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You have to feel for every Giants fan, every Giant, maybe none more so than Leonard Williams today.
You never want to join the list of players who have never experienced the postseason, a list that includes Archie Manning and Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, and of course Ernie Banks, whose Hall of Fame Cubs career spanned 19 seasons.
Leonard Williams was in his second season with the Jets on the last Sunday of the 2016 regular season when Ryan Fitzpatrick, who on Sunday had his own playoff drought extended to 16 seasons, threw that chance away in Buffalo.
But Heartbreak Hotel arrived close to 11:30 p.m. Sunday for the Giants, and for Leonard Williams, who had done everything in his power to taste that elusive first playoff appearance in his six NFL seasons, who had imposed his will on Andy Dalton and the Cowboys, who had refused to let the Giants, 23-19 winners, lose a game they could not lose to dream on.
Dream on about a date with Tom Brady on Saturday night at MetLife Stadium.
And then that dream became an unthinkable, unimaginable, unconscionable, unforgivable nightmare on Sunday night when Doug Pederson, with nothing to play for, played not to beat and eliminate the WFT.
He played to beat and eliminate the 6-10 Giants.
FOWL, EAGLES, FOWL.
“This is why we don’t like the Eagles,” Eli Manning tweeted.
This was a coaching move for the birds with the NFC Least title on the line.
Pederson had already passed up a chippie field goal that would have made it 17-17 but stayed 17-14 for the WFT when Jalen Hurts threw incomplete in the end zone on fourth-and-4.
Now 12:35 remained and Pederson summoned Nate Sudfeld to replace Hurts.
Nate Sudfeld, who had thrown 25 career passes, and none this season.
And of course Sudfeld promptly threw an interception and lost the ball when he couldn’t scoop up a low snap from center.
Williams’ prayers, the prayers of all Giants and Giants fans, would not be answered.
WFT 20, Eagles 14.
Wait ’Til Next Year again.
Giants to Doug Pederson: Tanks for nothing.
“I’ve never been in my career, and this is my sixth year in the league,” Williams said after the Giants had taken care of business. “So, I mean, it’s been a long time coming, and it’ll be fun to play in a playoff game, especially with this team that’s overcome so much. I feel like we deserve it.”
He sure deserved it with three sacks of Dalton, two in the fourth quarter, dominating with the kind of game that Lawrence Taylor and Michael Strahan would have recognized and understood, finally hurrying Dalton into Xavier McKinney’s end-zone interception with 1:15 left.
And no one should have been surprised if it was Big Cat Williams who would have been the King of Beasts had Wayne Gallman not made hearts race before, after much indecision and consternation, it was ruled that he had recovered his own fumble at the bottom of a frantic scrum soon after.
Leonard Williams kept an Improbable Dream alive for about eight hours.
But no more.
Williams deserves his big payday following a season — a career-high 11.5 sacks — in which he should have earned a Pro Bowl bid and vindicated Giants general manager Dave Gettleman’s questionable trade for him with the Jets for a third-round pick in 2020 and a fifth-rounder in 2021 midway through the 2019 season.
Whether Gettleman remains the GM or not, Joe Judge should back up his flattering postgame words and find a way to keep Williams, working on the one-year, $16.126 million franchise tag, in blue.
“We love him in the building, he’s a great teammate, he’s fun to coach,” Judge said. “He makes your job a lot easier in terms of coming to work and enjoying your job, but then also making plays on the field, ’cause really, players make coaches good or not. You can’t be a good coach with bad players, that’s kind of the reality of it right there, and he’s a good player, so he makes us all look a lot better. We needed to get plays from him, he definitely stepped up, and look, he’s been a blast to coach.”
Gettleman received heat for the deal, because the 2019 Giants were in the midst of another rebuilding season and going nowhere fast, and Williams had underachieved as the sixth-overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft.
“The juice was worth the squeeze,” Gettleman said at the end of last season.
There was plenty of juice from Williams on a day that the Giants needed to squeeze every last drop out of him.
“I definitely seen a lot of the criticism and the hate and stuff like that in the press, in the media and by the fans,” Williams said. “It feels good to prove ’em wrong, and also show why Dave Gettleman took a chance on me. It feels good to show him that it was the right choice.”
In the first half, Williams recorded one of his sacks and tackled Dalton from behind short of the first down on a third-and-10 scramble up the middle.
He saved his best for the fourth quarter, when great players are at their best.
Third-and-8 at midfield, Giants 20, Cowboys 19, Williams sacks Dalton.
And then: 1:53 left, Dalton only 7 yards from the Big Blue end zone, 7 yards from potentially shattering the Giants’ Improbable Dream.
And Leonard Williams sacked Dalton back at the 17.
As a Jet, Williams recorded only 17 sacks in 70 starts. Gettleman saw a high-character, durable then-25-year-old who could be disruptive defending the run and buzz around the quarterback. Williams could have commanded $17.8 million if he were classified as a defensive end rather than a defensive tackle, and his first double-digit sack season will only whet his appetite more.
“I feel like that’s an elite group of guys that’s been in that double-digit sack category,” Williams said, “and it feels good.”
He reiterated that the quest for a monster payday has never been his motivation.
“It’s never been about the money,” Williams said, “I think I just more wanted the respect and to show guys the reason why I’m in this league.”
He turned 26 in June. The best is yet to come for Leonard Williams. Just not next week against Tom Brady.
Fowl, Eagles, fowl.
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