EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - The Giants' night could not have started any worse. The ending was not something they would have scripted, either. But in-between, they were, as Tom Coughlin said, "As good as there is in the NFL."
Most importantly, the end result was exactly what they wanted, a 41-35 victory over the Dallas Cowboys Monday night in Cowboys Stadium. The Giants won their fourth consecutive game and improved to 5-2. They enter their bye week tied with Atlanta for the best record in the NFC and in sole possession of first place in the NFC East, one game ahead of Philadelphia and Washington. Dallas dropped to 1-5.
But to earn their fifth victory of the season, the Giants had to overcome five turnovers (including two before the game was three minutes old), early deficits of 10 and then 13 points, a 93-yard punt return and 15 Dallas points in the final 3:17 that forced the Giants to recover two onside kicks.
"Celebrate wins, that's all I can tell you," Coughlin said. "With the fumbles and the interceptions, to win a game when you're minus-three (in turnover differential), it does say a lot for your players. I do think coming here and winning here on the road and getting the five wins, which is as many as there are in the NFC, that's quite an accomplishment."
The Giants overcame the obstacles and shortcomings thanks to several outstanding performances. After falling behind, 20-7, the Giants scored 31 consecutive points. Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes for the fourth time in his career. Two of them went to Hakeem Nicks and one apiece to Steve Smith and Mario Manningham. Nicks and Smith caught nine passes each, Nicks for 108 yards, Smith for 101. Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 126 yards and Brandon Jacobs scored the Giants' fifth touchdown on a 30-yard run. Lawrence Tynes kicked two field goals, including a career high-tying 53-yarder.
The defense held the Cowboys to 41 rushing yards. Dallas played most of the game without quarterback Tony Romo, who suffered a broken left clavicle when he was hit by linebacker Michael Boley in the second quarter. Romo, who was replaced by Jon Kitna, was the fifth quarterback the Giants have knocked out of a game this season.
"Obviously, that's not what we go into a game trying to do," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "We have a quarterback of our own. If we go out there and play dirty, an opposing team can do the same thing. It's nothing dirty. It's just hard hits happen to be paying off. It's just a ball game. It is a testament to the blitz package and the offense we have out there pushing the football."
The Cowboys got three touchdowns from rookie Dez Bryant – on the long punt return and a pair of late 15-yard receptions, a four-yard touchdown catch by Jason Witten and two David Buehler field goals.
The Giants held a seemingly safe 38-20 lead when the game took an unexpected late turn. With 3:35 remaining, the Giants faced a third-and-five at the Dallas 47-yard line. Manning's pass for Bear Pascoe was intercepted by linebacker Keith Brooking, who returned it 41 yards to the Giants' 15. On the next play, Bryant took Kitna's short pass and stepped into the end zone. After the two-point throw to Witten, it was 38-28.
Jacobs recovered Buehler's first onside kick at the Dallas 39. Bradshaw's 22-yard run helped set up Tynes' 26-yard field goal with 1:55 left, pushing the lead back to 13 points.
But the Cowboys kept coming. Kitna's passes of 24 yards to Witten and 25 to Felix Jones put them in position for Bryant's second touchdown catch. The extra point made it 41-35 with 40 seconds left. Buehler tried a high bouncing onside kick to the right side, which bounced off Clint Sintim, who then smothered the ball and the Giants could finally exhale.
"You want it to finish perfect," Coughlin said. "You're playing well, you've got a good lead, let's get the game over. Well, there's a little more to it than that. It's third-and-five, yeah, okay, run the ball, but then you call something relatively safe and it ends up being an interception. You feel bad about all of that stuff. You say to yourself, 'That shouldn't happen, that's not smart.' Well, it isn't smart."
"We made too many mistakes," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Obviously, we could have played better. We gave them too many breaks. We could have won this one going away. But we're still happy to get it."
Jacobs' 30-yard run off right tackle gave the Giants their largest lead at 38-20 with 5:25 remaining in the third quarter. The score capped a six-play, 70-yard drive that included two 20-yard Nicks receptions.
Manningham's 25-yard touchdown reception with 10:56 remaining in the third quarter had increased the Giants lead to 31-20. On second-and-eight, Manningham caught a short pass at the 27, got terrific blocks from Kevin Boss and Chris Snee, sliced through two defenders and had no one near him when he stepped into the end zone.
The Giants led at halftime, 24-20, despite facing deficits of 10-0 and 20-7, committing three turnovers and giving up Bryant's long punt return. In was the second time in two weeks the Giants scored 24 first-half points in Texas. On Oct. 10 in Houston, they led at halftime, 24-3. In the half, the Giants owned huge advantages in yards (272-75), passing yards (167-39) and first downs (15-5).
The Giants jumped ahead with 17 points in the last 4:22 of the second quarter.
Tynes's 53-yard field goal – tying the longest of his career – as time expired in the second quarter increased the Giants' lead to four points.
The Giants took possession at the Dallas 44-yard line with 36 seconds left in the half when Deon Grant recovered a Witten fumble that was forced by Cofield. Manning's 13-yard pass to Manningham helped move the Giants into position for Tynes to try a 43-yard field goal. It was good, but Shawn Andrews' holding penalty pushed them back 10 yards. So Tynes stepped up and hit a 53-yarder, matching the career best he kicked on Oct. 22, 2006, playing for Kansas City against San Diego.
"The first one was almost like a practice kick," said Tynes, who also booted five kickoffs into the end zone. "On the first one, I had plenty of room to make it from 53, so I just tried to stay smooth, didn't try to kill it and it went down the middle. There was a little helping wind that way. I definitely felt I was hitting the ball real well."
A little more than a minute earlier, the Giants had taken their first lead at 21-20 on Manning's 14-yard touchdown pass to Smith. On second-and-two, Smith lined up on the left side and made an inside move on cornerback Orlando Scandrick before catching Manning's pass in the middle of the end zone. After a Dallas punt, the Giants drove 56 in five plays, including three consecutive Bradshaw runs totaling 33 yards.
Manning's eight-yard touchdown pass to Nicks pulled the Giants to within 20-17 with 4:22 left in the half. On first-and-goal, Nicks also got the best of Scandrick and caught the ball just over the goal line for his second score of the night and eighth of the season.
The Giants drove 80 yards in seven plays after Bryant's long punt return. The big gain was a 32-yard pass to Smith. The Giants also benefitted from Mike Jenkins' seven-yard pass interference penalty.
"In the second quarter we played outstanding, flawless," Manning said. "We start moving the ball up and down. With three turnovers in the first half and to go into that game at halftime up four points, it really helped the momentum on our side. It was big."
Bryant's electrifying 93-yard punt return energized the crowd and gave the Cowboys a 20-7 lead with 8:53 remaining in the second quarter. Dallas' first-round draft choice caught the longest punt of the season (69 yards) by fellow rookie Matt Dodge, eluded a tackle attempt by Duke Calhoun and motored up the left side for the score.
It was the first punt returned for a touchdown against the Giants since last Dec. 13, when Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson – also a first-year receiver – brought one back 72 yards. The 93-yarder was the longest against the Giants since Sept. 14, 1987, when Chicago's Dennis McKinnon returned a punt 84 yards for a score.
The Giants' third turnover of the half, a fumble by Jacobs, gave Dallas the ball on the visitor's 43-yard line and set up Buehler's 41-yard field goal with 10:10 left in the second quarter. Romo left the game on the first play of the drive when he was blasted by Boley just after he released a 14-yard pass to Miles Austin.
The Giants trailed, 10-7, at the end of a busy first quarter. They got on the board on the first of Nicks' touchdown receptions, a seven-yarder with 2:58 remaining in the quarter. On second-and-goal, Nicks lined up on the left side, stepped just inside the end zone, boxed out safety Gerald Sensabaugh and caught Manning's pinpoint pass.
The score concluded an 11-play, 79-yard drive that included Manning passes to Nicks for 24 and 13 yards and two replay challenges that were ruled in the Giants' favor.
On the first, with 6:15 remaining in the quarter, Manning completed a two-yard pass to Manningham for what the officials ruled was a first down. Wade Phillips challenged the spot, claiming Manningham was short of the marker. But after review, referee John Parry upheld the call on the field and the Giants had a first down at their 44-yard line.
Three plays later, Manning threw to the left sideline for Nicks. The ruling on the field was that Nicks was out of bounds. But Coughlin challenged and after going under the hood and watching the play, Parry said Nicks got both feet inbounds and reversed the call, giving the Giants an 11-yard gain and another first down at the Cowboys' 40. Nicks scored four plays later.
The game began badly for the Giants, as Manning threw interceptions on two of his first four passes – both after the ball caromed off his intended receiver.
On the game's third play, Manning's pass bounced off of Smith's hands and right to cornerback Terence Newman, who returned it 30 yards to the Giants' five. Two plays later, Romo flipped a pass to the right flat for Witten, who stepped into the end zone for a 7-0 Dallas lead just 1:22 into the game.
The third play was again disastrous on the Giants' second possession. Nicks couldn't hold onto Manning's pass and the ball floated to Sensabaugh, whose eight-yard return gave Dallas the ball on the Giants' 18-yard line.
"The first one was all on me," Manning said. "It was too high and intercepted, next one Hakeem just dropped it and we never got into any type of rhythm. After that we started running the ball, threw the ball and were mixing it up and had a great mix the rest of the first quarter, second, third and even parts of the fourth - play action, run the ball, third down conversions, and did a lot of good things."
The Cowboys had a first-and-goal at the eight, but never gained another yard before Buehler came on to kick a 26-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead with 5:52 elapsed in the game.
"I thought that one of the biggest plays of the game was holding them to a field goal after the second interception," Coughlin said. "I thought that was critical."
So was sticking with the game plan after the early turnover binge.
"We felt that we killed ourselves," Snee said. "But then we were able to do a lot of things we wanted to do. When that's going, the confidence is just sky high for us a unit. It really was a good feeling."
"We don't panic," Tuck said. "We understand it's a four quarter game and we had a lot of football to play. We spotted them 20 to start the game. We put ourselves in a big hole, but it shows the character and the leadership of this team to come back and win the game like this."