A 7-7 start while the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers were soaring to the NFC’s top seed with just a single loss?
The New York Giants had the NFL’s best team right where they wanted them.
Going from late-season mediocrity to surprisingly appearing in championship games is becoming a habit for the Giants.
Four years after taking down the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, fourth-seeded New York (11-7) stormed into historic Lambeau Field and left with an impressive 37-20 victory over Green Bay (15-2) to earn a trip to next week’s NFC title game in San Francisco.
In 2007, the Giants were known as road warriors. On Sunday, they became the first team to win in Green Bay this season, and the only one to triumph away from home in eight NFL postseason games this year.
Complementing a big first half from quarterback Eli Manning and a career-high 165 receiving yards (on seven catches) from wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (who also had two scores, including a sensational desperation touchdown grab to end the opening half), New York sacked MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers four times, forced four turnovers, and sufficiently covered Rodgers’ dangerous receiving weapons to take a 20-10 halftime lead and pull away late in the final quarter.
The last of those winning ingredients was the biggest surprise as the Giants’ secondary had been the team’s most glaring weakness. However, of the nine Packer receivers who made receptions, and of the 11 whom Rodgers (24-46, 264 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 lost fumble) targeted, none had more than four catches or more than 45 yards receiving.
In contrast, Manning (21-33, 330, 3 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack) nearly passed for as many yards in the first half as he did in last week’s wild-card playoff win over Atlanta.
Manning threw for 277 yards in that game, and just three fewer (while completing 14 of 24 passes) before halftime on Sunday, as he made the Green Bay pay for not respecting the Giants’ offense (Green Bay deferred the opening kickoff and later attempted an onside kick with the score tied early in the second quarter).
The first sign that the Packers’ pass defense (which allowed the most passing yards in NFL history during the regular season) was in trouble in the first half came on the third play of the game, when Manning completed a 3rd-and-8 pass for 19 yards to wide receiver Mario Manningham (3 catches, 31 yards, 1 TD) and a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Victor Cruz (5 catches, 74 yards) on the following play.
That game-opening drive stalled when Manning had a chance to run for a first down on 3rd-and-5 from the Packers’ 13-yard line, but instead threw incomplete to the left. Still, going 67 yards on 13 plays, the Giants kept Rodgers off of the field for 6:27 while taking a 3-0 lead on a 31-yard field goal by kicker Lawrence Tynes with 8:33 left in the period.
The Packers answered with a field goal on their first drive, as Rodgers directed an eight-play, 50-yard drive in three minutes, but he overthrew open wide receiver Greg Jennings (4 catches, 40 yards) at the New York 5-yard line, forcing Green Bay to settle for a 47-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby, to tie the game, 3-3, with 5:33 left in the quarter.
Two plays later, Manning connected with Nicks for a 15-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 before going right back to Nicks on the next play for the game’s first touchdown, as Nicks bounced off of safety Charlie Peprah (team-high 9 tackles) at midfield, as he turned to his right. Nicks then spun to his left and streaked past the Packers’ secondary for a 66-yard score to give the Giants a 10-3 lead with 3:47 to go in the period.
Tynes booted the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, to give the Packers a short field and allow them to start their next possession at their own 40-yard line. Green Bay soon took advantage of both that and a huge break on a blown instant replay review.
A nine-play, 60-yard trip was aided by a play that should have resulted in a Packer turnover on the fifth play of the drive when New York safety Deon Grant (6 tackles, 2 PD), who later left the game with a concussion, stripped Jennings, leading to an apparent fumble recovery by the Giants.
The initial down-by-contact ruling was incorrectly upheld and four plays later, Rodgers tied the game, 10-10, on an eight-yard touchdown pass to fullback John Kuhn (his only catch) with 14:54 left in first half.
Green Bay tried to get the ball right back on an ensuing onside kick, but Derrick Martin recovered the ball for New York at the Packers’ 41-yard line.
Two completions by Manning moved the ball to the Green Bay 21-yard line, but Manning threw incomplete on 3rd-and-2 and Tynes had a 40-yard field goal attempt blocked.
Rodgers moved the Packers into Giants’ territory, but tight end Tom Crabtree dropped a sure first down reception on third down (one of seven Green Bay drops) and the Packers punted.
The Giants then drove 58 yards to the Packers’ 34-yard line, but linebacker Desmond Bishop (5 tackles, 2 PD) hit Manning as he threw, to force an interception by safety Morgan Burnett (4 tackles, 2 PD).
Four plays later though, Kuhn had the ball punched out on a two-yard, first-down carry. Safety Antrel Rolle (8 tackles, 1 PD) recovered the ball at the Green Bay 43-yard line and returned it nine yards to set up New York’s next score.
Nicks caught a 29-yard pass on the next play, but the Giants could only manage a 23-yard field goal by Tynes for a 13-10 lead with 1:51 to go in the half.
Instead of being content to go into the locker room with a lead, the underdog Giants attacked.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw (3 catches, 21 yards; 12 carries, 63 yards) caught a nine-yard pass on the first play of the drive, and a couple plays later, he ran left and then cut back across to the right and out of bounds to stop the clock after a 23-yard gain to the Packers’ 37-yard line.
With no time outs and only six seconds left – time for just one last play – New York passed up a 54-yard field goal attempt for one of the biggest and most exciting plays of the Giants’ season, as Manning completed a desperation heave to Nicks on the final play of the half.
The play was so well executed that it seemed more like a regular pass downfield instead of a last-second prayer, with Manning putting the ball in the end zone and Nicks out-jumping two Packer defenders to come down with a miraculous touchdown reception that gave New York a 20-10 lead as time expired to end the half.
While Manning looked comfortable in making the pass, he admitted that it was a new type of play for him to make.
“I never had one [like that] completed before… not that I can remember,” he said.
It was the same for Nicks. “First time,” he said, with a smile.
Momentum changed in the third quarter as the Packers controlled the ball for 11:11 to the Giants’ 3:49 and outgained New York 116-14, but they only cut into their deficit by three points thanks to another turnover and a stopped drive that extended into the final period.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (2 sacks) sacked Rodgers, causing a fumble that was recovered by Grant at the Giants’ 37-yard line, to end a drive that featured completions by Rodgers of 14, 15, and 16 yards.
The first of two straight three-and-outs by the Giants followed, leading to a ten-play, 63-yard Packer drive that ended with a 35-yard field goal by Crosby to trim New York’s lead to 20-13 with 3:50 left in the quarter.
Running back James Starks (6 carries, 43 yards) highlighted the trip with a key 29-yard run, however that play was the first of only two gains of at least 20 yards for the normally big-play Packers who were led on the ground by Rodgers (7 carries, 66 yards).
On their next possession, the Packers went 31 yards on eight plays to the Giants’ 39-yard line, but Rodgers led tight end Jermichael Finley (4 catches, 37 yards) a little too much on a 3rd-and-5 pass over the middle that deflected off of Finley’s outstretched right hand as he dove in vain for a ball that was barely out of his reach.
Linebacker Michael Boley (team-leading nine tackles, 1 PD) then got a chance to mock Rodgers’ well-known championship title belt gesture after the second of his two sacks came on fourth down to end a Green Bay scoring threat.
From there, New York methodically drove 38 yards on ten plays for a 35-yard field goal by Tynes that gave the Giants a 23-13 lead with 7:48 left in the game.
Two plays later, ex-Giant running back Ryan Grant (8 carries, 33 yards; 3 catches, 17 yards) caught a short pass to the left, but safety Kenny Philips (4 tackles, 1 PD, 1 FF) punched the ball loose as Grant was on his way down, and alert linebacker Chase Blackburn (4 tackles, 1 FR) scooped up the loose ball and returned it 40 yards to the Packers’ 4-yard line.
Manningham caught 4-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone from Manning on the next play to extend the Giants’ lead to 30-13 just a minute after their previous score.
Keeping the ball solely in the air, the Packers struck back just 2:02 later, as Rodgers capped an eight-play, 76-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Donald Driver (3 catches, 45 yards, 1 TD) – who reached 49 postseason catches to set a franchise record – to pull Green Bay to within 30-20 with 4:46 remaining.
Another onside kick went past the first wave but was recovered by Cruz, leading to a six-play, 50-yard trip that featured a brilliant 24-yard run by Bradshaw (who went left and then reversed his field to go right, across the field) and ended with a 14-yard touchdown run by running back Brandon Jacobs (9 catches, 22 yards) to close the scoring with 2:36 left.
New York’s win ended Green Bay’s 13-game home winning streak, as the Packers hadn’t lost on their own field since an overtime loss to Miami on October 17th of last year.
Ironically, the Giants have for the time being, suddenly taken over the role of the last year’s Packers, who went from an 8-6 record to an unlikely Super Bowl title.
It was a Week 16 win on the same field over New York last season that started a season-ending, six-game winning streak for Green Bay last year.
That turned into a 19-game winning streak this season, and ultimately a stretch of 21 wins in 22 games until the Packers’ defeat on Sunday.
One of those victories this season was a 38-35 road win over the Giants (as time expired), which moved the Packers’ record to 13-0. It was a confidence-building, close defeat that dropped New York’s record to 6-6 at the time.
The Giants knew after that game however, that they were capable of beating the Packers if they were to meet in the postseason, much like they their loss by the same score to New England in New York’s 2007 regular season finale gave New York the self-assurance it needed to spark the Giants’ Super Bowl title run four years ago.
Although next week’s NFC title game at second-seeded San Francisco (14-3) will be another tough challenge, it’s certainly one the Giants (who are installed as early three-point underdogs), will be confident they can win after beating the league’s best team on its home field.
Defensive end Justin Tuck (1 tackle) said, “We know how to win on the road. We know what it takes.”
Two more wins, and the Giants will also once again prove that they know what it takes to come from nowhere to win NFL titles.
Jon Wagner also writes for the Giants Football Blog.