After a slow start, New York Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning was having a career day, and yet it nearly meant nothing after the Giants’ defense blew a late fourth-quarter, two-touchdown lead over the Atlanta Falcons (5-5) at Giants Stadium on Sunday.
Ultimately though, Manning got one final chance to lead his team to victory, and while achieving four personal milestones against the Falcons, the Giants’ offensive leader attained something that meant more than any individual accomplishment: guiding the Giants to an all-important 34-31 victory in overtime, moving New York (6-4) ahead of the team it beat on Sunday, in the race for the NFC playoffs.
Though Manning had one of the best all-around games of his career, it didn’t begin that way. Following completions, each for double digit yardage, on his first two passes, Manning was sacked. Two plays later, he threw his only interception of the game, before heading to the sideline under a chorus of boos from impatient Giant fans who were antsy at the outset as to whether their team could regain its winning form.
However, after an Atlanta three-and-out, Manning and the Giants got things going offensively on their next possession, going 64 yards on twelve plays in 6:10, taking a 3-0 lead on a 39 yard-field goal by Lawrence Tynes with 2:54 left in the opening quarter.
The Falcons responded though, driving 65 yards on nine plays, taking a 7-3 lead 1:02 into the second quarter on a 7-yard touchdown run, the first of two scores on the day by running back Jason Snelling (25 rushes, 76 yards), who was the only back who carried the ball for Atlanta with star rusher Michael Turner and also much less used Jerious Norwood each missing the game with injuries (quarterback Matt Ryan had the only other five Atlanta carries, for 14 yards).
The Giants then drove 54 yards to the Atlanta 13, but Tynes missed a 31-yard field goal.
But Manning, who finished the game completing 25 of 39 passes for a career-high 384 yards, marking his first-ever 300-yard game at home, went to work after a sack by New York linebacker Michael Boley completed another Atlanta three-and-out.
The Giants took over at their own 48-yard line after a Falcons’ punt, and moved back to their own 42 after an offensive holding penalty, but it took Manning just two big passes to score from there.
First, he found rookie wide receiver Hakeem Nicks for 30 yards to the Atlanta, and on the next play, he hit tight end Kevin Boss, for the first of three Manning touchdown passes and the first of two scores by Boss. The powerful, 6-foot-6, 250-pound target caught the ball along the right sideline and made a nice sudden stop at the 6-yard line to keep from going out of bounds. That allowed the Falcons’ defense to over pursue Boss a bit, so he could take advantage and get into the end zone to give the Giants a 10-7 lead with 7:01 remaining in the first half.
Atlanta then drove into New York territory but kicker Jason Elam missed a 35-yard field goal with 2:51 left in the opening half.
Later, a couple of Giant defensive ends gave Manning and the New York offense another great opportunity to score, and Manning and Boss delivered again.
Justin Tuck forced a Ryan fumble which was recovered by Osi Umenyiora at the Atlanta 35-yard line. That led to a four-yard touchdown strike from Manning to Boss six plays later. Boss caught the ball in traffic, in the middle of the end zone, putting the Giants ahead 17-7, just fourteen seconds before halftime.
The Falcons quickly got back in the game though, as Snelling scored again, this time from one yard out, pulling Atlanta to within 17-14 just 3:17 into the third quarter.
But on the next possession, the Falcons again couldn’t stop the Giants’ passing game (which accounted for 368 of New York’s 456 total yards and 19 of the Giants’ 24 first downs) as Manning threw a beautiful ball, leading wide receiver Steve Smith (4 catches, 79 yards) on a 51-yard completion to the Falcons’ 23-yard line. Four plays later, with two Atlanta penalties on consecutive plays mixed in, running back Brandon Jacobs (held to just 39 yards on 12 carries) scored on a two-yard run to give the Giants a 24-14 lead with 8:36 left in the third quarter.
The Falcons trimmed the Giants’ lead to 24-17 after an Elam 25-yard field goal capped an 18-play drive with 1:57 remaining in the third period, but again Manning was unstoppable, taking the Giants 74 yards on nine plays in 4:49 for their final touchdown of the game.
After completing to wide receiver Mario Manningham (6 catches for a game-high 126 yards) for 27 yards and finding Boss for another 18 yards, Manning finished the drive with a three-yard scoring toss to one of seven different receivers he hooked up with on the day, fullback Madison Hedgecock. The first score of the season for Hedgecock gave the Giants a seemingly comfortable 31-17 lead with 12:08 to go in the game.
The Falcons however, wouldn’t go quietly. Ryan (26 of 46 for 268 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions), who also completed to seven different players, drove Atlanta 65 yards in twelve plays, throwing to a four-yard scoring pass to undrafted wide receiver Eric Weems out of Bethune-Cookman, pulling the Falcons to within 31-24, with 6:01 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Manning then tried to answer again. He connected with Boss (five catches, 76 yards) on a 26-yard play to the Giants’ 41 yard-line, but the Giants were stopped on their next three plays (two of them, Manning incompletions), and the Falcons took over after a short 35-yard punt by Giants’ punter Jeff Feagles.
Ryan again drove the Falcons, this time twelve plays for 76 yards in 3:14, scoring on an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez (game–high eight catches for 72 yards), who pulled Ryan’s pass down between two Giants’ defenders in the middle of the end zone, tying the game 31-31, with just 28 seconds left in regulation, forcing overtime.
“I am concerned,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said of his defense, which struggled against the Falcons and has done so since dominating during a 5-0 start.
However, the way Manning was going on Sunday, it was a safe bet that if the Giants won the toss to start the extra session, Ryan wouldn’t get the ball back.
They did, and he didn’t.
On third-and-two from the Giants’ 41 yard-line, Manning noticed the help that was originally on his right side of the field, sneaking back toward the middle. That’s when Manning knew he had Manningham, and sure enough, he lofted a nice over-the-back-shoulder fade pass along the right sideline to Manningham, who caught the ball for a 29-yard gain, streaking to the Atlanta 23.
Three plays later, Tynes knocked a game-winning 36-yard field goal inside the right upright, 3:54 into overtime, to complete the Giants’ first win in exactly six weeks.
Although Manning moved into second place on the Giants’ career completions list (with 1,466) and into third place on the Giants’ all-time passing yards list (with 17,077), it was finally getting back in the win column which he focused on most.
“It’s been a long time, 42 days since our last win,” he said. “It felt like it, too. “There are not many better feelings than in a locker room after a win,” Manning said. “It was good to see the high-fives and the smiles, especially when you haven’t had that feeling for a while.”
“It’s nice to win,” Coughlin added. “We were miserable around here for a month.”
In an NFL oddity, the Giants’ victory was the first by the home team in the Giants-Falcons series since November 11, 1979, when the Giants won at Giants Stadium, 24-3. The visiting team had won the previous twelve meeting in the series, the longest such streak in NFL history.
Big Blue won’t have long to relish in its rediscovered feeling of victory. They’ll only have three days off, one of which will be a travel day, as they’ll fly out west, before playing in Denver, on Thanksgiving night. They may be catching the Broncos at the right time though, since they can now relate to the predicament that the Giants were in before Sunday, having lost their past four games after a 6-0 start. Kickoff will be at 8:20pm EST.