EAST RUTHERFORD — They wanted to bridge the gap — needed to bridge the gap. In order to ascend to the upper echelon of teams in their conference, the Giants first needed to catch those in their division.
What better way to show they had than this? Hosting the Cowboys, long a thorn in New York’s side, under the lights of Sunday Night Football. This was when they’d finally beat them — they genuinely felt that. And they’d set the tone for the season in doing so.
They even built up the hype — a “blue out,” they called it.
More like blowout.
There’s no bridged gap. It’s wider than ever.
“It’s embarrassing,” said safety Xavier McKinney.
It’s hard to describe the Giants' opener as anything other than a Big Blue embarrassment. They wanted an electric atmosphere. By the second quarter, Cowboys fans rained de-fense chants down on Daniel Jones and Co. By the third quarter, those same fans occupied the lower bowl to the point MetLife felt like AT&T North East.
It’s stunning to believe the Giants once looked in control of this game — albeit brief. They took their opening drive down to the Cowboys' 13 yard line. Saquon Barkley ran violently. Jones scampered and scrambled, too.
A false start on third-and-two pushed things back, then came a bad snap from rookie center John Michael Schmitz, followed by a blocked Graham Gano field goal that Noah Igbinoghene returned for a touchdown.
And then the flood gates opened.
Jones was horrific, looking nothing like the player who earned a $160-million contract extension in the offseason. He completed 15 of 28 passes (53.6 percent) for 104 yards. He threw two interceptions, one of which was returned by Daron Bland for a 22-yard touchdown. He married poor decisions with errant throws until being relieved late in the fourth quarter by backup Tyrod Taylor.
Granted, it wasn’t like Jones had much help. The Cowboys made child’s play with the Giants’ supposedly-improved line. New York actually felt they were better suited to handle Dallas’ pass rush than they were a year ago, when the Cowboys sacked Jones eight times in their two games. That was comically ignorant.
The Cowboys sacked Jones seven times on Sunday night, and two more were negated via penalty. They hit him 12 times and pressured him on 62.9 percent of his drop-backs.
Last year, it was Evan Neal who struggled immensely. He was bad again in the opener, but this time so were so many of his teammates around him. Five different Cowboys had sacks, led by Dorance Armstrong and Osa Odighizuwa, each of whom had two.
“All we can do is learn from this, grow from this, and be better,” Neal said. “As a competitor, being a man in the arena, going out there and putting everything on the line, all the hard work that it takes to go out there and perform and have a result like that? It sucks.
“But what can you do other than come out and work harder? What can you do other than go back in the office, learn from it, and work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The Giants' defense wasn’t manhandled by any stretch (Dak Prescott finished 13-of-24 for 143 yards without a touchdown or interception), but with such little help from the offense, Wink Martindale’s unit could only bend so much before breaking.
A 10-play, 75-yard drive from the Cowboys on the opening possession of the second half proved to be the tipping point. The Giants played the majority of the second half looking like a team that quit on itself.
Alarming, considering this team’s never-say-die attitude is what endeared itself to their fan base last year.
“That’s not us,” Daboll said when asked if he had concerns with his team’s effort. “That’s not us to insinuate that someone’s not giving effort. Everybody gives ball’s-out effort. We just didn’t do a good enough job executing.
“I don’t question that. Not ever.”
The Giants were one of the feel-good stories of the 2022 season. The franchise had taken a steady decline since its 2011 championship, but last year proved to be a return to glory.
The Giants were at a talent disadvantage seemingly every week, but it didn’t matter. They embraced playing ugly, week in and week out they drug their opponent to the deep end of the pool to see if they could swim, and most couldn’t.
The Giants made the playoffs, and they beat the Vikings in Minnesota in the Wild Card round. Then came a battle with the Eagles in the divisional round.
Philadelphia exposed New York’s roster deficiencies, which set the rallying cry for this offseason.
The litmus test was this game against the Cowboys, a team the Giants had beaten just once in their last 12 attempts, and they failed that test miserably.
“It’s not what you want to see,” said tight end Darren Waller, who had three catches for 36 yards. “It’s not the start that you want to have.”
The defeat was the eighth-most lopsided in team history. It almost certainly would have been worse had the Cowboys not pulled their starters early in the fourth quarter. Maybe worse was how the Giants appeared to quit once they came out in the second half.
Daboll earned his Coach of the Year honor last year, but Sunday reflects as much on him as anyone else. The Giants never matched Dallas’ energy. When things began to spiral, no one attempted to pull them out.
This was regression in every sense of the word.
“We got our teeth kicked in tonight,” wideout Sterling Shepard said.
Context is needed. This is just one game, after all there are 16 still to go, including another meeting with the Cowboys.
It’s hard to put into words how disheartening this game is. It absolutely has the potential to resonate and bleed into coming weeks.
The Giants spent all offseason talking about wanting to show they were as good as Dallas, as good as the Eagles. At times on Sunday, it looked like the Cowboys were playing a different sport. Somehow, the Giants set out to close a gap and found a way to make it wider.
“It’s Week 1,” said McKinney. “I guarantee that when we get to Week 10 it won’t be the same. We’ll be alright. We’ll be fine.”