Twenty-three times in his career, Eli Manning has led the Giants from a regular-season fourth-quarter deficit or tie to a victory. On Sunday, the Giants needed No. 24 to keep them in the thick of the NFC East title chase.
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It looked like they might get it, too. With 4:45 remaining, Manning threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy, Andre Brown added a two-point conversion and a deficit that was 15 points in the third quarter had completely evaporated. The Giants and Dallas Cowboys were tied at 21-21.
"You just wish you had one more opportunity to win the football game," Manning said.
He and the offense never got it. Dallas ran out the clock by taking possession at its own 20-yard line and driving 64 yards in 13 plays before Dan Bailey kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired to give the Cowboys a 24-21 triumph. The Giants fell to 4-7 as their four-game winning streak ended. Dallas improved to 6-5, a record that includes two victories over the Giants and a 4-0 mark in the NFC East.
The defensive breakdown at the end of the game ended a flawed performance in a game when the Giants needed to be better.
"We felt like we obviously had a chance and should have won, but we didn't," coach Tom Coughlin said.
They did a lot of good things. The Giants ran for a season-high 202 yards and averaged 6.7 yards a carry. Andre Brown led the way with a career-high 127 yards and Brandon Jacobs added 75, including a 37-yard run, the longest by the Giants this season.
Manning completed 16 of 30 passes for 174 yards, including touchdowns to Brandon Myers and Murphy, and was not intercepted.
The defense sacked Tony Romo four times and intercepted him once.
But it wasn't enough, because the Giants couldn't make critical plays. In the second quarter, they had first downs on the Dallas nine- and four-yard lines on consecutive possessions and settled for short Josh Brown field goals each time. Early in the fourth quarter, they gained nine yards on first down – and punted three plays later.
"With the way we ran the ball, we should have been more successful," Manning said. "We got there close a few times and had to go for it on fourth down and came up empty, so I knew we were driving the ball well. You like to score every time you get close, but that's not always going to happen."
The Giants committed 11 penalties, including a pair of 15-yarders by defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, one for roughing Romo and another for retaliating in a skirmish.
"The one thing that I think we can learn from this is the bigger the game, the more you have to control yourself, more poise," Coughlin said. "There isn't any question that we were frustrated with some of those fouls. There wasn't any question that that occurred. Even when things go against you, you have to find a way to settle down and play the next play. We lost it a couple of times and it cost us."
Kiwanuka was first flagged for making contact with Romo's head.
"The coaches work throughout the course of the week to help you understand where you can and can't hit him," Kiwanuka said. "And then when you go out there on Sunday, as long as you're not intentionally going out there to injure him, I think you have to just let the game come to you. There are going to be calls that are going to be made that you're not going to agree with, but if you have to go out there and focus on hitting him within a certain area, it's going to slow you down as a defender. I have to be conscious of the fact that that's the way the game is called now and that's going to hurt our team."
Regarding his second penalty, Kiwanuka said, "It's something that I wish I could take back but I can't."
The Giants might have been able to overcome all of their shortcomings had they just given Manning one last chance to win the game.
"The last few minutes I was just praying for the ball to get back in our hands," Brown said.
They never touched it largely because Dallas – which had converted just one of its previous 20 third down chances and was one-for-eight in this game – kept its drive alive three times with big plays on third down.
On the first, Dallas needed seven yards and Romo's pass to Dez Bryant gained 19. Three plays later, the same duo hooked up for an eight-yard gain on third-and-five.
But the backbreaker occurred with 1:25 remaining. The Giants used their final timeout with the Cowboys facing a third-and-10. Romo then threw a short pass to the left to Cole Beasley that gained 13 yards to the Giants' 15. Romo knelt down twice before Bailey was summoned to kick the game-winner,
"We were trying to play coverage a little there," defensive end Justin Tuck said of the final drive. "It was third down. They made some great throws. I don't think we did anything different. I just think they executed a little better than we did."
"It's tough, it's tough on our defense to swallow that, especially with how our season was going," cornerback Prince Amukamara said. "That third-and-10, we just have to execute and just finish on that play. It was a huge play at that moment, so we just had to execute on that play."
They didn't and now the Giants are going to need help to stay in the division race; they are three games under .500 and 1-3 in NFC East games with five to play.
"We have a five-game schedule left," Coughlin said. "Every game is critical. "We have to prepare and work as hard as we possibly can and stay together, try to win football games. We lost a game that we were all excited about having a chance to win, but it's gone. We've got five games to play. Let's go win five games and let's give ourselves a chance to hold our heads up high.