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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants disbanded last week after a 5-11 season that ended with three straight losses. It was an improvement, however slight, on their 3-13 campaign from the previous year, when they didn’t have star running back Saquon Barkley or — for the most part — Odell Beckham Jr.

The lack of tangible success didn’t seem to matter much, as general manager Dave Gettleman barely finished with the pleasantries at his postseason news conference before he declared that the team is “headed in the right direction.” He surely wasn’t alone. That was the overarching feeling when this last-place team departed for the offseason. There was a collective belief that the Giants are “close” to being a good team, one that could compete for the playoffs and — dare we say it for a team with the second-fewest wins the past two seasons — compete for a Super Bowl.

Delusional or not, this is how the Giants were able to sell things internally throughout a disappointing campaign in which they lost eight games by seven or fewer points. It is perhaps the biggest accomplishment for coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Dave Gettleman in their first season together. They have created a room full of believers.

“Honestly, we’re building. We’re taking steps closer and closer each and every time, every game and loss. Like Mr. Gettleman said, every game within the last 12 games was lost by less than a touchdown, besides the Eagles. Stuff like that, we’re just a touchdown away from being in the playoffs,” safety Landon Collins said before leaving for the offseason. “We’re growing, and we’re a better team than we were last year. And we showcased that. I’m glad for the opportunity to show that.”

A 4-4 second half of the season (with all four wins coming against backup quarterbacks) and some peripheral growth made this possible.

More wins than the previous year, check.

A revamped locker room, no doubt.

A team that didn’t quit and lost some tight games, you got it.

That was apparently all the Giants needed to convince themselves and their players that they are on the verge of being serious contenders.

“Yeah, I think we are, and I think that’s sort of where our conversation is going today is we are very close,” Shurmur said late in the season. “But right is right — you’ve got to win. And I think as we start building and as the players get better, as we improve, as we understand situations and how to play each situation better, then eventually this thing pushes over the top.”

There are reasons for the Giants to be optimistic. They made sweeping changes following the debacle of 2017 that cost Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese their jobs. The Giants had just 15 players (even though they keep saying 13) on the active roster in Week 17 who were part of the organization the previous year.

This was somewhat expected, though not to this degree. That’s a heckuva lot of turnover in the span of a year. But in came Gettleman and Shurmur last offseason with new ideas and systems, and they needed players to fit their desires. So they overhauled the roster (some good moves, some bad) and still admittedly have work to do. They built a culture and laid the foundation that they believe has them set for future success.

Giant improvement next season?

History suggests that the Giants are in line to improve their win total next season. Here are the teams with the most losses by seven or fewer points since 2006 and how they did the following season.

YEAR TEAM LOSSES BY 7 OR FEWER WIN INCREASE FOLLOWING SEASON
2013 Texans 9 +4
2011 Vikings 9 +7
2018 Giants 8 ?
2016 Jaguars 8 +7
2016 Chargers 8 +4
2015 Chargers 8 +1
2015 Giants 8 +5
2014 Bucs 8 +4
2012 Lions 8 +5
2010 Cowboys 8 +2
2006 Lions 8 +4
It will take time. This was never a one-year fix. And they deserve some time to implement their plan for the rebuild, even if they publicly refuse to admit it is that.

“I just hate the word rebuild. You just keep going, you just keep building. It’s really what we’re doing here,” Gettleman said. “We’re doing our best to accumulate the talent that fits our schemes and that understands how to play the game and hates to flippin’ lose. That’s what it’s really all about, and we’re going to continue to do this and get it right. We’re going to fix it.”

The Giants undoubtedly need to figure out their quarterback position for the present and future. That will be vital to their long-term success. But all the close losses do portend a better 2019.

The Giants lost their last two games by a point each. They were the first team in NFL history to accomplish that inglorious feat. They lost eight games by seven or fewer points, the most of any team this season. Even though three of those games (first half of the season losses to the Cowboys, Falcons and Redskins) were only cosmetically close because of last-minute scores, recent history indicates that all those close defeats are a bit of an anomaly. The following year is rarely as rough.

Eight of the past 10 teams to lose at least eight games by seven or fewer points saw their win totals increase by at least four games the following the season. That includes the 2015 Giants, who were 3-8 in close games. They flipped that the following season (8-3), won 11 games and reached the playoffs for the only time since 2011.

Of course, when considering just how “close” the Giants are to being serious contenders, the market correction can account for only so much. Yes, the Giants should improve. They have the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, can build off some of the gains from this past season and have salary cap space (projected in the $40 million range, depending on cuts) at their disposal.

But they also need to be honest with themselves when looking at the roster. A team on the precipice of contention rarely has an aging quarterback or a bridge QB behind an offensive line that remains a work in progress and a barren defense desperately in need of a massive talent infusion.

Close to competing for the playoffs? Maybe. Close to competing for a Super Bowl? At this point of the process, the Giants might want to rethink that assessment.

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baker Mayfield has often been described as cocky, and Lamar Jackson has impressed teammates with his humility. Jackson strikes fear with his explosive speed, and Mayfield beats defenses deep with a strong arm and fearlessness.

While Jackson and Mayfield appear as opposite as their draft positions — Mayfield was selected at the top of the first round and Jackson at the bottom — they are more similar than many would think.

That’s according to tight end Mark Andrews, one of the few people who would know. In college, Andrews was Mayfield’s favorite pass-catcher at Oklahoma. In the NFL, he has become a popular target for Jackson.

“In terms of personality, guys like that have a certain thing about them – the ‘It Factor,’ I call it,” Andrews said. “They’re someone that you want to be around. There’s something about them that makes people gravitate towards them. They both have that. I think that speaks a lot to who they are and what they’re all about.”

These rookie quarterbacks are among the headliners for Sunday’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns. Jackson and the Ravens (9-6) can clinch what has been an elusive AFC North title with a win. Mayfield and the Browns (7-7-1) can secure an even more elusive winning record by beating Baltimore.

It will mark the first time in the Super Bowl era that two first-round quarterbacks face off as rookies in the final game of a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Even though Jackson and Mayfield have never played against each other on the field, they’ve gone head-to-head against each other over the years. In 2016, Jackson won the Heisman Trophy and Mayfield finished third. In 2017, Mayfield won the Heisman and Jackson finished third.

Does it feel like Jackson has already competed against Mayfield?

Lamar Jackson might not be as brash as Baker Mayfield, but he has every desire to win. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports
“No, not at all,” Jackson said. “He’s just playing a part for his team. He’s just doing his thing, and I just do mine — that’s all. We all want to win at the end of the day. So definitely, you can say that.”

Mayfield said he got to know Jackson and his family pretty well through the two Heisman ceremonies and the pre-draft process.

“Great guy,” Mayfield said. “He is someone who is fun to be around and makes it enjoyable so I would assume it is the same when it is coming to work every day.”

Jackson and Mayfield have been two of the most successful quarterbacks over the past two months. Since Week 10, they each own 5-1 records, and only three quarterbacks have more wins over that span (Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and Dak Prescott).

Over those seven weeks, Mayfield has the NFL’s second-best passer rating at 115.2. He has passed for 1,581 yards, throwing 14 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Since taking over as the Ravens’ starter in Week 11, Jackson has rushed for the eighth-most yards (466) in the league. He has broken five runs of 20 yards or more, and only Saquon Barkley and Josh Allen have produced more.

“[Jackson] is kind of unique in the way he plays the game, which is a positive,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You have to try to find unique ways to utilize guys like this. I think the coaching staff in Cleveland has done a great job with Baker in doing the same thing.”

Andrews received a text from Mayfield this week wishing him a Merry Christmas. But Andrews knows Mayfield’s real intentions this week.

Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield met on the Heisman Trophy circuit, where each claimed the award once. Todd J. Van Emst/USA TODAY Sports
“He’s a killer,” Andrews said. “He doesn’t mess around. He’s fully intent on ruining our season. We’ll be ready for it.”

Would Andrews classify Jackson as a “killer” as well?

“Yeah, there’s no doubt. It’s a little bit different type of killer,” Andrews said. “Lamar hates to lose. He’s a guy that’s … you know, you’re down, you can rely on him, he’s going to do everything he can to win – whether it’s running the ball for fourth-and-inches or whatnot. He’s a guy that’s going to make the play. You saw it in the game when we were down – he makes that big play. That’s the type of person he is, and that’s the type of player he is, as well.”

This rookie class is the latest influx of quarterback talent in the NFL. The five quarterbacks drafted in the first round are the most since 1999.

Jackson and Mayfield have been the best in this group, besting the likes of Sam Darnold, Allen and Josh Rosen, and now they face off in one of the more important games of the final weekend of the regular season. Jackson is looking to lead Baltimore to its first division title in six years, and Mayfield is attempting to lift Cleveland to its first winning regular season in 11 years.

Ravens safety Eric Weddle wouldn’t be surprised to see more rookie quarterbacks squaring off in these critical games going forward.

“I think the philosophy and the game is changing that you’re going to see more young quarterbacks have success early, taking the dynamics of what they do in college and adapt that to the system they’re running in the NFL,” Weddle said. “Baker was talented in college. You knew once he got in there and made some plays, he was going to do well. Lamar is getting his opportunity, and each week he’s showing what he’s all about.”