On a day when he moved into third place on the all-time New York Giants’ list for completions, Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning was ironically beaten by the quarterback who was involved in the trade that brought Manning to New York in the first place.
More than five years after being traded for Manning, San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers, who was a Giant for all of about 45 minutes on Draft Day in 2004, directed a final minute, game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive to beat the Giants, 21-20, at the Meadowlands on Sunday, in the first meeting between Manning and Rivers since their trade.
In their first trip back to the Meadowlands to play the Giants since December 23, 1995 (a 27-17 San Diego victory), the Chargers brought the nice San Diego weather with them on an uncharacteristically warm November day in New Jersey, and their recent stretch of hot play as well.
For at least one day, San Diego could definitely feel like they got the better of the deal, even though most football followers, even among those who either cover or root for the Giants, have ranked Rivers as slightly better than Manning to this point in their careers.
Entering Sunday’s showdown, Rivers’ had a better quarterback rating (93.4 to 77.1), completion percentage (61.9 percent to 56.1 percent), yards-per-game average (215.8 ypg to 203.4 ypg), and touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (89:40 to 111:82).
However, most who feel that Rivers has been the more accomplished of the two passers, also agree that the Giants have had the biggest leg — or with a quarterback comparison, the biggest arm –- up on the trade since Manning leads in the one statistical category which matters most: one Super Bowl victory (including a Super Bowl MVP) to no Super Bowls reached yet for Rivers.
On Sunday, the results were remarkably similar between the two quarterbacks who will always be associated with each other throughout the rest of their careers and whatever future legacies they leave behind.
Throwing for 215 yards on 33 attempts, Manning completed 25 passes, increasing his career total to 1,441, moving him past one former Giant (Charlie Conerly, 1,418 completions) and just six completions behind another — Kerry Collins, who ranks second on the Giants’ career completion list.
Rivers meanwhile, was about the same, going 24 for 36, for 209 yards.
Where they differed was that Manning did not turn the ball over, while Rivers threw two interceptions, but while Manning tossed a pair of touchdowns, Rivers threw touchdown passes on all three of San Diego’s scores.
In terms of just one game on Sunday, Rivers ultimately had the last laugh, and more importantly for both teams, the Chargers (5-3) and Giants are now going in opposite directions, with San Diego winning their past three games after a mediocre and inconsistent 2-3 start, while New York lost its fourth consecutive game after looking like an elite NFL team at 5-0. The Giants have already matched the total number of losses they had in 2008.
Perhaps expecting a Manning-Rivers back-and-forth shootout, the 78,774 fans in attendance witnessed a scoreless game after one quarter.
The Giants had a chance to strike early, but came away with no points after driving 68 yards on eleven plays, in 7:23, on the game’s opening possession, after holder Jeff Feagles couldn’t get a snap down on a 38-yard field goal attempt.
That play would come back to haunt the Giants in the one-point loss, and appropriately, Feagles’ fumble on the play was recovered by Chargers’ linebacker Shawne Merriman, who despite being suspended by the NFL for abusing steroids in 2006, is a three-time pro bowl selection after being selected by San Diego in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft using a draft pick that the Chargers acquired when they traded Rivers for Manning.
On the final play of the first quarter, Rivers threw just before pressure from the back side, from Giants’ linebacker Michael Boley (who returned from injury), and from defensive end Osi Umenyiora and linebacker Antonio Pierce, both up the middle, got to him, to complete a key 3rd-and-10 pass to tight end Antonio Gates (game-high 67 yards on 5 receptions) for a 19-yard play to the Giants’ 10-yard line.
That set up a Rivers 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who caused Giants starting left cornerback Corey Webster problems on several occasions during the game. Jackson’s catch gave the Chargers a 7-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
But, Manning went a perfect 9-for-9 to march the Giants right back on their longest drive (in terms of time) in over sixteen years, taking New York 79 yards on 16 plays in 10:35, to tie the game, 7-7, on a 6-yard touchdown pass with 4:20 left in the first half, to wide receiver Steve Smith, who led the Giants with eight catches for 57 yards.
The game remained tied until late in the third quarter, when Rivers took advantage of another short punt by Feagles, something which has seriously plagued the Giants while facing good opposing quarterbacks during their current losing streak.
After a 31-yard punt by Feagles, Rivers drove the Chargers 51 yards in on six plays in 3:03, to give his team a 14-7 lead on a 2-yard touchdown toss to tight end Kris Wilson, with 3:51 left in the third quarter. Webster helped set up the score, being called for pass interference in the end zone against Jackson, on a 29-yard heave by Rivers, who was hit as he threw.
Manning again responded though, taking the Giants 70 yards on 10 plays in 4:42, to set up a 38-yard field goal by kicker Lawrence Tynes, to cut the Chargers’ lead to 14-10 with 14:09 left in the game.
Then, after the Giants’ defense forced its only three-and-out of the game, New York got great field position at the San Diego 39-yard line after a 13-yard punt return by Domenik Hixon.
The Giants needed only six plays from there, to take a 17-14 lead with 8:58 remaining in the game, on an 8-yard Manning touchdown pass into the far left corner of the end zone to tight end Kevin Boss.
The defining moment of the game — and depending on how things plays out over the next several weeks, maybe of the season — then came for the Giants after both teams traded punts.
Taking over at the San Diego 21-yard line after a Feagles’ 46-yard punt out of bounds, Rivers, on first down, threw over the middle and was intercepted by cornerback Terrell Thomas at the Chargers’ 37-yard line. Thomas returned the ball 33 yards to the San Diego four-yard line, with just 3:14 left in the game.
If the Giants score there, as they should have, they likely win the game and have a much different outlook on their season right now.
Instead, New York went into ultra conservative mode, rather than attacking to try to win the game, partly because of a holding penalty on right guard Chris Snee which immediately pushed the ball back to the 14-yard line.
Manning then completed to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks for no gain. On second down, running back Brandon Jacobs ran up the middle for five yards to the Chargers’ 9-yard line. And, on 3rd-and-goal, the Giants again ran the same play, Jacobs for five yards up the middle, to the San Diego four-yard line.
All that did was set up a Tynes 22-yard field goal to put the Giants ahead 20-14, with 2:07 left in the game, giving a good quarterback like Rivers plenty of time to send New York to yet another defeat.
And that’s exactly what Rivers did, completing six of eight passes, taking the Chargers 80 yards to win the game. The game-winning drive was capped on the second touchdown catch by Jackson, this time on an 18-yard pass from Rivers with just 21 seconds left in the game.
On the play, Webster was again beaten by Jackson, but mostly because he never received help that should have been there. Cornerback Bruce Johnson was locked in on Gates, who running an inside route, and he never made a break to his left in time to give help to Webster who was watching Jackson run the outside fade route toward the far right corner of the end zone.
Rivers is simply too good for that without enough pressure on him, nor the help from Johnson on Jackson, Rivers easily went over the top of Webster leading Jackson for the game-winning score.
Ultimately, the Giants never got enough pressure on Rivers for most of the game, hitting him only five times, and because of that, their whole season is now under pressure.
Fittingly, it was Merriman who sacked Manning to end the game, preventing the Giants from getting off one last play from their own 29-yard line.
After the game, Rivers described his long-awaited initial meeting with Manning and the Giants, who are less than two years removed from a Super Bowl title as “A big emotional win.”
He added, “The link between me and Eli Is always going to be there. So yeah, it’s a little special. Any time you play against a team that won the Super Bowl, it’s fun. [The trade] didn’t weigh into my mind and my thinking, but I bet it was there.”
The same can be said for Manning and the Giants, who heading into their bye week on a four-game losing streak, have much greater concerns on their own minds, with their season slipping away.