It was all right there for the New York Giants – a chance to avenge a painful home loss from last year, an opportunity to dismiss questions about another second-half swoon, and the prospect of effectively ending the playoff hopes of a hated division rival.
But, once again, New York’s nemesis came into the Meadowlands and ruined the Giants’ night, even without its starting quarterback (Michael Vick) and leading wide receiver (Jeremy Maclin), in a physical, sometimes chippy divisional matchup.
This time, the Philadelphia Eagles (4-6) found a brand new way to torment the Giants (6-4), with the help of a backup quarterback (Vince Young) who hadn’t completed a pass this season, capping a masterful game-winning drive with a touchdown pass to a wide receiver (Riley Cooper) who hadn’t caught a pass this year, and a defense that finally sealed a close win after giving several earlier games away in the fourth quarter.
Young (23-36, 258 yards, 2 TD), a former first-round starter for Tennessee, relegated to a backup in Philadelphia this year, overcame three interceptions in his first start of the season to lead the Eagles’ longest drive in nine years – a brilliant 18-play, 80-yard march that featured six third-down conversions, consumed 8:51, and ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Young to Riley (5 catches, 75 yards, 1 TD) with 2:45 left, to beat the Giants, 17-10, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on Sunday night.
With neither team able to establish much of a running game, each team struggled to throw the ball for most of the game, until the Eagles’ game-deciding drive.
Each squad punted three times and was intercepted on its second possession in the opening quarter before Philadelphia broke the ice on a nine-play, 56-yard drive, to lead, 3-0, on a 33-yard field goal by kicker Alex Henry, with 11:31 left in the first half. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson (6 catches, 88 yards) moved the ball to the Giants’ 38-yard line with a 32-yard reception on the third play of the drive.
Young’s first interception was made by rookie first-round pick, cornerback Prince Amukamara (5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 pass deflection), who was finally playing in his first game after being out with a broken foot since the preseason. Amukamara stumbled after being beaten by Jackson, but he recovered on an underthrown ball by Young, to make the pick.
On the Eagles’ next drive after Henry’s field goal, safety Kenny Phillips (3 tackles, 1 INT) intercepted Young off of a high deflection after cornerback Aaron Ross (5 tackles) timed the breakup of a pass to tight end Clay Harbor with his right hand, but got away with his left hand being placed on Harbor’s back too soon.
The Giants lost 12 yards though, going three-and-out for the third of four straight times. In all, New York went three-and-out seven times, including six in the first half, in a game that featured 15 punts (nine by the Giants) and five turnovers (three by the Eagles).
Late in the half, Jackson, who beat New York on a punt return for a touchdown last season at the Meadowlands, nearly scored again, taking a punt back 51 yards, barely stepping out of bounds on the Giants’ 14-yard line.
Ex-Giant wide receiver Steve Smith, let go by New York in the offseason despite holding a Giants franchise record for most catches in a season (107, in 2009), made his only catch of the game, reeling in a 14-yard pass from Young for his first score of the season, to extend the Eagles’ lead to 10-0, with 1:22 left in the half.
On its next possession, New York was finally able to move the ball, getting more yards (50) and more first downs (3) on its final drive of the half than the Giants had on their previous seven possessions combined (during which New York had just two first downs and amassed just 36 total yards on its first 23 plays).
Quarterback Eli Manning (18-35, 264 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 fumble) threw seven straight times, completing five passes, to set up a 48-yard field goal by kicker Lawrence Tynes that brought New York to within 10-3 as time expired in the half.
Manning’s final completion on the drive, for ten yards to running back Danny Ware, resulted in Ware taking a hard shot and leaving the game with a concussion. That put an even further drain on the Giants’ running game, which was already without its top rusher, Ahmad Bradshaw, who was sitting out his third straight game with a foot injury. The rushing load was left primarily to running back Brandon Jacobs (12 carries, just 21 yards), who was ineffective against a Philadelphia defense that held New York to just 29 yards on 17 carries.
Jackson caught a 29-yard pass to highlight a five-play, 58-yard Philadelphia drive on the Eagles’ second possession of the third quarter, but Ross had Cooper covered perfectly on a fade route to the far left corner of the end zone to grab Young’s third pick of the game and secure the Eagles’ league-leading eighth red zone turnover of season.
That simply resulted in another New York punt, however.
Aided by a non-call, the Giants finally got in the end zone though, going to a no-huddle offense on their next possession.
New York struck quickly, moving 73 yards on five plays, in just 1:41, to tie the game, 10-10, on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Manning to wide receiver Victor Cruz (6 catches, 128 yards, 1 TD).
The score was set up by a 47-yard completion to Manning, who did well to make something out of nothing, rolling to his right, before connecting with wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (3 catches, 69 yards) up the right sideline. That play was made possible however, by the officials missing offensive tackle Will Beatty getting away with a slight arm hook to keep defensive end Trent Cole off of Manning.
While Manning hoped to get the ball back soon again, to lead yet another of several fourth-quarter comebacks this season, it was Young – entering the game with 40 percent of his career wins coming on fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives – who kept the ball out of Manning’s hands.
Young rushed for one third-down conversion and passed for four others, including a 3rd-and-8 completion to a wide open Riley in the end zone to close the scoring.
New York attempted one last-ditch drive in the closing moments, as Manning completed to Nicks for 17 yards and then to Cruz for 47 yards, to the Eagles’ 21-yard line with 1:17 remaining.
However, flushed from the pocket, Manning stepped up and didn’t see defensive end Jason Babin, who hit Manning from behind causing a fumble. Defensive tackle Derek Landri recovered the loose ball for the Eagles, who were able to run out the clock after a 60-yard run on 2nd-and-3 by running back LeSean McCoy (23 carries, 113 yards), who had been kept in check before that play. The run gave McCoy 1,019 yards for the year, making him the first Eagle ever to reach the 1,000-yard mark within the first ten games of a season.
The ending was of particular surprise considering the Eagles’ failures and the Giants’ successes in the fourth quarter this season.
Five of Philadelphia’s six losses had been the result of blown fourth-quarter leads. Meanwhile, the Giants played in their eighth consecutive game decided in the fourth quarter. New York had won five of six such contests, but has now lost its last two.
It was a must win for the Eagles, who would lost the season series to New York and fallen four games behind the Giants in the NFC East with six weeks to play in the regular season.
Instead, the Giants’ loss drops them into a first-place tie with the Dallas Cowboys (6-4), with the talented-but-underachieving Eagles lurking just two games back, with Philadelphia (3-1) and Dallas (2-1) each having a better division record than New York (1-2). The Giants and Cowboys will play each other twice in the final four weeks of the regular season, and the Eagles and Cowboys have one more meeting, with Philadelphia having already beaten Dallas once this season.
That’s not the only reason this defeat stings a little extra for New York.
Last year, the Giants led the Eagles 31-10 with half a quarter left, in the same building, in Week 15. A New York win would have locked up the NFC East title and a two seed in the NFC playoffs. But, the Eagles stormed back with the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history, to win 38-31 on a punt return for a touchdown by the Jackson as time expired. That loss ultimately cost the Giants a playoff berth and allowed the Eagles to win the NFC East.
And, then there are the larger collapses that go well beyond a single game. New York has finished with a worse record in the second half of the regular season relative to the first half in each of head coach Tom Coughlin’s first seven seasons in New York, going an average of 2.6 games worse in the second half compared to the first half over that time.
The Giants will of course swear that this year is a different season and the past means nothing.
But, two weeks ago, New York concluded the first half of this season at 6-2, on a three-game winning streak, and has since started the second half 0-2.
With an apparent tough schedule continuing through the end of New York’s 2011 regular season, this year’s second half is off to a start that is dangerously reminiscent of the Giants’ previous second-half struggles under Coughlin, who was coaching his 250th game on Sunday night.
The tough road ahead for New York winds its way through Manning’s hometown next week, when the Giants pay a visit to the Superdome to play the first-place New Orleans Saints (7-3), who will look to go 5-0 at home this year on Monday Night Football, at 8:30 pm ET.