A year after a dismal 7-9 record was enough to win the NFC East, the NFL’s downtrodden division is 1-3 out the gate, with its first pecking-order game pitting the Washington Football Team against the New York Giants. While last week’s Thursday night clash between Tom Brady and Dak Prescott made for a quarterback thriller, this one figures to be more of a defensive struggle, particularly given that Washington is already operating with a backup quarterback in Taylor Heinicke. The Giants, meanwhile, scored just 13 points in their opener, and six of those came on a meaningless end-of-game score to make a blowout look more respectable.
Here are four things to watch Thursday night when the Washington Football Team host the Giants:
1) Can Barkley break loose?
When last we saw Saquon Barkley in primetime, the Pittsburgh Steelers bottled the Giants running back in a Monday night game to open the 2020 season for just six yards on 15 carries. With a defensive line comprised of four of their last six first-round draft picks (Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen), Washington is fully capable of doing the same number on Barkley. The 2018 Pro Bowler was ineffective last week in his first game since an ACL repair against the Denver Broncos, but is feeling healthy and ready for more snaps. Despite offseason upgrades at wide receiver, this Giants offense might still be inoperable if Barkley can’t gash defenses on the ground. He’s back in the lineup; now the Giants need him back in the end zone.
2) Heinicke takes over
Washington QB Taylor Heinicke is embarking upon the first opportunity for extensive playing time of his four-year career, with starter Ryan Fitzpatrick out indefinitely with a hip injury. He was solid if not spectacular against the Los Angeles Chargers in relief of Fitzpatrick last week, in a losing effort. But at some point, every winning team needs its quarterback to be spectacular, at least in spots. It’s Heinicke’s chance to shine and, at the same time, build some staying power for his career. Kyle Allen awaits if things go badly. After adding QB Kyle Shurmur to the practice squad, coach Ron Rivera said the team isn’t currently in the market for a new face at the position.
3) Giant absences
The addition of more offensive skill surrounding QB Daniel Jones is supposed to help the Giants definitively assess whether the former No. 6 overall pick is a keeper. But through training camp, the preseason and Sunday’s opener, Jones is still waiting on his full complement of help. First-round rookie Kadarius Toney played just five snaps against the Broncos, and while free-agent signee Kenny Golladay looked good in his Big Blue debut, veteran TE Evan Engram didn’t play at all. He's also been ruled out for Thursday night. Barkley played less than half the snaps (28 of 59). If reps for Toney and Barkley are ramped up, Jones will have a better complement of his weapons, and all the more pressure on him to perform.
4) Third-down money
An emphasis for the WFT coaching staff this week has to be on third-down efficiency, on both sides of the ball. Washington was dominated in that area by the Chargers last week, converting just 30 percent of third downs offensively (three of 10), and defensively, allowing a brutal 74 percent (14 of 19). That helped translate to 36:03 in possession time for the Chargers, and the Washington offense’s inability to develop any rhythm. The defense is supposed to be the strength of this team, so it starts with that group getting off the field. But the offense has to sustain more drives to keep the defense from fatiguing, whether than means more totes for RB Antonio Gibson, who delivered 90 yards on 20 carries last week, or quicker-developing pass plays for Heinicke to get comfortable.