One final lead change resulted in another one of much greater significance as the New York Giants scored the last 15 points in the final 3:14 to shock the Dallas Cowboys, 37-34, at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday night and wrest control of the NFC East from the Cowboys with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
New York’s defense can thank their lucky stars for that, especially two in particular – an already established one in quarterback Eli Manning and a quickly emerging star in defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Quarterback Tony Romo (21-31, 321 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks) was one last completion away from putting the Giants in a situation in which they would have needed a lot of help to reach the playoffs.
But, with a 34-29 lead and New York (7-6) attacking on an all-out blitz, Romo slightly overthrew wide receiver Miles Austin (4 catches, 63 yards, 1 TD) who went right by cornerback Aaron Ross (3 tackles). Had the thrown been there for Austin (who was returning from a hamstring injury), it likely would have resulted in a 75-yard touchdown and a realistic end to the Giants’ season.
Instead, the door was open for Manning’s league-leading sixth game-winning drive in the fourth quarter this season to help New York stop a season-high four-game losing streak and hand Dallas (7-6) its second straight loss before the largest crowd (95,952) for an NFL game this season.
Manning (27-47, 400 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 0 sacks), who had already tied two legendary Colts – brother Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas – with his 14th fourth-quarter touchdown pass of the season on the Giants’ earlier possession, drove New York for the eighth and final lead change of the game.
Pierre-Paul (8 tackles, 2 sacks, forced fumble) then sealed the win by blocking a field goal attempt by rookie kicker Dan Bailey (who had a late kick wiped away due to a time out for the second straight week), with one second left.
From the outset, the battle for NFC East supremacy appeared headed for the frantic finish that eventually came to fruition.
The Cowboys took a slim two-point lead into the locker room following an entertaining first half that featured five lead changes and each team surpassing 200 total yards (206-204, Giants) of offense (New York outgained Dallas 510-444 for the game).
Each offense punted after escaping near interceptions on their opening possessions.
Romo was nearly intercepted by linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (3 tackles, 1 pass deflection) on the first play of the game, and Manning was even luckier that a late pass in the right flat intended for wide receiver Victor Cruz (7 catches, 83 yards) was dropped by cornerback Terrance Newman (3 tackles, 1 pass deflection) instead of resulting in an easy pick-six for the Cowboys.
Dallas wasn’t as fortunate on its next possession, as defensive Pierre-Paul recorded the first score of his NFL career when he beat left tackle Doug Free, got a hand on Romo at the Cowboys’ 1-yard line, and forced Romo to retreat off balance into his own end zone, where Romo ultimately fell for the Giants’ first safety of the season to give New York a 2-0 lead 5:18 into the game.
Three plays after the ensuing free kick by the Cowboys, Manning strong-armed a 3rd-and-7 pass under pressure, down the middle to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (7 catches, 154 yards) for a 64-yard completion to Cowboys’ 4-yard line.
For Manning, it was a league-leading 29th completion to a target at least 20 yards downfield, but after two incompletions by Manning and a failed third-down run by running back D.J. Ware (2 carries, -1 yard), the Giants settled for a 23-yard field goal by kicker Lawrence Tynes, to lead 5-0 with 7:07 left in the opening quarter.
The Cowboys immediately answered though, with the first of two straight (three overall) 80-yard touchdown drives, as Romo capped an eight-play trip with a 12-yard touchdown toss to tight end John Phillips (his only catch) to give Dallas its first lead, 7-5, with 2:49 left in the period. Romo fooled the New York defense by rolling right and throwing across the field to Phillips, who scored up the left side.
Running back DeMarco Murray (5 carries, 25 yards), the Cowboys’ leading rusher, broke his ankle on a run early on the drive, leaving Dallas with just one active back left, but running back Felix Jones (16 carries, 106 yards, 1 fumble) filled in nicely for Murray.
The Giants responded to the Cowboys’ score with their own 80-yard touchdown drive as Manning took New York ten plays for a one-yard touchdown plunge by running back Brandon Jacobs (19 carries, season-high 101 yards, 2 TD), that gave the Giants a 12-7 lead 2:15 into the second quarter.
The score was Jacobs’ 55th career rushing touchdown, tying him Tiki Barber for the franchise lead on a night when Jacobs got the bulk of the carries while running back Ahmad Bradshaw (8 rushes, 12 yards) missed the first half after violating a team curfew.
Jacobs’ performance was much needed for a rushing attack that entered the game last in the NFL in rushing (just 83.3 yards per game) facing the league’s ninth best defense against the run (100.5 yards per game).
Following Jacobs’ touchdown, Romo capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive by once again doing a great job of selling a play fake, this time faking left and moving to his right, to throw a 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Laurent Robinson (4 catches, 137 yards, 1 TD), to move the Cowboys back in front, 14-12, with 6:26 left in the half.
New York punted on its next drive, but pinned Dallas at its own 4-yard line.
On the next play, Pierre-Paul made a terrific, hustling, diving tackle on Jones to pop the ball loose from behind. Safety Deon Grant recovered the ball at the Cowboys’ 15-yard line and advanced the ball a yard.
Tight end Jake Ballard (4 catches, 52 yards, 1 TD) couldn’t hang on to a diving attempt in the end zone though, and the Giants managed only a 26-yard field goal by Tynes, but led 15-14 with 1:03 to go before halftime.
That was enough time for Romo and Robinson to burn rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara (4 tackles) on a 40-yard completion that set up a 49-yard field goal by Bailey that regained the lead for the Cowboys, 17-15, with 15 seconds left in the half.
After the Giants started the second half with a three-and-out, Robinson again beat Amukamara on a 14-yard catch from Romo, and gains of eight yards (on a catch from Romo) and seven yards (on the ground) by Jones led to a 49-yard field goal by Bailey to extend Dallas’ lead to 20-15 with 7:42 left in the third quarter.
Manning then led a nine-play, 70-yard drive, connecting with Nicks for 17 yards to the Dallas 47-yard line before taking advantage of some confusion by the Cowboys’ defense on the ensuing play, as Dallas had trouble getting players on the field to match up with a last-second change in New York’s receiving package.
The Cowboys came at Manning with a blitz, but that left wide receiver Mario Manningham (2 catches, 62 yards, 2 TD), who returned after missing two games with an injury, all alone on an easy 47-yard touchdown reception from Manning, to put the Giants back up, 22-20, with 4:30 to go in the period.
The teams traded punts to close the quarter before the game finished with some offensive fireworks.
Once again, Robinson torched Amukamara for a 74-yard gain to the Giants’ 6-yard line, and on the next play, Romo put the Cowboys ahead again, 27-22, on a 6-yard touchdown pass to Austin 2:17 into the final quarter.
The Giants then drove 59 yards on 11 plays and converted a 4th-and-3 in Dallas territory, but usual linebacker Victor Butler (filling in at defensive end for star end DeMarcus Ware, who suffered a stinger earlier in the game) tipped a Manning pass which ended up hitting the shoulder of linebacker Sean Lee (9 tackles, 1 INT, 1 pass deflection).
Lee was engaged in a block as the ball deflected off of him, but he alertly turned and picked the ball out of the air for an interception, which he returned 30 yards to the New York 49-yard line.
Two plays later, Romo threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to a wide receiver Dez Bryant, to increase the Cowboys’ lead to 34-22 with 5:41 remaining, to seemingly put the Giants’ season on the brink.
It was the only catch for the normally dangerous Bryant, who was otherwise kept in check all game by the Giants’ cover-2 defense.
On that play however, Ross and safety Antrel Rolle (3 tackles) miscommunicated as Bryant ran right by both of them.
What kept New York alive after that was its ability to strike quickly with Manning using Cruz to move the ball downfield in a hurry, as Manning moved the Giants into Cowboys’ territory by completing passes of 11, 9, and 23 yards to Cruz.
Rolling right and under pressure, Manning then made a great play to find Nicks with pinpoint accuracy along the right sideline for a 24-yard gain. Two plays later, Manning capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive that took just 2:27, with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Ballard that just barely got to the goal line before Ballard was tackled. The score gave the Giants life and cut the Cowboys’ lead to 34-29 with 3:14 left.
Romo missing on his pass to Austin and a short punt on the Cowboys’ next possession gave Manning plenty of time and good field position to once again do what he’s done best this season.
After completing passes of 21 yards (to Ballard) and eight yards (to Cruz), Manning went right for the go-ahead score, placing a perfect pass in the hands of a diving Manningham along the right side of the end zone, but Manningham couldn’t hang on to the pass.
No matter for Manning, who completed an 18-yard pass to Ballard to the Dallas 1-yard line to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Jacobs to put New York ahead for a final time with 46 second to go. Ware then converted a two-point conversion to give the Giants a 37-34 lead, leaving it up to New York’s porous pass defense to preserve the victory.
That almost didn’t happen as Romo completed passes of 22 yards (against Ross) and 23 yards (against Rolle) to get within Bailey’s field goal range.
Last week, Bailey made a 48-yard field goal to seemingly beat Arizona, only to have the kick wiped out when Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett iced his own kicker by calling a time out beforehand. Bailey, who had then made 26 straight kicks (one shy of the team record), missed the second try and Dallas eventually lost in overtime.
Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin was paying attention to that, as he did the same to Bailey on Sunday night. Coughlin called a time out just before Bailey made a 47-yard attempt. When Bailey tried again, Pierre-Paul leaped through the A-gap to block Bailey’s kick and give New York control of its own destiny in its division.
Said Coughlin, who has would have surely been on the coaching hot seat, facing a third straight second-half collapse with the Giants, “[The win] puts us back on track to accomplish what we always set out to do, and that’s to win the division.”
New York, which faces Dallas one more time in the regular season finale, certainly has that fortunate opportunity now, after going from a two-game lead in the NFC East, to a one-game deficit behind Dallas, to a first-place tie with the Cowboys while holding the current head-to-head tiebreaker, all within the past five weeks.
That’s great news for the Giants, who with a loss on Sunday night, would have not only trailed Dallas by two games in the division, but would have fallen two games behind Atlanta (8-5) and Detroit (8-5) in the NFC wild-card race.
And, it’s certainly what matters most to the reigning 2011 Quarterback King of the Comeback, who finally got a win while throwing for 400 yards for the third time in his career (all three 400-yard games for Manning have come this season, during his eighth year in the league).
Although, Manning would certainly like to start seeing his team win a lot easier, if they could.
“I don’t like being in this situation,” said Manning. “It’s becoming a habit, a bad habit. It’s a fun way to win, but I’d like to have a lead and hold on to one, for once.”
Although Manning has led several late comebacks this year, the victory was most reminiscent of the Giants’ Week 4 road win in Arizona when Manning rallied New York with a pair of touchdown passes in the final 3:37 to lift his team to a 31-27 win.
The Giants’ leader also kept Sunday’s win in perspective, saying “This is huge, another fourth quarter comeback. It’s good to get that winning feeling back… but, it won’t mean anything if we don’t finish the season strong.”
New York will look to take the next step toward accomplishing that feat when it hosts Washington (4-9) at 1pm EST next Sunday.
Notes: Five of the Cowboys’ six losses this season have come as a result of blowing a fourth-quarter lead… Dallas has lost a lead of at least 12 points in the final period three times this year. The Cowboys had lost such a lead just twice over the previous 51 years… The Giants are 3-0 in the new Cowboys Stadium, including a victory in the first-ever non-preseason game in the building, after which Manning wrote a note on a wall in the stadium to commemorate the victory… it was also New York’s third victory in a big game in recent years in Dallas, including that first regular season game in Cowboys Stadium, Sunday night’s victory, and the Giants’ divisional playoff win as a five seed over the then top-seeded Cowboys at the old Texas Stadium, en route to New York’s Super Bowl XLII victory.