Sooner or later, rolling the dice in the fourth quarter was bound to catch up with the New York Giants, who rarely seem to make things easy on themselves, even when they are contending for – and even winning – Super Bowl titles.
After narrowly escaping with a couple of thrilling victories in the final moments of their previous two games, the defending Super Bowl champions’ luck finally ran out on Sunday, as the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3), who had been just 1-3 on the road this season, scored the last 14 points – all in the fourth quarter – to rally from a ten-point deficit and upset the Giants, 24-20, at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
New York (6-3) meanwhile, which was trying to win a fourth straight home game since a season opening home defeat to Dallas, lost for the first time in five games overall as wide receiver Mike Wallace (three catches, 66 yards, one touchdown) scored on a 51-yard reception early in the fourth quarter and running back Isaac Redman (26 carries, career-high 147 yards – 55 more than his previous career best on New Year’s Day last in last year’s regular season finale – one touchdown) capped a big day on a one-yard touchdown plunge for the winning score with 4:02 left.
Arriving in New Jersey just hours before the game, after their initial team hotel choice was without power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy last week, the Steelers overcame some earlier uncharacteristic sloppiness.
However, it was the Giants who made the first big mistake that helped the visitors.
After each team punted twice to start the game, quarterback Eli Manning (10-for-24, 115 yards, one interception, two sacks) completed a 26-yard pass to wide receiver Victor Cruz (five catches, 67 yards) to the Giants’ 41-yard line. Looking to go back to Cruz on the next play though, Manning was intercepted by corner back Ike Taylor at the Pittsburgh 39-yard line and the Steelers turned that Giant miscue into the game’s first score.
On the Steelers next possession, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (two catches, 20 yards, one touchdown) caught a four-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (21-for-30, 216 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, four sacks) to end an 11-play, 58-yard drive that took almost six minutes, as Pittsburgh grabbed a 7-0 lead 3:40 into the second quarter.
Catching a few breaks to tie the game on their possession, the Giants eventually went from being held scoreless and trailing by a touchdown, to leading by that much in a span of just four plays and 97 seconds.
Safety Keenan Lewis (two tackles, three pass deflections) was flagged for a 41-yard pass interference call at the Steelers’ 20-yard line on a Manning pass attempt down the middle to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (one catch, ten yards). Six plays later, safety Ryan Clark (team-high eight tackles, six solo) kept New York’s drive alive when he was whistled for a personal foul penalty on third-and-goal at the Pittsburgh two-yard line.
Running back Andre Brown (seven carries, 20 yards) evened the score, 7-7, with 7:06 left in the half, scoring from a yard out on the next play, although replays seemed to indicate he was short of the goal line. The play was reviewed but the initial call was upheld.
Four plays later, following a 50-yard kickoff return by running back Chris Rainey (one carry, four yards; five kick returns, 173 yards, 34.6 avg.) that had the Steelers in Giants’ territory, Roethlisberger’s arm was grabbed by defensive end Osi Umenyiora (seven tackles, five solo, one sack) for what was officially a sack, but appeared to be an incomplete pass as Roethlisberger’s arm continued forward with the ball still in his throwing hand.
What looked to be a very questionable ruling was the correct one as the ball slipped out of Roethlisberger’s hand for a fumble, and alert linebacker Michael Boley (game-high ten tackles, seven solo, one touchdown) scooped up the loose ball and raced 70 yards up the right side for a go-ahead touchdown that gave New York its first lead, 14-7, with 5:29 to go in the half. The play was the Giants’ 25th takeaway for 91 points, both of which lead the NFL this season.
Pittsburgh again moved into New York territory, but a 12-yard sack of Roethlisberger by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (eight tackles, six solo, one sack) on third-and-seven forced a Steelers punt.
Another pass interference call on Lewis, this time, for 46 yards, on wide receiver Domenik Hixon (no catches), set the Giants up to try a 51-yard field goal by kicker Lawrence Tynes (two field goals in three tries), but the kick came up just short.
The middle of New York’s defense then suddenly opened up, allowing consecutive completions by Roethlisberger of 24 yards to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (four catches, fifty yards) and 23 yards to tight end Heath Miller (four catches, 48 yards). That allowed kicker Shaun Suisham (one made field goal on his only try) to get Pittsburgh to within 14-10 on a 30-yard goal as the half expired.
Rainey followed up his earlier big return with an even bigger one, for 68 yards, but a sack by defensive end Justin Tuck (five tackles, three solo, two sacks) resulted in another punt for the Steelers.
Backed up at their own seven-yard line, the Giants moved quickly on two runs totaling 13 yards by running back Ahmad Bradshaw (15 carries, 48 yards) and a 33-yard completion from Manning to tight end Martellus Bennett (three catches, 40 yards), just into Pittsburgh territory.
Tynes booted a 50-yard field goal six plays later to extend New York’s lead to 17-10 with 8:25 remaining in the third quarter.
Just three plays after that, Roethlisberger tried to force a pass to Wallace, but corner back Corey Webster (two tackles, both solo, one interception) stepped in front of Wallace for an interception, and returned the ball seven yards to the Steelers’ 33-yard line.
Wasting a golden opportunity that would later come back to contribute to losing the game in the final moments, the Giants, who have far too often this season, settled for field goals over touchdowns which have been there for the taking, got as far as the Pittsburgh two-yard line, but managed only a 23-yard field goal by Tynes, to lead 20-10 with 1:32 left in the period.
Although New York missed its chance to take more of a commanding lead, the Giants seemed to still have control of the game, until five plays later – two plays into the final quarter – when Wallace appeared to simply have a first down reception over the middle, near midfield. Instead, the speedy receiver shed a tackle and broke toward the left sideline, where he bolted up the left side for a stunning score that instantly propelled his team back into the game, as the Steelers had trimmed their deficit to just 20-17 with 14:05 left in the game.
A New York three-and-out ensued and then it was Sanders’ turn to burn the Giants’ special teams with a 63-yard punt return to the New York 12-yard line.
The Giants’ defense held, but rather than opt for a chip shot game-tying field goal attempt, Pittsburgh had Suisham run on a fourth-down fake – one that didn’t fool corner back Michael Coe, who picked a great time to make his only tackle of the game, taking down Suisham to give New York the ball.
But, going three-and-out for the second of three times to end the game, the Giants gave the ball back to the Steelers, who next time, wouldn’t need any trickery to win the game.
With a nice mix of running and passing, Pittsburgh went 51 yards on nine plays in 4:53 to allow Redman to put the Steelers back on top for good.
Unable to do anything on its final drive, New York punted, but with 2:52 on the clock and three time outs still remaining, the Giants’ defense couldn’t get the ball back for one of the league’s most clutch quarterbacks to have another attempt at stealing a win.
Roethlisberger made sure of that with a 16-yard completion to Sanders on third-and-nine, allowing the Pittsburgh quarterback to call his own number and take straight three kneels to run out the clock.
Next week, the Giants will remain in the AFC North, but will do so by hitting the road, when they travel to play the Cincinnati Bengals, who after matching New York’s 3-1 start, have lost four straight games.