EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - The Giants today opened their new stadium by playing some old-time Giants football.
Playing their first regular season game in beautiful New Meadowlands Stadium, the Giants unveiled the kind of versatile and punishing defense that had keyed so many successes in the past. The defense, under new coordinator Perry Fewell, forced five turnovers, delivered four sacks, gave up only 89 rushing yards and did not allow a second-half point as the Giants stormed to a 31-18 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
In winning their stadium debut, the Giants also extracted a little revenge. It was the Panthers, after all, who rushed for 247 yards and clobbered the Giants by 32 points in the Giants Stadium finale last December.
"It's a historic first win for the New York Giants franchise here in the brand new stadium," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "…The players are very happy about the win. There was a lot said going in about this game and about what happened last year and I'm just happy that we could win this game, the first game in this stadium."
"It is definitely what you want to do," quarterback Eli Manning said. "It is a brand new stadium and with the crowd and everybody here you want to go out there and play well. To start the season 1-0 in a brand new stadium - it was very important for us to come out and get a win. I thought we did a good job."
Carolina scored just one touchdown, on Matt Moore's 19-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith with three seconds remaining in the first half. John Kasay kicked three field goals for the Panthers.
Moore completed only 14 of 33 passes and was knocked out of the game late in the fourth quarter after facing relentless Giants pressure. The Panthers averaged only 3.7 yards a carry. Deon Grant, Terrell Thomas and Kenny Phillips all intercepted Moore passes in the end zone. Mathias Kiwanuka had two sacks, Osi Umenyiora one and Barry Cofield and Chris Canty split the fourth. The Giants were credited with 10 quarterback hits on Moore and his replacement, rookie Jimmy Clausen.
The Giants played a variety of different fronts (including one with four defensive ends), Kiwanuka, an end, started at weakside linebacker and played there most of the game and Moore seemed befuddled by all the different looks he saw. So he threw three picks, went down four times and seldom threw the ball without someone in his face.
"That is what this defense is all about – making big plays," Cofield said. "Big plays can cure a lot of other evils. One of the things that I am most proud about is that we held them to a lot of field goals. When teams score those 'sevens' and get ahead, you don't get a chance to get pressure on the quarterback. The fact that we were able to hold them to field goals it enabled us to turn our athletes loose. Our DBs did a great job of getting interceptions today, and with the pressure that we got, it worked hand in hand. That is when we are at our best."
"That second half was truly fun," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "That's how I remember Big Blue defense. That's what we have to get back to on a consistent basis."
The defensive players were quick to credit Fewell for installing both the schemes and the attitude that enabled the unit to flourish.
"Everybody talks about his passion for the game and that's definitely there, that's what you see on the sidelines," Kiwanuka said. "His knowledge of the game and what he has in his heart as far as dedication, the guy genuinely cares whether there is a Super Bowl on the line or whether we're playing Pop Warner, he would care the same way."
The offense also held up its end. Second-year receiver Hakeem Nicks scored three touchdowns on passes from Manning - the distances were 26, 19 and five yards – Ahmad Bradshaw scored on a four-yard run and Lawrence Tynes kicked a 32-yard field goal for the Giants. Nicks is the first Giants player to score three touchdowns in a game since Brandon Jacobs ran in from two, one and two yards out on Dec. 21, 2008 – also against Carolina. He is the first Giant to catch three touchdown passes in a game since Plaxico Burress on Sept. 9, 2007 at Dallas. Burress caught Manning passes of 60, 4 and 10 yards that night.
So what did Nicks think of scoring three touchdowns in the Giants' stadium debut?
"It's real big," he said. "We wanted to go out there today and start the tone out right this season. I feel like the defense did a good job. Offense did a good job, special teams as well. I think we came together as a team, and that's the main thing.
"It means a lot. I definitely want to be that guy that (Eli) can depend on. One of my goals this year was to be more consistent than last year. So I just want to keep on pushing and keep on working hard."
Manning completed 20 of 30 passes for 263 yards. He also threw three interceptions, but they all tipped off the hands of the intended receiver.
"A couple tips, those things happen sometimes," Manning said. "It is a part of football and you just have to fight through them. Our receivers made some huge plays for us and that is what we have to do offensively in the pass game. We have to eliminate the bad plays, the interceptions, because we have the talent and the explosiveness to make those big plays, which basically we did, and score enough points to win the game."
The Giants, who trailed by two points at halftime, scored 10 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a 24-16 lead.
Tynes' 32-yarder put the Giants back on top, 17-16, with 9:03 remaining in the quarter. The Giants took the second half kickoff and marched 60 yards in 10 plays prior to the kick. Jacobs got it started with a 22-yard run around the left side on the first play of the half. Manning's one-yard quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one kept the drive alive at the Panthers' 22-yard line – and survived a Carolina replay challenge – but on the next fourth-and-one, Tom Coughlin sent Tynes in to kick the field goal.
The Panthers' next possession ended badly for the visitors when J.J. Jansen's punt snap bounced a short distance and was recovered by D.J. Ware at the Giants' 38. Mario Manningham's 25-yard catch-and-run gave the Giants a first down at the 16. Manningham followed with an eight-yard reception and Jacobs a three yard run. Manning then hit a diving Nicks in the back of the end zone for their third scoring hookup.
"Hakeem made a lot of big plays and that is what we need," Manning said.
The Giants continued their surge in the fourth quarter. Bradshaw broke loose for a 39-yard run to the Carolina one. Coughlin thought he scored and challenged the call, but referee Jerome Boger upheld the ruling on the field. Two plays after Jacobs lost three yards, Bradshaw took a handoff from Manning out of the shotgun and zipped in to the end zone for a 31-16 Giants lead with 11:36 remaining.
The remainder of the game was a parade of mistakes. Moore drove the Panthers 76 yards to the Giants' four-yard line, but his third down pass was intercepted by Thomas. Three plays later, Manning's pass caromed off Ramses Barden's hands and was picked off by Charles Godfrey, who returned it to the Giants' 12. But it became a harmless turnover two plays later, when Phillips intercepted another Moore pass in the end zone.
The Giants' next miscue was more costly. Rookie punter Matt Dodge, who had a rough NFL debut, had his punt blocked by Greg Hardy. The ball went out of bounds through the end zone for a safety.
It could have been a case where I might have taken too long trying to make sure you get a good punt," Dodge said. "Sometimes you can take a little longer to make sure you watch, I don't know. So we'll see when we watch film."
Carolina got the ball back on the free kick, but on the first play, Kiwanuka sacked Moore and forced a fumble that was recovered by Tuck. That takeaway led to … another fumble. On third-and-seven from the Carolina 14-yard line, Bradshaw ran off right tackle and lost the ball, which was recovered by Sherrod Martin. The Panthers eventually punted out of their end zone, effectively ending the game.
Moore's 19-yard touchdown pass with just three seconds remaining in the second quarter gave the Panthers a 16-14 halftime lead. On first down, Smith ran down the center of the field a step behind Grant and caught Moore's pass at the goal line an instant before he was hit by Phillips.
The Giants looked like they would take a lead into the halftime locker room when Manning and Nicks hooked up for their second touchdown of the game with 45 seconds remaining in the quarter. But they allowed Mike Goodson to break loose for a 45-yard kickoff return to the 50. Moore then threw to Brandon LaFell for eight yards, Smith for 10 and Goodson for 13 to set up Smith's touchdown.
Nicks had given the Giants a 14-9 lead with less than a minute remaining in the half. On third-and-four, he got a step on cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and hauled in Manning's pass on the left side of the end zone. The score ended the Giants' most impressive drive of the half, a seven-play, 80-yarder that featured a 25-yard catch on the left sideline by Nicks – also over Munnerlyn – that was originally ruled incomplete. But replay official Mark Burns called for a review and the call was overturned on the field, giving the Giants a first down on Carolina's 28-yard line.
"I knew (I was in) because I looked down once I caught it and saw I got both feet in," Nicks said.
Munnerlyn was called for a three-yard pass interference penalty on the next play. Ahmad Bradshaw ran for six yards just prior to the touchdown.
The Panthers had taken a 9-7 lead on Kasay field goals of 52 and 43 yards. The first was early in the second quarter and concluded a drive on which Carolina was aided early by Jason Pierre-Paul's offside penalty on a kickoff. Tynes was forced to re-kick and the Panthers gained 23 yards on the exchange, from their own 22 to the 45. They traveled just 21 yards before Kasay kicked the field goal.
Neither team scored for 10 minutes before combining for a field goal and two touchdowns in the final 1:46 of the half. Kasay's 43-yard field goal put the Panthers on top by two points. Carolina moved 39 yards after a Giants punt, the biggest gain a 13-yard pass from Moore to Goodson with Umenyiora's 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer tacked on.
After that field goal, the Giants and Panthers both scored touchdowns in the final 45 seconds of the half.
Nicks scored the Giants' first touchdown of the season on a 26-yard pass from Manning with two seconds remaining in the first quarter. On second-and-seven, Nicks got behind cornerback Richard Marshall and safety Charles Godfrey and caught Manning's pinpoint pass right in front of the left sideline, halfway back in the end zone.
The score capped a seven-play, 68-yard drive that was highlighted by a 31-yard pass to Manningham on third-and-16. Manningham slipped past Godfrey on the right sideline and stepped out of bounds on the Panthers' 29-yard line. Jacobs ran for three yards before Manning threw the touchdown pass.
Kasay scored the game's first points on a 21-yard field goal with 3:42 remaining in the first. The Panthers took possession on the Giants' 29-yard line after Munnerlyn's 28-yard punt return. Moore's 14-yard pass to Steve Smith put the Panthers' on the Giants' 11. Carolina faced a third-and-four from the five when DeAngelo Williams broke free on the right side and appeared to have a clear path to the end zone. But safety Kenny Phillips raced up to trip Williams, stopping the back for a two-yard gain. Kasay then came on to kick the field goal.