Reminders of last year filled the New Meadowlands stadium on Sunday.
Giants’ fans had seen this story before. A 5-0 start only to finish 3-8 and miss the playoffs last year, while losing home games against opponents the Giants should have beaten.
This year, it was another five-game winning streak to start 6-2, followed by two straight losses, including a home defeat to a Dallas Cowboys team that came to the Meadowlands with a five-game losing streak and a backup at quarterback.
So, it was no surprise that while trailing the seven-point underdog Jacksonville Jaguars, 17-6, at halftime, the Giants (7-4) left the field to a chorus of boos that sounded all too similar to what they often heard during last season’s slide.
Yes, it looked, and sounded, very much like 2009.
For one half, the Jaguars (6-5) ran all over the Giants’ defense, and through three quarters, quarterback Eli Manning was hindered without his injured top two receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith.
But, then the Giants’ defense that used to win this season (and early last season) showed up in the second half and Manning turned to his third and fourth receiving options to throw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
The Giants rallied to pull out a 24-20 victory, and everyone at least for this week, had forgotten about last year.
New York also managed to accomplish two things they hadn’t done all season, thanks to an early challenge by head coach Tom Coughlin, who has the highest success rate in the league in that category.
For the first time all season, the Giants finally scored on an opening drive, with the help of a questionable overturning of an initial fumble ruling, after Manning completed a pass to wide receiver Derek Hagan (2 catches for 21 yards, filling in for Smith).
Hagan appeared to have been stripped at the Jaguars’ 4 yard-line, but referee Terry McCauly ruled that the “ball was knocked loose as the second step was coming down” after checking a television replay.
The verdict allowed kicker Lawrence Tynes to kick a 28-yard field goal and give the Giants a 3-0 lead 5:54 into the game. Prior to that, New York had been the only NFL team which had failed to score on an opening drive (having punted and turned the ball over five times each in the Giants’ ten previous games).
With McCauly’s ruling, the Giants also avoided a sixth red zone turnover on the year, and for the first time this season, they played a full game with a turnover, which was no small feat for a team that leads the league with 30 turnovers.
Early on though, it didn’t matter than the Giants finally figured out how to hold on to the football, because the Jaguars moved the ball at will, primarily on the ground.
Jacksonville gained 94 yards on the ground the first quarter, the most New York allowed in an opening quarter in over eight years, and more than the Giants’ fourth-ranked rushing defense had allowed per game (89.5) this season.
With running back Maurice Jones-Drew leading the way with 113 yards on 21 carries, the Jaguars finished the game 207 rushing yards on 34 carries (a 6.1 ypc average), while running up 145 first-half yards on the ground.
For Drew, who was listed as questionable, with an abdomen strain, it marked the fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game, the longest such streak of the diminutive (5-foot-7) yet powerful, 208-pound running back’s career.
The Jaguars used their unrelenting ground attack to key scoring drives of over 70 yards each of the three times they had the ball in the opening half.
A first-quarter drive of 9 plays, 75 yards led to a 5-yard touchdown run by running back Rashad Jennings (7 carries, 53 yards, 1 TD), to put Jacksonville up 7-3.
The Jaguars then went 85 yards on 15 plays, in 8:57, for a 22-yard field goal by Josh Scobee, to increase their lead 10-3 with 9:11 left in the first half.
The Giants seemed to have tied the game on their next drive, but a holding penalty on tight end Kevin Boss (who would later, be a hero) wiped out a Manning touchdown pass in the near right corner of the end zone to wide receiver Mario Manningham (3 catches, 61 yards, 1 TD), who was elevated from being the Giants’ third receiver to being their first option, due to the injuries to Nicks and Smith.
The penalty made a 7-play, 64-yard drive result in second stalled red zone drive and a 29-yard field goal from Tynes, to pull New York to within 10-6.
Jacksonville then came right back with 13-play, 71-yard march, in 5:15, to lead 17-6, on a brilliant 5-yard touchdown scramble by quarterback David Garrard (6 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD), who pulled a Harry Houdini act to escape a couple of potential sacks before scoring.
The Giants’ defense finally woke up in the third quarter, but Big Blue’s offense continued to go without a touchdown.
After allowing just seven third-down conversions in 43 attempts over their previous four games, the Giants allowed the Jaguars to convert eight of their first ten attempts, before allowing just two first downs in Jacksonville’s final six third-down tries in the second half.
New York also took advantage of a more inaccurate and more error-prone Garrard, who was 11 of 16 for 91 yards with no turnovers in the first half before going just 9 of 19, for 71 yards, along with an interception and a fumble in the second half.
Garrard threw behind wide receiver Mike Simms-Walker (4 catches for a team-high 48 yards) on the first play of the third quarter. The ball deflected off of Simms-Walker’s hands at the Jaguars’ 36 yard-line, for an easy interception by cornerback Terrell Thomas, who gave the Giants a first down at the Jacksonville 34 yard-line.
The Giants failed to reach the end zone for the third time in three red zone trips however, as Manning threw too high and incomplete for Boss near the end zone in the right flat.
New York instead settled for a short Tynes field goal (from 28 yards out) for the third straight quarter, to trail 17-9 entering the final period.
But, after allowing 236 total yards in the first half, the Giants’ defense allowed just 92 yards on six Jacksonville possessions in the second half, giving up only a field goal, while forcing three punts and two turnovers.
That was enough for Manning to lead the Giants to two fourth-quarter scores, first to tie the game, and then, to win it.
Since New York couldn’t score a touchdown in the red zone, they figured they’d reach the end zone from outside the red zone.
A drive that began back at the Giants’ 12 yard-line, in the third quarter, with a 17-yard completion to from Manning to Boss and a 17-yard run by running back Brandon Jacobs (who had a big day with 14 carries for 87 yards while returning to his former role as the Giants’ number one back), continued on the first play of the fourth quarter with a 25-yard strike from Manning to Boss, to the Jaguars’ 29 yard-line.
Two plays later, Manning found Manningham up the left sideline on a 26-yard touchdown pass with 13:42 left in the game.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (9 carries, 49 yards while being relegated back to the Giants’ number two back after some earlier fumbling problems this season), then rushed for a two-point conversion to tie the game, 17-17.
Jacksonville came right back though, with a methodical 10-play, 42-yard drive that consumed 5:16. The drive ended with a 42-yard field goal by Scobee that regained the lead for the Jaguars, 20-17, with 8:26 remaining.
The teams then traded three-and-outs, setting the stage for the Giants’ game-winning, 6-play, 69-yard drive.
New York reached midfield on a Manning-to-Manningham 18-yard completion, and Jacobs ran 18 yards up the middle to the Jaguars’ 32 yard-line.
Three plays later, Manning completed a short pass in the left flat to Boss, who broke free for a 32-yard score, to give the Giants their only lead of the day, with 3:15 left.
The Jaguars had one last shot, and were able to move 44 yards on eight plays, to the New York 29 yard-line, but with the game on the line, the Giants came up with three of their four sacks on Jacksonville’s final three offensive plays.
With a first down at the New York 29 yard-line and 1:51 left on the clock (after a third-down defensive holding penalty by safety Aaaron Ross), safety Antrel Rolle and defensive end Justin Tuck combined on an 11-yard sack of Garrard.
Rookie defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul then forced a Garrard fumble, which Garrard recovered, but only after losing four yards.
And then, Thomas, as he did with Garrard’s interception, accounted for the quarterback’s other turnover by sacking Garrard on a blitz and forcing a fumble at the Jacksonville 44 yard-line that was recovered by Rolle, allowing New York to run out the clock.
The win allows the Giants to move back into a first-place tie in the NFC East one week after losing in Philadelphia (7-4), which lost in Chicago on Sunday (although, the Eagles by virtue of last week’s victory, currently hold the division tiebreaker over the Giants).
With their two-game skid halted, the Giants will try to further erase the memory of last season’s collapse when they host Washington (5-6) at 1pm EST next Sunday.