It had been such a beautiful drive, a 19-play drive by the time it ended, the kid quarterback of the Giants matriculating the ball down the field, clutch play after play, poised play after poised play, no huddle needed, and now Daniel Jones was 4 yards from carrying Joe Judge to a one-point lead over the Steelers.
It was late in the third quarter and Daniel Jones had turned them into the Reel Curtain, still too young to be a surgeon, but exactly what Dr. Judge had ordered.
An 18-yard completion to Darius Slayton on third-and-14 at the start of the drive … a fourth-and-1 throw across the field to Saquon Barkley for 3 yards … a third-and-6 scramble for 6 yards after breaking his fall with his left hand.
And then …
And then he tried to make a throw he never should have tried to make.
Off-balance, leaning backward, Bud Dupree in his face.
And so it left his right hand a duck that Cameron Heyward intercepted in the end zone.
And when Daniel Jones (26-for-41, 279 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) got the ball back, it was Steelers 19, Giants 10, on its way to 26-16.
“Obviously a play I’d like to have back,” Jones said. “That’s a costly mistake there after a long drive, so it’s something I gotta work on and improve on.”
Understand this: These are truly the Fighting Joe Judges. They will be a tough out every week, until the time when they become more than that.
“First off,” Judge said, “I like the way he played aggressive, OK? He stood in the pocket, it was obviously a strong rush coming at him all night. He played confident in there, he stood in there as long as he could, he delivered some good, accurate passes for us.”
Judge knows exactly how to handle his young quarterback.
“He had two throws I know he wants back. … Down at the goal line, that’s something we can’t have happen. … That’s definitely something you can’t have, 19-play drive, coming up with no points, especially [in the red zone],” Judge continued. “That’s not acceptable, but I’m proud of the way he played aggressive, I’m proud of the way this team on the bench stuck together.”
So much of Judge’s fate will be riding on Jones, and to a lesser degree, Saquon Barkley, because we all know that it is the franchise quarterback who ultimately drives the winning and the losing more than the running back, even if it is a generational running back.
But on this night, it was as if Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and L.C. Greenwood had returned to plaster a bull’s-eye on Barkley’s 26 — eight carries seemingly in quicksand for a minus-8 yards at one juncture, eight negative rushes and 15 carries for all of 6 yards by the end.
Which meant that Mike Tomlin was daring Jones to beat him.
“I played good at times, and bad at times,” Jones said.
Judge opted to kick a field goal fourth-and-goal at the 2 after Jones could not connect in the end zone with Evan Engram.
But then Jones fired a 41-yard TD dart to Darius Slayton, and there he went, prancing down the field to celebrate with his teammates.
The party didn’t last long.
The good news is that Jones cleaned up his fumbling habit.
The bad news is he never saw T.J. Watt on his next possession and threw a short pass right to him instead of Engram.
Jones’ Garbage Time TD pass to Slayton was too little too late.
Understand that Vince Lombardi didn’t strut into what is now 1265 Lombardi Avenue and transform a sad sack Packers outfit into a champion overnight.
You have to crawl before you can walk, and as the Joe Judge Era began a long way from that elusive fifth Lombardi Trophy, those whose glasses are half-Blue deserve to convince themselves that these Giants bore only slight resemblance to the recent stumblebums who too often disgraced the uniform and played as if pride no longer mattered.
Of course, the scoreboard is ultimately what matters, and we were taught long ago by a macho Jersey guy who coached his hometown Giants and won a pair of Super Bowls with them that there are no medals for trying.
So you can promise that your team will be punching the other team in the nose for 60 minutes, but sometimes the other team will punch you back, and there will be blood coming from your nose.
Sometimes the other team is a heavyweight, and yours is not.
Yours can only become a heavyweight if your quarterback makes you one. Joe Judge is more urgent than patient. But East Rutherford wasn’t built in a day. It took four years for Tom Coughlin to win a Super Bowl with Eli Manning.