By Jeff Moeller, The New York extra/thenyextra.com
By 4:30 p.m. Sunday, the Giants will know if they have taken the next step.
They should have defeated the 2-7-1 Cincinnati Bengals, who were without star rookie quarterback Joe Burrow.
The Giants would have entered the game in Cincinnati as six-point favorites. Yes, that’s right about the same 3-7 team that was a reeling a month ago.
The Giants were favored the last time these two teams met in 2016 against a 3-5-1 Bengals team and pulled out a 21-20 victory when Eli Manning hit Sterling Shepard with the winning score in the final 55 seconds.
That team finished 11-5 and made the playoffs. Yet, this team is far cry from those Giants.
But life is different for these Giants the past few weeks. They are coming off a bye week and posted an impressive two-game winning streak before it.
They are tighter, disciplined, and productive on both sides of the ball.
They look for real. Are they?
Daniel Jones is playing like the quarterback they had envisioned, and targets Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Golden Tate, and Evan Engram are rounding into shape. Wayne Gallman and Alfred Morris have patched together an effective running game.
Leonard Williams has six sacks and has emerged as a leader on the defensive line, Kyler Fackwell and Blake Martinez have re-energized the linebacking corps, and James Bradberry and Jabrill Peppers have solidified the secondary.
The Giants had the advantage over Washington as a tiebreaker with a pair of victories should they be in line for the NFC East crown.
Still, one factor is still staring them in the face — put away teams that you are now perceived as better than they are.
They will face the naysayers who can state their 0-5 record this year outside of their division.
There is the firing of offensive line coach Mark Columbo, a factor that could hang over them.
Like Washington and Philadelphia, this is a must win. They need to shake off any lingering effects from a week off and cage the Bengals.
A 4-7 record can actually give them the top spot in the division, albeit if Philadelphia can find a way to beat Seattle Sunday night.
From there, the real challenge is ahead.
A four-week span against likely playoff bound Seattle, Arizona, Cleveland, and Baltimore will reveal their true mettle.
This final stretch isn’t about winning the division, but instead about how far this team has evolved this season.
Beat the Bengals and further believe.
It will be another sign of fewer holes to fill for a solid 2021 playoff run.