Since he was in high school, Hakeem Nicks has tried to be a difference-maker on the field.
"I was always told," he said, "that big time players step up in big-time games."
The Giants played their biggest game of the season Sunday and it was Nicks who made the play that stood above all others. On the final play of the first half of their NFC Divisional Playoff Game against 15-1 Green Bay in Lambeau Field, Nicks leaped high in the end zone to catch Eli Manning's Hail Mary pass. The touchdown deflated the defending champion Packers and gave the Giants momentum and a 10-point lead (20-10) in a game they went on to win, 37-20.
The victory advanced the Giants to an even bigger game, the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers next week in San Francisco.
"It was a big, big, big play in the game," Manning said. "It gave us all the momentum going into halftime and a 10-point lead going into the half."
The Giants led by three points when Tom Coughlin called the Giants' final first half timeout with 48 seconds remaining in the second quarter, just before a Green Bay punt. The Giants took possession seven seconds later at their own 31.
Ahmad Bradshaw ran for nine yards before Manning's pass to Jake Ballard fell incomplete. On third-and-one, Bradshaw took a handoff, started left and cut back to his right. He gained 23 yards before running out of bounds with six seconds left.
"The play Ahmad made to reverse his field and get outside and get to the sideline and get the clock stopped with six seconds left (was critical)," Coughlin said. "I think everybody knew what the play call was going to be (on the Hail Mary)."
Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham lined up on the left side. Manning took a shotgun snap and lofted the ball to the end zone, where Nicks out-jumped Charles Woodson and Charlie Peprah and got his huge hands on the ball – which he secured against his body as he fell to turf.
"I'm pretty confident," Nicks said. "I feel like I can come down with it as long as I can compete and go up and get it and look it all the way in. Eli threw the perfect pass, too."
"It was just a great catch by him," Manning said. "Everybody knew what to do. It was just a great job by Hakeem. I just kind of threw it up there and as the ball was coming down, I saw Hakeem in the mix, saw him jump up with no one else going after the ball. It was just a great job by him to hold onto the ball and get a touchdown. It gave us all the momentum going into halftime."
Coughlin said, "It was put in a spot where Hakeem went and got it with his outstanding hands and strong hands. That gave us a huge lift."
The Giants work on the Hail Mary almost every week.
"We call it flood tip," Coughlin said. "That's exactly what it was."
"It's something we practice every Saturday – game situations, end of the half, end of the game situations," Nicks said. There is, however, one critical difference between Saturday and Sunday. "We don't actually throw it in practice," Nicks said.
That didn't prevent the play from working in the game.
"You practice the Hail Mary," Manning said. "Everyone knew what to do. I think it's one of the few I've actually thrown up and it's the first one definitely that's ever been caught. Great job by Hakeem. I threw it up there and as the ball was coming down I saw Hakeem there in the mix. Great job by him holding onto it and getting the touchdown. Once his hands get on the ball, it's usually a catch."
"I was the jump man," Nicks said. "I got down there and I didn't even see who was around me. All I saw was the ball and once I saw the ball, I had to jump and get it. I don't even know where I landed in the end zone. I just saw the ball. Once I went up and got it, I looked around and it was exciting.
"When it happened I was more like, 'Wow, I caught it.' It was the end the half, I came down with hit, it was just exciting."
Manning said it was the first Hail Mary he ever completed, outside of playing in his family's yard in New Orleans. Nicks said it was the first one he ever caught.
And Coughlin was just happy they pulled it out.
"It is one of the few that I have thrown up and it was first one that was ever caught," said Manning.
"To see that – I think one or two times a year that play is completed," Coughlin said. "Fortunately for us, it was completed tonight."
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