All season long, the New York Giants (4-6) have been waiting for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to produce the types of big plays he used to make before back surgery slowed him down.
Pierre-Paul finally delivered that moment on Sunday at MetLife Stadium with a huge fourth-quarter pick-six that secured the Giants’ fourth straight win, 27-13, over the Green Bay Packers (5-5), who lost their third straight game.
The interception was one of three made by a New York defense that entered the game with only eight picks on the season.
Of course, it helped that each of those turnovers came off of passes thrown by third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien (24-for-34, 339 yards, three interceptions), who was playing in his second NFL game while making his first professional start in place of injured starter Aaron Rodgers and backup Seneca Wallace.
Suddenly, following a dreadful 0-6 start, the Giants are legitimately part of the NFC East race. And if they can complete a sweep of their current three-game home stand by paying the Dallas Cowboys back for a Week 1 road loss next week, they’ll tie the Cowboys for second place in the division and climb within a game of the first-place Philadelphia Eagles heading into Thanksgiving.
When you lose your first six games, that’s plenty for which to be thankful.
While Tolzien outpassed two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning (25-for-35, 279 yards, one touchdown, one interception), New York’s far more seasoned signal caller made fewer big mistakes, despite throwing his league-high 17th interception of the season late in the second quarter.
Manning also started out hot, completing six of his first seven passes, including a first-quarter touchdown throw that put the Giants up for good.
A pair of 12-yard completions from Manning to running back Andre Brown (18 carries, 66 yards) and then to wide receiver Victor Cruz (eight catches, 110 yards) helped move New York 28 yards, to its own 48-yard line, on the Giants’ first possession, but a nice first-down scramble by Manning was wiped out by facemask penalty on rookie right tackle Justin Pugh, and New York punted.
But while the Packers went three-and-out on each of their first two drives, with safety Will Hill (five tackles four solo) nearly coming up with an interception on Green Bay’s second trip, wide receiver Reuben Randle (three catches, 37 yards, one touchdown) got the Giants in good field position and then into the end zone.
Following the Packers’ first drive, Randle broke a couple of tackles on a season-long, 32-yard punt return to the Green Bay 42-yard line.
Then, after a 15-yard pass from Manning to tight end Brandon Myers (three catches, 32 yards) and a key 10-yard run by Brown, on 3rd-and-5, Manning found Randle over the middle on a 26-yard touchdown throw three plays later, to put New York up, 7-0, with 5:43 left in the opening quarter.
On their next drive, the Giants moved from one 22-yard line to the other — on the strength of a pair of 9-yard Manning completions that followed a 30-strike from Manning to Cruz — before they settled for a 10-0 lead on a 40-yard field goal by kicker Josh Brown, 48 seconds into the second period.
Before that could happen, though, New York needed to keep the trip going with the first of two 4th-and-1 conversions in the game by running back Brandon Jacobs (five carries, nine yards, one touchdown), for an offense that entered the game just 1-for-5 on fourth down.
That possession, which lasted for 11 plays, was one of three times the Giants ran double digit plays on a drive, something they had previously only done eight times all season, the fewest in the league.
Answering Brown’s field goal, Tolzien surprised New York’s defense with consecutive completions of 25 yards to wide receiver Jody Nelson (eight catches, 117 yards) and 45 yards to wide receiver James Jones (two catches, 55 yards), who beat cornerback Prince Amukamara six tackles, all solo; one pass defection) downfield. But from there, the Packers were forced to settle for a Mason Crosby chip shot field goal, to cut the Giants’ lead to 10-3.
Manning moved New York 84 yards on 11 plays, but miscommunication with wide receiver Louis Murphy (no catches, one target) allowed cornerback Tramon Williams (eight tackles, all solo; one interception; one pass deflection) to get a pick.
A 26-yard completion from Tolzien to wide receiver Jarrett Boykin (six catches, 91 yards) helped take Green Bay barely into Giants territory, but New York held and forced a punt.
After a Giants three-and-out, the Packers took over at their own 37-yard line, 43 seconds before halftime, and Tolzien coolly completed passes of nine and 15 yards before spiking the ball at the New York 37-yard line, to set Crosby up for a 57-yard field goal that drew his team to within 10-6 as the half expired.
Linebacker Jon Beason (eight tackles, six solo; one interception; one pass deflection), a main reason for the Giants’ turnaround since coming over from Carolina earlier in the season, intercepted Tolzien on the fifth play of the third quarter, two plays after Tolzien completed a 29-yard pass to Nelson.
New York went 40 yards from there, to the Green Bay 10-yard line, before Brown extended the Giants’ lead to 13-6, on a 28-yard field goal.
Following another Packers punt, Manning completed passes to Cruz for 25 and 14 yards, before he connected to Myers for eight yards, to the Green Bay 3-yard line. Jacobs finished the drive off with a one-yard touchdown plunge to give New York a 20-6 lead, 30 seconds before the end of the third quarter.
Tolzien closed the period with an 18-yard pass to Nelson, and started the fourth quarter with a 52-yard completion up the right side to Boykin.
Three plays later, Rookie of the Year favorite, running back Eddie Lacy (14 carries, 27 yards, one touchdown), cut the Giants’ lead in half on a four-yard touchdown run that brought the Packers to within 20-13, with 12:52 remaining.
Lacy’s paltry yard total, however, led Green Bay in rushing against a New York defense which has been extremely stout against the run during the Giants’ winning streak, even while facing some of the league’s top backs over that stretch.
Two sacks of Manning on New York’s next possession had the Giants giving the ball back to a confident Tolzien.
On the next play, though, Tolzien attempted a short pass to the left flat, where the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Pierre-Paul leaped and made and an athletic grab to take the ball 24 yards the other way, to close the scoring, with 10:49 left.
The teams traded punts before Tolzien moved the Packers 49 yards to the New York 34-yard line, but safety Antrel Rolle (three tackles, all solo; one interception; one pass deflection) stepped in front of Boykin for an interception with 1:49 to go.
And thus, in a span of 38 days, the Giants have gone from a sputtering, winless squad to one that while still needing to play better, has some realistic hope to salvage its season and even the ability to remarkably control its own postseason destiny.