After enduring yet another second half swoon under head coach Tom Coughlin, the New York Giants finally put forth the type of effort in their regular season finale that might have given them a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions, had they only played with a similar sense of urgency more often this season.
Instead, a 42-7 dismantling of the lowly Philadelphia Eagles (4-12) at MetLife Stadium on Sunday left the Giants (9-7) with a solid 6-2 home record, but out of the NFC playoffs.
Needing a win and bunch of help to reach the postseason, New York thoroughly took care of its own business, scoring a touchdown on its first four possessions and on all but one if its six first-half drives while building leads of 21-0 after the opening quarter and 35-7 by halftime.
Because of too many missed chances earlier in the year however, the Giants were in the position of needing a trio of fellow NFC playoff contenders – the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys – to all lose on the final day of the regular season to have New York’s win on the same day mean anything more than salvaging a little bit of pride.
Only the last team in that group complied, as Chicago and Minnesota gutted out narrow victories to end the Giants’ postseason hopes.
Quarterback Eli Manning (13-for-21, 208 yards), who struggled through an inconsistent season after a hot start on the heels of a second Super Bowl MVP last year, threw five touchdown passes, including three in the first quarter, each career highs.
After the Eagles surprised the Giants with a game-opening onside kick recovery, safety Stevie Brown, one of New York’s best revelations this year, made his eighth interception of the season, to give him a share of the NFL lead.
Brown returned the pick thrown by quarterback Michael Vick (19-for-35, 197 yards, one touchdown, one interception in his first game in seven weeks) 48 yards to the Eagles’ 26-yard line to help set up the game’s first score on a three-yard touchdown pass from Manning to rookie wide receiver Reuben Randle (four catches, 58 yards, two touchdowns).
Just 4:12 later, Manning connected with Randle again, on a 38-yard touchdown strike to put the Giants up 14-0 at around the same time the Bears had fallen behind the Detroit Lions, 3-0, about 600 miles away.
Manning then got his running backs involved in the passing game on New York’s next possession, completing to Ahmad Bradshaw for 41 yards (his only catch to go along with 16 carries for 107 yards and one rushing touchdown) before throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to rookie David Wilson (his only catch, to compliment 75 rushing yards on 15 carries) to give the Giants a commanding three-touchdown lead.
Philadelphia responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive for its only score, but a 10-play, 73-yard trip helped by Randle drawing a third-and-goal pass interference flag, allowed Bradshaw to increase New York’s advantage to 28-7 on a one-yard touchdown plunge after the Bears had scored 20 straight points to take a 20-3 second-quarter lead in Detroit.
After a missed chip shot field goal and a failed fourth down conversion on the Eagles’ next two possessions, Manning needed just two plays and 13 seconds to go complete a 30-yard pass to wide receiver Domenik Hixon (two catches, 41 yards) and then a 24-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Victor Cruz (four catches, 52 yards, one touchdown) to swell the Giants’ lead to 28 points just four seconds before halftime.
An uneventful third quarter featured three punts, two by Philadelphia, before New York embarked on a 78-yard drive that consumed 9:24 and provided one of the most amusing touchdown dances ever seen, as undrafted, six-foot-one, 266-pound blocking fullback Henry Hynoski better known as “The Hynoceros,” closed the scoring on a one-yard scoring pass from Manning with 6:51 left in the game.
Ecstatic to score the first touchdown of his career, Hynoski celebrated his only catch of the game by placing his right thumb on the top of his facemask, spreading out all of his fingers on that hand and moving from side to side to emulate some sort of touchdown-scoring rhinoceros.
All that was left at that point was to finish the final few minutes, find the nearest television and hope for the best.
For a while, things looked promising for the Giants after the clock ran out on the Eagles, as the Lions had closed to within 26-24 with plenty of time left, but Chicago ultimately held on, rendering other possible helpful scenarios for New York meaningless.
Minnesota eliminated Chicago with a home win over the Green Bay Packers, and Washington went from 3-6 to NFC East champions by winning their seventh straight contest, to edge the Giants by a game for the division title.
That was a status that could have belonged to New York for a second straight year if not for complacency setting in too soon and too often.
The Giants had ample opportunity to help themselves, rather than leaving it up to the Lions, Redskins and Packers.
Forget New York’s embarrassing road losses against playoff teams in Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore by an average of about 33-9.
Lackluster performances hampered by poor focus in very winnable games resulted in an opening night loss at home to Dallas, a two-point, Week 4 loss in Philadelphia, blowing a 10-point fourth quarter lead during a home defeat to Pittsburgh and a key one-point loss at Washington in a game that the Giants seemingly had under control in the second half.
Turn any one of those four games into a victory, and New York would still have a chance at being the same dangerous, lower-seeded team that made unlikely Super Bowl title runs in a span of five seasons under Coughlin.
Granted, the flip side of that is that the Giants were very fortunate to escape with wins at home against Washington and literally by inches in Dallas after blowing a 23-0 lead, but the talent was there for New York to have kept its destiny in its own control right up to the final week of the regular season.
Two weeks after losing in Philadelphia, the Giants went out west to hand the San Francisco 49ers (this year’s two seed in the NFC) their only home loss this season with a dominating 26-3 win, and six weeks later, they crushed the Green Bay Packers (the three seed in the NFC), 38-10, at home.
But, as with past Giants teams under Coughlin, who paradoxically deserves a great amount of credit for motivating New York to its Super Bowl championships, this year’s Giants acted as though they could flip a switch and turn on focused, championship-caliber play whenever they wanted, rather than following what their head coach routinely preaches – maintaining the professionalism of bringing it each and every week.
Failing to do so is something that has plagued the team, regardless of the varied roster makeup, throughout much Coughlin’s nine seasons in New York.
That type of far too frequent, head-scratching, inconsistent in seasons like the one that just ended for the Giants makes their two most recent NFL titles seem like flukes.
Compared to being a fan of many other NFL franchises, New York’s Super Bowl XLII and XLVI titles are why the tenure of Coughlin, the league’s oldest head coach, will ultimately and deservedly be remembered fondly by Giants fans long after Coughlin finally decides to walk away from the game.
Attaining a certain level of success however, breeds expectations of achieving even greater accomplishment, and New York’s results in the Coughlin era beg an interesting question for both the Giants’ head coach and general manager Jerry Reese.
Have the Coughlin-Reese Giants generally been just an eight to 10-win roster that managed to overachieve all the way to the pinnacle of the sport a couple of times, or are have they actually possessed perennial Super Bowl-contending talent which aside from the two Super Bowl years, has actually underachieved in most years?
A case can be made for either, but seasons like this year’s lean toward the latter – at least until the next chapters can be written, starting next year.