LANDOVER, Md. — Dexter Lawrence was on the sideline so he didn’t have a good view of the play that set the tone for the Giants on Sunday night. He knew the Commanders were backed up against their own end zone. He heard the roar, and then he saw the celebration.
Then he saw who had scored the touchdown for the Giants, and all he could do was shake his head.
“When I saw who scored, I was like ‘This is going to be a long train ride home,'” Lawrence said. “We are not going to hear the end of it.”
He shouldn’t worry, though, because it was going to be a happy recap after the Giants’ 20-12 win over the Commanders on Sunday night — a win that all but assured they will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. It was a win powered by a defense that was ignited by rookie edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who had 12 tackles, three for losses, and one sack.
On that sack he forced a fumble by Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, then scooped up the ball at the 1 and scored to give the Giants a 7-3 lead — and just the boost they needed to shake off an ugly first quarter. But that wasn’t all. He gave a dominant defensive performance, that included running down Heinicke and hammering him out of bounds just 1 yard short of a possible game-tying touchdown with 1:03 remaining.
Not bad for a guy who teased his own performance just five days earlier when he told reporters “Prime time likes me.”
“Man, I don’t lie to you all,” Thibodeaux said after the game.
No, he does not.
“He exudes confidence and this is going to boost that even more,” said veteran safety Julian Love. “His passion was showing today. And that passion he was showing today was what we needed, to be honest with you. We needed that boost.”
They certainly did, because heading into this game the Giants (8-5-1) were sagging, with just one win in their last six games. They knew they were barely clinging to a spot in the playoffs, and that with a loss they’d start to feel their chances slipping away.
Thibodeaux, the first draft pick of the new Giants regime who was selected fifth overall back in April, felt the moment and seemed to sense that it would be his moment too. Even before the game, he did something rookies rarely do — he called his teammates together on the field after warmups and gave them a pep talk.
He couldn’t remember what he said — “Something just came out of me.” But whatever it was left his teammates impressed.
“Not only did he step up and talk about it,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “He let his play do the talking too.”
Almost every play he made seemed to be bigger than the next. He was flying all over the field almost to the point of exhaustion. And that tackle of Heinicke at the Giants’ 1 literally saved the game.
But it was the touchdown that his teammates couldn’t stop talking about. That’s in part because they recalled an identical play from two weeks ago when Thibodeaux sacked Heinicke on the 2-yard line at the end of overtime. He knew he could’ve gotten the ball out then and given the Giants the win, instead of having to settle for a 20-20 tie.
This time he wasn’t about to let his moment in the spotlight go to waste.
“I seen him and I was like, ‘S—t, he’s still got the ball,'” Thibodeaux said. “Then after I hit him, I just kept going.”
Was it just a coincidence that he made the play he couldn’t make two weeks ago in a bigger game on a bigger stage?
“Nothing is a coincidence,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence.”
“He had that look in his eyes like ‘I know who my matchup is, and I’m going to win it,'” Love said. “He was a great catalyst on our defense today.”
They needed every bit of it in a game that came down to the very last play. Two plays after Thibodeaux stopped Heinicke at the 1, cornerback Darnay Holmes really ended the game by somehow deflecting a fourth-down pass away from Curtis Samuel in the end zone (and somehow without drawing a flag).
There was more to the game than just that, of course. Quarterback Daniel Jones put together a brilliant, 18-play, 97-yard touchdown drive late in the first half. Saquon Barkley finally rediscovered his power with 52 rushing yards in the fourth quarter, too.
Thibodeaux stood out because it’s been years since the Giants have had the kind of defensive player who could disrupt a game like he did. They really haven’t had one since the days of Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. They have some good players on the defensive line, particularly defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams.
But Thibodeaux is different. That’s the way he was billed. That’s why the Giants drafted him so high. They believed he could be a real difference-maker. They always believed his time would come.
Giants coach Brian Daboll said he had been building towards this. Thibodeaux called it a “manifestation” after a pre-game talk with his mother, who told him he could do anything he believed. Whatever it was, this was the moment everyone had been waiting for, and the fact that it came in prime time with the Giants needing a push towards the playoffs caught nobody by surprise.
“I think it’s just the start,” Barkley said. “He showed what he’s capable of doing.”
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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.
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