After squandering a dominant 5-0 start with a subsequent, nearly opposite 1-5 slide, the New York Giants were in desperate need of a big win against the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys at Giants Stadium.
And, the Giants knew that one thing that plagued them most during their struggles before Sunday’s divisional showdown was being on the wrong side of big plays.
Time and time again, a big play had cost the Giants dearly this season, and too few times, New York was unable to produce enough big plays of its own.
This time though, it was the Giants (7-5) who made all of the biggest plays, and those proved to be the difference in an important 31-24 over the Cowboys (8-4).
But, things didn’t start that way for New York. In fact, for most of the first half, it looked like a repeat of earlier Giants’ problems this season.
The Giants possessed the ball very little (just 8:50) during the first half and for nearly the first 27 minutes of the opening two quarters, they couldn’t gain much. When the Giants began their second possession of the second quarter with 3:14 left in the first half, New York had just three second-quarter yards.
Just prior to that, it was the Cowboys who actually made the initial big play to set up the first touchdown of the game, a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tony Romo to a wide open Roy Williams, which gave Dallas a 10-0 lead. That score was set up when Giants’ running back Ahmad Bradshaw got caught in the backfield on a running play and tried to weave his way out of trouble, but was stripped by Cowboys’ defensive end Jay Ratliff, who stripped Bradshaw and recovered his fumble at the Giants’ 33-yard line.
At that point, Giant fans everywhere had to be thinking their team wouldn’t yet break out of its slump on Sunday.
However, all of a sudden, everything began to click for Big Blue, and then came the first of several game-deciding plays.
In just 1:28 and four plays, the Giants covered 74 yards to get their first score. Three straight 16-yard passes from quarterback Eli Manning (11-25, 241 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) set up a 21-yard touchdown pass up the right sideline to rookie Hakeem Nicks, to cut the Dallas lead to 10-7, with 1:46 left in the half.
On the first play of the ensuing possession, defensive end Osi Umenyiora was called for an offsides penalty. Two plays later though, he more than redeemed himself defensive after end Mathias Kiwanuka (who started for Umenyiora as one of four defensive lineup changes for the Giants on Sunday) stripped Dallas running back Marion Barber, who caught a screen pass from Romo.
Umenyiora recovered Barber’s fumble and returned the ball 24 yards to the Dallas 28-yard line.
Big Play Number One.
Four plays later, after Manning found wide receiver Steve Smith (team highs of 110 yards and 6 catches) on consecutive pass completions of 12 and 15 yards to start the short drive, running back Brandon Jacobs scored from a yard out with 19 seconds left in the half.
Just like that, despite being outplayed for most of the half, the Giants headed into the locker room with a 14-10 advantage.
New York continued to move the ball at the start of the second half, but instead of staying with what was working on that drive –- a mix of Jacobs and short routes to Smith -– Manning impatiently went for it all from the Dallas 25-yard line, and was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback Mike Jenkins, looking for wide receiver Mario Manningham in the far left corner of the end zone.
Each team then traded punts before Dallas went 56 yards in 8 plays and 4:02, with Romo again finding Williams on a similar touchdown pass as before, open over the middle, for five yards, putting the Cowboys ahead 17-14, with 3:58 left in the third quarter. But, that lead didn’t last long because of…
Big Play Number Two for the Giants.
Just 19 seconds later, on the first play of the next drive, Manning threw a swing pass out to Jacobs, who thought he would go for about 15-20 yards. Instead, he took it up the left sideline, avoiding a tackle, barely staying inbounds while avoiding a push at the Dallas 25-yard line, taking it the house for a 21-17 Giants’ lead on both the New York’s longest play of the season, and easily the lumbering 6-foot-4, 265-pound back’s longest play of Jacobs’ career.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin joked, “I’ve never seen him run that fast.”
And, in a statement about the play that Giant fans had to love, Jacobs said “It’s extra special against Dallas. That’s absolutely a team I can’t stand. I’ve been hating Dallas ever since I knew anything about football.”
A very rare and refreshing comment, given the large degree of player movement and high player salaries which lead to today’s athletes in virtually all pro sports seemingly following the almighty dollar before having the desire to stay with a team and beat huge rivals as badly as loyal fans want them to.
Later, in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys got to within field goal range for kicker Nick Folk, but he hooked a 42-yard kick badly, low and to the left, with 10:38 remaining in the game.
Enter Big Play Number Three.
After the Giants took over at their own 32-yard line after a Dallas punt, Manning hit Smith for 25 yards to set up a key run by Bradshaw, which would be a foreshadowing of the Giants’ final big play later on.
Bradshaw was stopped in a pile trying to run left, but he kept his legs moving, cut right, away from the crowd, and dashed up the right side for a 29-yard gain to the Dallas 9-yard line. The Giants offense stalled from there, but the play set up a Lawrence Tynes 23-yard field goal to give the Giants some much-needed breathing room, 24-17, with 7:23 left in the game.
The Giants defense then forced a three-and-out leading to one final play that was the biggest of all.
Kick returner Domenik Hixon did something he had never done before as a professional football player, and he picked a great time in the Giants’ season to do it.
Taking a punt at his own 21-yard line, Hixon, like Bradshaw earlier, looked to be stopped to the left after a short gain, but also like Bradshaw, he escaped the pile, and at the 30-yard line, cut to the middle, then up the right sideline behind a few solid blocks, for a thrilling 79-yard touchdown, which proved to be the game-winning score.
The play gave the Giants a 31-17 lead with 5:33 to go in the game and marked the Giants’ first punt return for a touchdown in 82 games (the Giants had gone 74 regular season and seven postseason games without a punt return for a touchdown).
It was also the first punt return for a touchdown in Hixon’s career, even if it’s something he thinks about on every return. “Every time I get on the field, I have the mindset of taking it all the way,” he said.
Manning also took note that play and all of the huge plays the Giants made, saying “There were a lot of big plays and we kind of took advantage of those and that ended up being the difference in the win.”
The Cowboys weren’t done though, as Romo, who caused the Giants’ defense problems all game, led Dallas on a six-play, 77-yard scoring drive in just 1:27. Romo found an open Miles Austin (10 catches for 104 yards) on a 22-yard touchdown toss over cornerback Corey Webster along the right side of the end zone.
The onside kick which followed though, was touched by Dallas before going ten yards, and the Giants were able to run out the clock to sweep Dallas for the first time in five years. More importantly, instead of falling a probably insurmountable three games back of the Cowboys, Big Blue instead moved to within just a game of them for the NFC East lead.
The Giants must sure up their pass defense however, if they will continue to compete for the division crown or at least an NFC wild-card berth.
Romo torched the Giants’ defense, completing a Cowboy record 41 passes in 55 attempts, for a career-high 392 yards. His favorite target was tight end Jason Whitten, who caught 14 balls including his 500th career reception, for a career-high 156 yards.
Despite the inefficiency with stopping Dallas through the air, the Giants did a 180 with shutting down the Dallas rushing game from the previous time the teams met. In New York’s 33-31 Week 2 win in Dallas, the Giants were burned for 251 yards on the ground. On Sunday though, the Cowboys were held to just 45 yards on 23 carries.
Big plays and huge win for Big Blue. But next, another big game.
The Giants will have to do it all over again, when the Philadelphia Eagles, who are tied with Dallas at 8-4, visit the Meadowlands for another big NFC East battle. The Giants hope they’ll still have some more big plays left for that one.