Reupholster the NFC East throne Giants blue.
With their season, division title and playoff aspirations down to a one-game, do-or-die situation Sunday night, the Giants responded with an impressive and memorable victory. They jumped out to a 21-point lead in the first half and went on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys, 31-14, in MetLife Stadium.
The Giants' second-straight victory to end the season gave them the NFC East championship with a 9-7 record, one game better than the Cowboys, who they beat twice in the last four games. They earned their first division title and first postseason berth since 2008 and will host the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC Wild Card Game next Sunday at 1 p.m. Atlanta finished 10-6 and in second place in the NFC South.
The Giants and Falcons have never before met in the first round.
"NFC East champions - that is a great thing to hear and I won't get tired of hearing that over and over again," Coach Tom Coughlin said.
The first-place finish is the Giants 23rd and the postseason appearance will be their 31st, both NFL records. They are the first team to win the NFC East title with less than 10 victories since the 1970 merger.
The Giants rode to the title on the same path that had brought them to so many victories this season – Eli Manning throwing passes and Victor Cruz catching them. Manning completed 24 of 33 passes for 346 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, a passer rating of 136.7. Cruz caught six of them for a career-high 178 yards, a 29.7-yard average. He made arguably the biggest play of the game, a 44-yard grab on third down in the fourth quarter to keep alive the drive that ended a Lawrence Tynes' 28-yard field goal.
Manning threw touchdown passes of 74 yards to Cruz, 10 yards to Ahmad Bradshaw and four yards to Hakeem Nicks. Bradshaw also scored on a five-yard run and Tynes kicked the 28-yard field goal.
After the game, Cruz stayed on the field and soaked up the adulation of the Giants fans. It was well-deserved. He finished the season with 82 catches for a franchise-record 1,536 yards and a team-high nine touchdown receptions.
"It was just surreal," Cruz said of his postgame reception from the fans. "I've come a very long way. I've had a lot of ups and downs in my life. It was just exhilarating to see all of the fans. Essentially, part of this game is that we do it for them. It's for them to be around to keep us in the game. They're a big part of this game as well. I wanted to show them some love and go over there and talk to them a little bit and stuff like that. That's what that was."
The Giants seem a bit amazed by what Cruz has accomplished.
"Where did we get this guy from?" Justin Tuck said. "Obviously, Eli's had an awesome year, but it just seems like when we need a big play (Cruz) has stepped up and been that guy. I think those two are co-MVPs. Some of the plays he's made this year have been tremendous. It gets to the point now where you look at him, the catch over the middle in the fourth quarter, I'm like, 'Why didn't you score? You do it every other day.' He's just been a tremendous help for this offense and this entire team. It's fun to watch him."
Dallas scored on Tony Romo touchdown passes of 34 and five yards to Laurent Robinson in the second half. The Giants sacked Romo six times, intercepted him once and stopped him on a quarterback sneak on a fourth down at the Giants 10-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
The Giants, however, had to punt and Dallas took possession at the Giants' 26-yard line after Devin Thomas was penalized for unnecessary roughness on the return. On first down, Romo's short pass to Dez Bryant gained 17 yards. Felix Jones then ran for three yards before Robinson scored the touchdown when he ran a simple in-cut and caught Romo's pass with 10:15 remaining. The Giants' once-commanding lead was down to seven points at 21-14.
Dallas looked like it would keep the momentum when the Giants faced a third-and-seven on the ensuing drive. But Manning dropped back and moved around to bide time and fired down the field for Cruz, who jumped in front of Orlando Scandrick for a critical 44-yard gain to the Cowboys' 28-yard line. Two plays later, Cruz caught a 20-yard pass. Moments later, Tynes kicked the field goal that gave the Giants some breathing room.
"We hadn't been real good on third downs in the third and fourth quarters so it was a big play of the game right there," Manning said of the long gain. "I was really thinking of going to Manningham on the right sideline, but got some pressure up front and couldn't make the throw. So I wheeled around and saw him down the middle of the field and knew the safety wouldn't be a problem. I underthrew it a little bit; I wish I would've gotten more out there, but the corner, with the back to me there's a good chance you're going to get pass interference or reason to come down with the catch. I didn't think it was a risky throw to be intercepted, and Victor does a great job of going up there and being strong and making the play. So it was a huge play at that point in the game."
"It was basically me going up the seam and I saw the safety go opposite of where I was going," Cruz said. "I just continued up the seam and when I turned around Eli was shaking off some defenders. He just eased one over to me and I kind of made a play on the ball."
The Cowboys then went three-and-out and when Chris Jones' punt traveled only 26 yards, the Giants took possession at the Dallas 45-yard line. Manning found Nicks for a 36-yard gain and on the next play, for a four-yard touchdown. With 3:41 remaining, the lead was back up to 17 points and the Giants could start celebrating their division championship.
Robinson's first touchdown put the Cowboys on the scoreboard with 6:54 remaining in the third quarter. On first down, Robinson lined up on the right side, got behind Corey Webster and caught Romo's throw at the 10-yard line before stumbling across the goal line.
The Cowboys' nine-play drive covered 94 yards, the longest by a Giants opponent since Indianapolis scored on a 98-yard drive on Sept. 19, 2010.
The 34-yard touchdown pass was the longest play on the drive, which also included Romo passes of 19 yards to Jason Witten and 12- and nine-yarders to Robinson.
Bradshaw scored his touchdowns in the second quarter, when the Giants increased their lead to 21-0, their biggest advantage after two quarters since they led Philadelphia, 24-3, on Dec. 19, 2010.
It was the second time this season the Giants did not allow a point in the first half; they were tied with New England, 0-0, on Nov. 6.
With 1:09 remaining in the quarter, Bradshaw caught a short Manning pass at the 10, cut to his right and stepped into the end zone for his second touchdown and a 21-point Giants advantage.
The play capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive that took 3:24 to complete. The long play on the march was Bradshaw's 29-yard run up the middle. Fullback Henry Hynoski caught three passes for 30 yards in the series, the last a 12-yarder punctuated by a leap over cornerback Terence Newman that gave the Giants a first down at the Dallas 10-yard line. Bradshaw scored on the next play.
Bradshaw gave the Giants a 14-0 lead with his five-yard touchdown run with 13:27 remaining in the second quarter.
On second-and-goal, Bradshaw took a handoff from Manning and looked as if he'd be stopped in the backfield for a loss by safety Abram Elam. But Bradshaw slipped away from Elam, ran to his right and did not slow down until he had crossed the goal line.
The score concluded a 10-play, 68-yard drive that spanned the first and second quarters and included Manning passes of 18 yards to Nicks and 14 yards to Thomas. The Giants were also aided by a defensive pass interference penalty on Alan Ball, who roughed up Cruz as the receiver went for a Manning pass.
The Giants scored first, on Cruz's 74-yard catch and run with 4:57 remaining in the first quarter. On third-and-one from the 26, the Giants went into a spread formation. Manning took the shotgun snap, moved to his left and fired a pass to Cruz, who caught the ball at the 31, turned upfield right in front of the Giants' bench area and outran Newman and Gerald Sensabaugh to the end zone for his the touchdown.
"The touchdown one was just a simple out route," Cruz said. "It's usually a play we call on third and one or two. I was able to get out. I caught it and when I turned up field I saw Hakeem giving me a great block. I saw the sideline wide open, so I continued up the sideline. I was looking at myself on the Jumbotron making sure they weren't too close. I just continued up the sideline right to a touchdown."
It was Cruz's fifth touchdown reception this season of at least 68 yards and his fourth of at least 72 yards, including the team-record 99-yarder last week vs. the Jets.
The score concluded a six-play, 96-yard drive that was the second-longest of the season, exceeded only by the 99-yard march last week. Tight end Bear Pascoe kept the drive alive by catching a pass on third-and-nine, high-jumping over Newman and turning it into a 17-yard gain.
Less than three hours later, the Giants were officially jumping into the playoffs.
"We're ready," said linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. "This is the situation that we wanted to be in. We went a roundabout way of getting there but we're in the playoffs. The slate is wiped clean and we're ready to go."
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