Trailing by two touchdowns less than five minutes into the game, the New York Giants had the Cleveland Browns right where they wanted them.
For the second time in as many home games, the explosive Giants (3-2) stormed back from a surprising and sizable first-half deficit against an inferior opponent, with a 41-point outburst.
Three weeks ago, New York overcame a 17-6 second-quarter hole to beat Tampa Bay (1-3) in a 41-34 shootout.
On the same field on Sunday, the Giants spotted the Browns (0-5) a 14-0 lead before they got their initial first down without the help of a penalty. But, on a milestone-filled day, wide receiver Victor Cruz (five catches, 50 yards) caught a career-high three touchdown passes and running back Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for a career-best 200 yards on 30 carries to lead New York to a 41-27 victory before 79,911 fans at MetLife Stadium.
The favorite target of quarterback Eli Manning (25-for-37, 259 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) though, was rookie wide receiver Rueben Randle. The second-round draft pick, who after entering the game with just a single career reception, led all receivers with a game-high six catches for a game-high-tying 82 yards to help head coach Tom Coughlin tie Giants legend Bill Parcells for second place on the franchise’s all-time list with 77 regular season victories with New York.
Cleveland reached a few landmark numbers as well, but with very mixed results. While third overall draft pick, running back Trent Richardson (17 carries, 81 yards, one touchdown), became the first rookie in team history to score a touchdown in a fourth consecutive game, the Browns matched a club record by losing for an 11th straight time (dating back to last season) and dropped their first five games of a season for the first time since returning to the NFL in 1999 (after the original Browns left Cleveland to become the current Baltimore Ravens).
Things actually looked much better for the Browns at first, as they scored on their first three possessions while the Giants had a turnover and punted the first couple of times they touched the ball.
That didn’t last long however, as Cleveland only managed two more scoring drives while punting three times and getting intercepted twice over its final seven possessions. Meanwhile, New York bounced back from its slow start to score on six trips in a row and on seven of their final nine, as the Giants scored 41 of the game’s next 47 points after the Browns’ early lead.
Similarly, Bradshaw’s big rushing day came after a bad beginning, as he lost a fumble on the first play from scrimmage when the right shoulder pad of Coughlin’ in-in-law, offensive lineman Chris Snee, knocked the ball loose. Richardson ran for seven yards on the next play and for a 15-yard touchdown on the play after that, to give the Browns a 7-0 advantage just 52 seconds into the game.
A defensive pass interference call gave New York a first down on its next possession, but that drive ended with a punt, and five plays later, rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden (22-for-35, 291 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), a first-round pick who will turn 29 next week, threw a touchdown 62-yard strike to fellow rookie, wide receiver Josh Gordon (a second-round pick), to extend Cleveland’s lead to 14-0 just 4:57 into the game. Gordon caught just two passes, but had 82 receiving yards and the first two touchdown receptions of his NFL career.
Helped by a 14-yard defensive pass interference penalty drawn by Randle, and then consecutive completions of 12 and 11 yards from Manning to Randle, the Giants cut the Browns’ lead in half, marching 92 yards on 11 plays in 6:41, scoring on a three-yards touchdown throw from Manning to Cruz, with 3:22 left in the opening quarter.
The Browns answered with a ten-play, 50-yard drive and a 32-yard field goal by kicker Phil Dawson, to push their lead to 17-7, just 1:21 into the second period, but New York, the NFC’s highest scoring teams with 152 points, capitalized on Cleveland’s self-destructing carelessness to score 20 points over the last 6:46 of the quarter, including 17 points in the final 2:52 of the half.
Kicker Lawrence Tynes capped a 14-play, 68-yard drive that consumed 6:53, with a 29-yard field goal to get the Giants to within 17-10, and three plays after a 38-yard completion by Weeden to the New York 34-yard line, Weeden badly overthrew Gordon, and was picked off by safety Steve Brown, who returned the ball 46 yards to the Browns’ 40-yard line.
Manning connected with Randle for 36 yards up the left sideline on the next play, and one play after that, Bradshaw tied the game with a four-yard touchdown run, after which he emphatically leaped and spiked the ball in the back of the end zone.
The display of emotion typified the way Bradshaw ran for the rest of game after his earlier costly miscue, as his rushing prowess helped his team control the ball for nearly 11 minutes more than the Cleveland.
“I was angry at myself for the fumble and I just used it,” Bradshaw said. “I was disappointed with the fumble, but you put it out of your mind. I knew I was cool. We knew the running game was there, we were confident.”
Safety Will Hill forced a fumble by Josh Cribbs on the ensuing kickoff following Bradshaw’s score, and Brown, just moments after setting the Giants up for a game-tying touchdown, put New York in position to take the lead for good by recovering the loose ball.
Five plays later, Manning found Cruz for a seven-yard score that gave the Giants their first lead, 24-17, with 1:10 left in the half.
Forcing a punt and using two of their time outs, New York took over at its own 42-yard line and following a 12-yard run by Bradshaw, Randle drew another pass interference call, albeit a very questionable one, for 24 yards, allowing Tynes to end the half on a 40-yard field goal that increased the Giants’ lead to 27-17 at halftime.
Punting on their opening possession of the second half, the Browns pinned New York at its own 5-yard line, but Bradshaw broke free on a 37-yard run up the left side, to the Cleveland 40-yard line. Four plays after that, Manning ended a nine-play, 95-yard drive with a 28-yard touchdown up the right side to Cruz, for a 34-17 Giants’ lead with 5:06 left in the quarter.
At that point, Cruz was the league’s only player to have recorded three receiving touchdowns in a game this season, until wide receiver Marques Colston later broke the New Orleans Saints’ franchise record for career receiving touchdowns with a three-touchdown night of his own.
Following Cruz’s final touchdown of the day, Cribbs redeemed himself for his earlier fumble with a 74-yard kickoff return, but the Browns were forced to settle for a 41-yard field goal by Dawson, to trial 34-20 with 3:27 remaining in the period.
The teams then traded punt before a couple of bizarre plays led to an interception for each team.
First, Manning went deep up the left side for Cruz, who was interfered with by cornerback Sheldon Brown, although no penalty was called. With Brown’s arm draped across Cruz’s arms too early, the ball popped up in the air off of Cruz’s hands and into the arms of safety Usama Young, who brought the ball back 44 yards to the New York 27-yard line on the third play of the fourth quarter.
Richardson caught a fourth-and-three pass from Weeden for ten yards to the Giants’ ten-yard line, but on third-and-five from the New York five-yard line, Weeden fired a pass into the facemask of defensive end Justin Tuck and caught the ball.
Not realizing the rule against throwing another pass on the same play in that case, Weeden completed a second throw in the end zone, but whistled for an illegal forward pass, and on third-and-ten, he was intercepted in the end zone by linebacker Chase Blackburn.
Bradshaw ran for 28 yards to midfield just two plays later, and three plays after that, rookie first round pick, running back David Wilson, who carried just twice, put the game out of reach with a 40-yard run for his first NFL touchdown, putting the Giants up 41-20 with 5:41 to go.
Weeden led the Browns 76 yards on seven plays, in just 1:45, and threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Gordon, to cut New York’s lead to 41-27 with 3:56 remaining, but Hill recovered an onside kick and Cleveland never touched the ball again.
With New Orleans’ home win over San Diego on Sunday night, the Browns remain the league’s only winless team, and with Philadelphia and Washington both losing on Sunday afternoon, the Giants moved into a first-place tie with Philadelphia atop the NFC East, a half-game ahead of idle Dallas and one game in front of Washington.
Next up for the defending Super Bowl champion Giants is a trip to San Francisco, the site of New York’s NFC title game victory last year, after Big Blue had lost there in the regular season, ten weeks earlier. Kickoff between the Giants and the San Francisco 49ers (4-1) is scheduled for 4:25pm ET.
Note: The son of Giants’ star defensive end Osi Umenyiora was hospitalized with an asthma attack on Sunday, but was later released from the hospital.