Despite the New York Giants’ inconsistent play this season, there couldn’t have been many who would have envisioned an end like this.
Sure, definitely possible.
But, a game with as much meaning for the Giants as Sunday’s contest with the Carolina Panthers, essentially lost by halftime?
Had the Giants followed the expected script, they would have kept their season alive with an inspired, crisp effort leading to a happy Giants Stadium farewell.
Instead, they didn’t fare well at all.
In their long and storied 84-year history, New York had never rallied to victory following a deficit of at least 24 points at any time, in any game they’ve ever played.
So, the Giants’ 283rd game in the stadium they called home since October 10, 1976 was certainly the wrong time to fall behind by such a margin in their final game at Giants Stadium, with their 2009 playoff lives on the line.
The team with simply pride and nothing more to play for thoroughly embarrassed the team with absolutely everything at stake.
The result was the Giants producing their third worst loss in the history of the stadium which has now become history to the Giants’ franchise.
The Giants lost to Dallas, 35-0, in 1995, and to Green Bay, 37-3, in 1998, at Giants Stadium. Strictly in terms of margin of victory, those two losses weren’t quite as bad, but in other ways, Sunday’s defeat was indeed, much worse.
Appropriately, Carolina (7-8), clad in black and Carolina blue caused Big Blue to feel blue with disappointment, and made the Giants (8-7) black and blue after physically beating them up, during a 41-9 rout, simultaneously ending New York’s season and signaling the end of a 34-year era.
Hours later, the Dallas Cowboys officially eliminated the Giants from playoff contention with a 17-0 victory in Washington.
That too, was fitting, not only because the Cowboys will go down as the final team the Giants ever beat at Giants Stadium, but because the Panthers did almost exactly to the Giants what New York did to the Redskins only six days earlier, during its 45-12 win in Washington.
In one other symbolic nugget, one of the most humiliating Giants losses in the history of the stadium which bore their name for nearly three and half decades, was a microcosm of the Giants’ 2009 season.
After beginning the season looking like dominant, legitimate 5-0 Super Bowl contenders, the Giants faded quietly out of the NFC playoff picture with their seventh defeat in ten games.
Similarly, New York began its game with Carolina in impressive fashion, moving the ball well, before everything -– much like the Giants’ season –- quickly fell apart.
Winning the opening toss, the Giants used a nice mix of passing and rushing on a 13-play, 63-yard drive over 7:22, and they had an apparent first down inside the red zone, until wide receiver Mario Manningham (game-high 87 yards on 6 catches) fumbled just past the first down marker.
The ball was recovered by Carolina. Subsequently, like the air going out of a huge balloon flying along nicely, the Giants appeared sapped of all of their momentum, as the Giants Stadium crowd of 78,809 lost all of its energy.
The fumble was one of two lost by the Giants, who were also intercepted twice in losing the turnover battle 4-0.
Perhaps the real turning point however, occurred three plays earlier, when Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning (who prior, had completed his first six passes) thought he had a 26-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Steve Smith (game-high 7 catches for 70 yards and the Giants’ only touchdown), who caught Manning’s pass in the left corner of the end zone, but had the potential score nullified by fullback Madison Hedgecock’s holding penalty.
Manning, who completed 29 of 43 passes for a game-high 296 yards while reaching a career-high 3,880 yards, but who also threw for just one touchdown and two interceptions, said “We got off to a really fast start, we’re converting third downs, we’re running [and] passing good… we think we have a touchdown, we pick up right where we were last week… and we get a holding, we get the turnover, after a seven-minute drive… to do just about everything right and [then] to get no points out of it… after that, we just never got into rhythm.”
Giants’ running back Brandon Jacobs, who had a mere one yard on six carries, added about Hedgecock’s holding call and the effect it seemed to have on the Giants for the rest of the game, “We never overcame it and it just went downhill from there… That first drive… there was nothing that they could do to stop us and we got the penalty which killed out momentum, [it] took the fans out of [the game], and downhill went everything… something like this isn’t supposed to happen when you’re playing for so much… and that is a terrible way to go out.”
However, something like that shouldn’t stop a team, unless it’s as mentally fragile as this year’s Giants, or unless that team’s defense lacks the toughness, especially defensively, as much as the 2009 Giants’ defense has ever since New York’s season-starting five-game win streak.
Giants’ tight end Kevin Boss (5 catches for 49 yards), summed up the feeling of most Giants players, coaches, and fans, saying “I think we were riding high from last week’s victory. I think we all thought we were going to come in here and do what we did last week, and instead, it was the other way around.”
That the Giants were never able to bounce back from such early mistakes was puzzling, though maybe it shouldn’t have been given the Giants’ inability to stop most teams over the last ten games.
During past highly successful Giants Stadium seasons, after a fumble like Manningham’s, the Meadowlands crowd would have become even louder and the defense would have simply made a stop and got the ball right back for its offense to drive again.
However, with that one play, the atmosphere at the Meadowlands became more of a “here we go again” mentality, perhaps understandably so, since this year’s Giants’ defense, — one that allowed 40 points for a fourth time this season on Sunday, the first time a Big Blue defense had done that since 1966 — became as soft against the Panthers, as the Meadowlands marshes which surround Giants Stadium, lacking any sort of heart, fire, drive, determination, or any other adjective which you’d expect from a defensive unit playing its final game ever in an historic home stadium with very realistic playoff chances still within its grasp.
Carolina marched down the field on its opening possession, going 61 yards on 15 plays in 6:52, taking a 3-0 lead on a 38-yard field goal by kicker John Kasay with 46 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Sadly, ever since the 5-0 start, the Giants never remotely approached the accomplished Giants teams of years past which made Giants Stadium, with its swirling winds, a living nightmare for opposing offenses.
Earlier in the week, with WFAN’s Mke Francesa, former Giants linebacker, Lawrence Taylor, arguably the best ever to play his position, said that when he played (as a Giant from 1981-1993), the Giants’ defense back then, didn’t “really worry about the pass, it was all about the running game. I [didn’t] care if [our offense could] score or not,” he said. “Just don’t turn the ball over and we [were] going to win.”
Yes, in LT’s day, the Giants were predicated on a stout defense which was very tough to move the ball on, and offensively, on a solid running attack which amassed yardage and controlled the ball.
But, not these Giants, and definitely not in either case on Sunday.
The Giants managed just 60 rushing yards on 19 carries, second only this season to a paltry 57 yards on the ground in a Thanksgiving night loss in Denver.
Defensively, New York saved its worst for last. The Giants simply couldn’t tackle, as the Panthers ran the ball right down their collective throats, to the tune of 247 yards, the most rushing yards ever allowed by a Giants’ defense in Giants Stadium history.
Carolina rookie running back Jonathan Stewart, filling in for the injured DeAngelo Williams (the Panthers’ leading rusher), torched the Giants’ defense for 206 yards on 28 carries despite playing with an hurt Achilles tendon and toe.
And, backup quarterback Matt Moore, who hasn’t yet played the equivalent of a full 16-game NFL regular season in his three seasons as a pro, replaced injured starter Jake Delhomme for the fourth straight week by going 15 of 20 for 171 yards, and three touchdowns for the Panthers.
After that initial Giants’ drive, New York would manage a total of four yards on its next four possessions, punting three times, and seeing Manning intercepted, breaking his string of 84 pass attempts without a pick.
Meanwhile, the Panthers moved the ball quickly, and at will, scoring touchdowns each of the first three times they touched the ball in the second quarter. They scored on drives of 63 yards (in 3:04), 51 yards (in 3:47), and 29 yards (in 2:29) to take a commanding 24-0 lead.
A two-minute, 71-yard touchdown drive at the start of the third quarter extended Carolina’s lead to 31-0, and effectively ended any chances the Giants still had to save their season and close out Giants Stadium out on a happy note for Giants fans.
A Lawrence Tynes field goal midway through the third quarter brought only sarcastic cheers from the crowd before Manning later found Steve Smith on a two-yard touchdown pass with 11:59 left in the game, cutting Carolina’s lead to 34-9, for the final Giants Stadium points ever scored by the Giants.
The stark difference between what actually took place on the Giants Stadium turf one last time for the Giants and what Giants’ fans players, and coaches expected could be summed up well by looking at Manning’s comments.
Prior to the game, Manning said, “I have only been here six years, but I have a lot of fond memories and great wins,” he said. “Obviously for the fans and the ownership, it’s a special game for them. You think about how many great teams and great games have been played in Giants Stadium. It will be a special day for us.”
Afterwards, he said “It is shocking and it is disappointing. When you have a shot to get into the playoffs and everything is right in front of us, to come and have mistakes and turnovers and penalties, we did about everything we could just to try to lose that game.”
Defensive end Justin Tuck admitted just how much the loss hurt, saying “This is the lowest I have been in a Giants’ uniform.”
And, Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin called his team’s effort “Very disappointing, obviously. A very, very poor performance by our team. To have the game kind of game that we played today was… I called it for the players ‘the most inopportune of times.’ To have what was potentially at stake for our team, and to be playing at home coming off a big win. Carolina had a big win last weekend, but did not have a chance to be in the playoffs, and for us to play the way we did today, there is obviously no excuse for it. We didn’t tackle well. We didn’t play with great energy.”
For whatever little it’s worth, the Giants still have a chance to finish with a winning road record this season with a win in next week’s season finale in Minnesota. But sadly, the stadium which helped send the Giants to three Super Bowl titles, ends with a year in which that same franchise was a mediocre 4-4 at home while missing the playoffs.
Coughlin said the Giants will still try to show up to win, now in their own spoiler role. “We have to regain some kind of respect for the way that the game is to be played,” he said.
The Giants finished with a record of 162-121 (.572) in Giants Stadium, including 155-117 in the regular season and 7-4 in postseason games.
Overall, it was the 476th regular season football game played in Giants Stadium, which is the most ever played in any stadium. Chicago’s Wrigley Field is second with 365.
In an ironic twist, the stadium’s other tenant, the New York Jets (8-7), which have yet to make a Super Bowl while playing at the Meadowlands, can close out Giants Stadium the way the Giants had hoped to, next week.
The Jets had been thought to have been out of serious playoff contention after a home loss to Atlanta last week, but things in the AFC have since broken just right for Gang Green, and the Jets can clinch an AFC wild-card berth with a home win over Cincinnati (10-5) on Sunday night.
The Jets and Giants will both move into their new state-of-the-art $1.7 billion New Meadowlands Stadium during the 2010 season after Giants Stadium is demolished, beginning in February.
Time will tell what kinds of memories the Giants might make in their new building, but despite the disappointing ending for the Giants, the current one will still be missed.
“The new place is nice, don’t get me wrong,” said Jacobs before Sunday’s game. “But it’s not this place.”