Maybe it was the rust caused by all of the unexpected precipitation from Saturday’s unseasonable noreaster, or perhaps, it was just the extra week off.
Whatever it was, the New York Giants once again found themselves in a familiar place they didn’t want to be in – struggling against what was supposed to be an inferior opponent.
More than they’ve been comfortable with doing, the Giants have routinely taken games to the wire this year, especially against lesser teams.
Fortunately for the Giants, they’ve usually made a habit of winning those games.
Sunday’s contest against the Miami Dolphins (0-7) continued that trend, as well-rested New York (5-2) entered off its bye week as a ten-point favorite, spotted their winless visitors a surprising 14-3 first-half lead, and shook off the rust to score the final ten points in the fourth quarter to rally for a 20-17 win at MetLife Stadium.
Four New York sacks in the final period stopped a Miami offense that was held without a first down in the fourth quarter after that unit did some early damage against the Giants’ defense in the opening half.
But, it was primarily the extremely sharp passing of quarterback Eli Manning (31-45, 349 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 1 sack) that lifted New York to yet another late, nail biting victory, as Manning’s game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Victor Cruz (7 catches, 99 yards, 1 TD) with under six minutes left gave the Giants their only lead of the game.
For a first-place (NFC East) team often living on the edge against a schedule that has featured just one team (Buffalo) with a winning record thus far, it was the fifth straight game involving the Giants in which the decisive score came in the final nine minutes. Luckily for New York, the Giants have found ways to win four of those games.
Once again however, New York had to live through some earlier tense moments before eking out another close victory, as the Dolphins stopped the Giants in Miami territory and put together a pair of long scoring drives to start the game.
After Miami deferred the opening kickoff, New York moved 51 yards but turned the ball over on downs when Manning threw too deep in the end zone on 4th-and-9 from the Miami 34-yard line.
Perhaps head coach Tom Coughlin felt it was too long to try a field goal and too short to punt. Or, maybe he didn’t have enough respect for the Dolphins, who were ranked just 28th in the NFL with 15 points per game.
Either way, Miami took immediate advantage of New York failing on fourth down, as the Dolphins drove 66 yards on ten plays in 5:56 to lead 7-0 on a one-yard touchdown plunge by running back Steve Slaton (5 carries, 7 yards, 1 TD) with 4:10 left in the first quarter.
During the drive, quarterback Matt Moore (13-22, 138 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 5 sacks) reminded New York of when he helped Carolina play the spoiler role to perfection in costing the Giants a playoff berth in New York’s final game at Giants Stadium in 2009.
Moore (5 carries, 31 yards) scrambled up the middle on a career-long rush of 16 yards and completed a pass to running back Charles Clay (his only catch) on the next play, for another 16 yards to the Giants’ 17-yard line, to set up Slaton’s score three plays later.
The Giants (who became the fourth team in NFL history to play a 1,200th regular season game) responded with a 7-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a 25-yard field goal by kicker Lawrence Tynes that cut Miami’s lead to 7-3 with 17 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (13 carries, 50 yards), who left with an injury at the end of the third quarter before returning in the fourth period, started the drive with an 18-yard run to the Dolphins’ 45 yard-line, but that was a rare bright spot in a Giants’ ground game that was outgained 145-58.
Allowing the big play, which has too often plagued the Giants’ defense this season, hurt New York again, as a 35-yard rush by running back Reggie Bush (15 carries, 103 yards) to the Giants’ 7-yard line (and a late hit out of bounds tacking on another four yards) followed an 11-yard run on 3rd-and-6 by Moore, who finished off the drive on an untouched one-yard bootleg touchdown run to the right, to give Miami it’s largest advantage of the game, 14-3, with 9:37 to go before halftime. The score capped the game’s longest drive (90 yards on 12 plays).
The teams then traded six-play, 13-yard drives that each ended in punts before New York embarked on its longest drive of the game, going 84 yards on 13 plays to get to within 14-10 on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Manning to wide receiver Mario Manningham (6 catches, 63 yards, 1 TD), who was led nicely by Manning to the far left corner of the end zone on a fade route. Tynes’ extra-point after the score gave him a team-record with his 134th consecutive PAT.
Miami recorded its only sack of Manning to start that drive, but Manning then completed 9 of 10 passes for 77 yards, including the scoring pass to Manningham.
The Dolphins extended their lead to 17-10 on the opening drive of the second half, moving 58 yards on seven plays – including consecutive runs of 28 and 13 yards by Bush – for 40-yard field goal by kicker Dan Carpenter 2:43 into the third quarter.
Each team then punted on their next two possessions before the Giants inched closer on their second-longest drive of the game, spanning the third and fourth quarters.
Backed up at the Giants’ 12-yard line, Manning connected with wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (6 catches, 67 yards before leaving with a hamstring injury later in the quarter) for 13 yards and some breathing room to the New York 26-yard line. Nicks will undergo an MRI on Monday.
Manning started the fourth quarter with a 26-yard strike down the middle to Cruz, to move to the Miami 47-yard line.
Three plays later, Manning (who had his fourth gave of the season without an interception after throwing 25 last year) converted a key 3rd-and-3 play, by rolling right and passing to tight end Jake Ballard (4 catches, 55 yards) for an 18-yard gain to the Dolphins’ 18-yard line.
That led to a 29-yard field goal by Tynes that pulled New York to within 17-13 with 10:37 left in the game.
Miami meanwhile, totaled minus-6 yards on three fourth-quarter possessions, losing 17 yards on the first two of those drives.
While that sounds impressive for the Giants’ defense, New York got some help from a friendly whistle in a key spot. Moore completed a 26-yard pass to wide receiver Brandon Marshall (4 catches, 55 yards) to the Giants’ 47-yard line, but Marshall was flagged for a questionable offensive pass interference call. Marshall leaped over safety Kenny Phillips to make the catch after barely putting his left hand on the back of Phillips in a very slight way that is usually not flagged.
Still, the Giants’ defense largely bottled up the Dolphins’ offense late, letting Manning lead New York on its game-winning drive of 53 yards on six plays in just 2:30.
A 17-yard completion to Nicks moved the Giants into field goal range, but Manning was looking for more than just three points, and three plays later, he hit Cruz over the middle again.
Cruz caught the ball at the Miami 6-yard line and made a nifty move to elude a tackle and get into the end zone on a 25-yard touchdown completion that closed the scoring with 5:58 remaining.
Before the Giants could notch their second straight win though, their defense still had to make some stops.
Following a 42-yard kickoff return to the Dolphins’ 45-yard line by Slaton, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (2 tackles, 1 sack) dropped Moore for a 10-yard loss on first down.
Two plays later, defensive end Justin Tuck (returning after sitting out four games with an injury) and linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (4 tackles, 1.5 sacks) combined on another ten-yard sack of Moore, forcing a Miami punt.
The Giants then punted and once again, New York’s pass rush went to work.
Moore (who began 10 of 13 before going 1 of his next 6) completed a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Davone Bess (3 catches, 43 yards) to the Dolphins’ 40-yard line, but the Giants sacked Moore on each of the next two plays, with defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Kiwanuka getting to the Dolphins’ battered quarterback.
Two plays later, on 4th-and-23, with the game about to become only the league’s fifth without a turnover this season, cornerback Corey Webster (3 tackles, 2 pass deflections, 1 INT) stepped in front of Marshall to intercept Moore with 1:44 remaining.
That ended the game with Miami having already burned all three of its second-half timeouts.
With the unexpected occurring seemingly every week in the NFL, the Giants will of course gladly take the win in an unpredictable NFL – especially on a day when first-place (NFC South) New Orleans followed a 62-7 win last week with a 24-0 deficit and ten-point loss at previously winless St. Louis, which was coming off a 34-7 loss a week ago, and when 5-2 Baltimore needed the largest comeback in its history (from 21 points down) to beat 1-6 Arizona at home.
And, schedules on paper in the NFL sometimes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, when trying to predict schedule degree of difficulty.
Yet, it still figures that the Giants will have to raise their game over the next several weeks to maintain something resembling their current solid position as the clear leaders in a division in which every other NFC East team is presently 3-4 and two games behind New York, one game prior to the mid-point of the regular season.
That’s something that the Giants have curiously been able to do under Coughlin, who admitted, “We have to play better and we talked about this all week. We wanted to ascend and play better than we played two weeks ago today. We did that, parts of it perhaps, but certainly not the whole body of work.”
As in past years under Coughlin, New York has appeared to play down to a lower-level of competition while winning this season. But, the Giants under Coughlin, have similarly risen to the occasion against superior opponents over Coughlin’s previous seven years in New York
Whether this year’s Giants have played down to their schedule to this point, or whether they simply might not be good enough to be serious Super Bowl contenders, remains to be seen. But, that’s something the Giants are well aware of as they prepare to play four first-place teams over the next five weeks, beginning with a trip to New England (5-2) at 4:15 pm next Sunday.
“Obviously, our schedule gets tougher,” said Tuck. “We’ll see where we are real soon here.”