EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants and Washington Redskins are both headed to an early offseason thanks to their respective losing records.
But don’t tell either team that there’s nothing to play for in Sunday’s regular-season finale, which pits the longtime NFC East division rivals against each other.
“I think a lot of people look into that and probably say it would be, but for us it hasn’t been, I don’t think,” said Washington head coach Jay Gruden. “Anytime you play the New York Giants in Giants Stadium — I think it’s going to be a heck of a great test.”
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To a degree, Gruden is right. The Giants (2-13) have yet to win a game against a division opponent this season, while Washington (7-8) has just one win against division opponents — against the Giants.
When Gruden turns on the tape of the Giants, he said he sees a team that’s still brimming with fight and determination and which projects to be a handful for the Redskins.
“They were able to come in here — they didn’t have anything to play for last year — and knocked us out of the playoffs,” Gruden said of last season’s finale. “They still have a lot of great players and I know they have a lot of great competitors based on what I see on film.”
The Giants have undergone numerous personnel changes over the last few weeks due to injury, particularly on defense, where they’ll be without safety Landon Collins and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, both of whom played in the first meeting on Thanksgiving night.
“Now that Landon is out, I think that changes quite a bit, and obviously losing Janoris is a big-time absence for their secondary,” Gruden said. “So, they’ve had some adjustments they’ve had to make personnel-wise and same thing offensive-wise without the receivers.”
One common thing Gruden said he does see with the Giants is in their offense, which he said hasn’t changed much since Ben McAdoo was fired.
“Systematically they’re doing some of the same things and then offensively with Eli (Manning) back at the helm, they looked really, really good against Philadelphia,” Gruden said.
“It was surprising how good they looked against Philly and then getting shut out last week was kind of weird. But, definitely have some weapons that they can throw to and anytime you have Eli at quarterback, you got a chance to win.”
Manning, whom interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo said will start Sunday’s game, reflected on a year gone awry for New York, and concluded that the one thing they were never able to do was find consistency.
The Giants have yet to top 30 points in scoring, coming close two weeks ago against the Eagles when they scored 29. And in seven of their last nine games, they have failed to score at least 20 points.
“Yeah, it’s just tough,” Manning admitted. “I thought we were kind of getting there a little bit after the first couple games, kind of got (wide receiver) Odell (Beckham Jr.) back and kind of got everybody in their spots and were playing some pretty good games in the third, fourth, fifth week, and then kind of hit the injury bug and some guys were going down.
“We just had to rally and find different ways to play and move guys around, get guys comfortable. We … just haven’t scored enough points.”
Then there is Manning’s play itself, which has shown signs of decline even before injuries started robbing the offense of its key playmakers. As the wintery winds of the Meadowlands have begun to swirl even harder, so too have the rumors that Sunday’s game might be the longtime franchise quarterback’s last.
Manning, however, isn’t thinking that way.
“I think in football you never know when your last game is going to be. It’s a physical game, so you always treat it like it’s your last,” he said. “So, I’m just going about it, try to play well and move the offense.”
Like Gruden and Washington, Manning believes that the incentive in this weekend’s game comes with playing against a division opponent, and he noted that it’s especially important in the regular-season finale to end on a high note.
“I think there’s always incentive just to play and win,” Manning said. “That’s the goal and you want to end on a good note, especially after last week, and just try to play better football.”
Which is why Gruden believes that come Sunday, it won’t be a matter of the clubs going through the motions to get to the end of the season. Rather, it will come down to some good old-fashioned divisional football.
“Anytime you strap up, put a helmet on, shoulder pads and you’re out there competing — people are going to try to win and that’s what I anticipate on Sunday,” Gruden said.