I spent the last six years covering the Giants and Jets and watching them go 60-134 combined! The more sunshine and rainbows the better!

Ah, who am I kidding? I’d like to be sunny and rainbow-y about the Giants, but they’re just not that good. I watch them and I don’t understand how they keep pulling out games with the talent they have. I know what they did in Minnesota on Christmas Eve. It was remarkable. And they blew it. They had like five chances to put the game away and they blew it. They should have won.

But I think this time they’re expecting to win, and they’re going to get a rude awakening. The Vikings are too good in too many key spots. So I’ll say Vikings 27, Giants 20. Close, but probably not close enough.

And you?

VITALI: For posterity’s sake, it’s gotta be a one-score game. I’m still not sure that I fully trust the Vikings in these moments but they have the benefit of being at home in one of my favorite environments in the NFL and put bluntly, severely outmatch the Giants’ talent. I also think Minnesota pulls it out once again, 29-27. Sure. Why not?

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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