The Giants learned Sunday they can't pull fourth-quarter magic out of their helmets every week.
After Eli Manning-led late rallies produced victories in their previous three games, the Giants tried duplicating the blueprint against the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. They sliced a 14-point deficit in half with 8½ minutes remaining and got the ball back with 6:35 left. When they converted a fourth-and-six on an 18-yard pass to Mario Manningham, the Giants seemed poised for another memorable finish.
But they couldn't quite pull it off. An open Manningham couldn't get to Manning's pass in the end zone, which was their best chance to tie the score. They did convert another fourth down, on a 10-yard pass to Victor Cruz. But when they went to the well the third time it came up dry. Manning's pass on fourth-and-two was batted down by defensive end Justin Smith with 34 seconds left.
Instead of celebrating another comeback, the Giants lost, 27-20. They fell to 6-3 and lead the Dallas Cowboys by one game in the NFC East race. The Giants host Philadelphia next Sunday night.
"Too little, too late. Not enough – whatever you want to describe it as," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "I'm very disappointed. We used the clock very well. Had we been able to drive and score, there would have been very little time left for them to do anything with it. I thought we would get there, score and go into overtime and win it in overtime. I'm very disappointed. We've done very well in those situations."
They almost pulled it off again. The Giants outgained San Francisco, 395-305, and owned the ball for nine more minutes (34:37-25:23). They limited a team averaging 137.6 rushing yards a game to just 77 – without linebacker Michael Boley (hamstring) and cornerback Aaron Ross (quad) for the second half. They were replaced by rookie Spencer Paysinger and Michael Coe, respectively.
Alex Smith threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis, Kendall Hunter scored on a 17-yard run and David Akers kicked field goals of 36, 52, 39 and 28 yards for the 49ers, who won their seventh consecutive game to improve to 8-1.
The Giants scored on Manning touchdown passes of 13 yards to Manningham in the third quarter and 32 yards to Hakeem Nicks in the fourth, and Lawrence Tynes field goals of 23 and 25 yards. Manning completed his first 10 passes of the game and finished 26-for-40 for 311 yards.
San Francisco scored two touchdowns within 1:01 early in the fourth quarter to take a 27-13 lead with 12:21 remaining.
But the Giants responded as they have so often late in games this season, with a well-executed scoring drive. This one covered 80 yards in only seven plays, including 17- and 15-yard passes to Jake Ballard and the score to Nicks, who returned to action after missing last week's dramatic victory in New England with a hamstring injury. It was 27-20 and half the fourth quarter remained to be played.
When the defense forced Smith and Co. to go three-and-out, the Giants took possession at their own 20 with 6:35 remaining. Manning, who has authored five fourth-quarter rallies this season and 19 in his career, again had the ball in his hands with a game in the balance.
"We felt confident," Manning said. "The drive before, we had gone down there and scored. We feel that we're always in the game. We had a bad series and they take the lead by seven. We throw an interception, they score the next play and we're down 14. But kept fighting and we kept competing to the very end. The defense did a great job getting the ball back, but unfortunately, we couldn't score again."
The Niners looked like they might suffer the same fate as the Bills, Dolphins and Patriots before them when Coughlin eschewed a punt on fourth-and-six and Manning hit Manningham right in front of the Giants' sideline for an 18-yard gain to the San Francisco 47-yard line. Jim Harbaugh challenged the ruling, claiming Manningham did not land with both feet inbounds, but referee Tony Corrente upheld the call on the field after a review.
"We were moving the ball," Coughlin said of his decision not to kick. "Why would we stop? I thought the quarterback would make a play and he did."
After a pass to D.J. Ware gained five yards, Manning threw a pass deep down the right side that sailed just past Manningham's outstretched arms in the end zone.
"I have to come down with it," Manningham said. "I should have laid out. I should have come down with it."
"It's one of those you're going to look at on the film and you're going to hate yourself for it," Manning said. "He was so open. When you see it on film it's going to look like he's wide open and you're going to say, 'I could have just laid it out there for him and let him walk under it.' You always try to hit the guy right on stride…maybe it was just a little bit too far of a throw or maybe he couldn't hold onto it."
Coughlin thought it was neither.
"It's an extension where Mario really has to reach out there," Coughlin said. "The ball just doesn't get caught. You have to explain it to me. Sometimes they catch it, sometimes they don't."
The Giants converted two more big plays, 10-yard catches by Cruz on fourth-and-five and by D.J. Ware, the latter giving the Giants a first down at the San Francisco 18-yard line with 1:53 remaining. Manning quickly hit Cruz for eight more yards. With 1:24 remaining they were 10 yards from the goal line and the tying score.
They got no closer. Manning threw an incompletion to Manningham. Ware ran up the middle and was stopped for no gain. "They (the 49ers) knew it was coming," Ware said. "They yelled it out before the play. But we thought we could out-execute them and get the two yards. But they came up with a good defense."
It was fourth-and-10 with 37 seconds left. Operating out of a shotgun, Manning scanned the field and threw a pass to Cruz. But it never reached its intended target because Smith, a Pro Bowler each of the last two seasons, knocked it down.
"He decided not to rush," Coughlin said. "He's a veteran player and a good one. He just guessed right and the ball was in his neighborhood."
"On fourth down we had a good play called," Manning said. "Obviously, (Smith) batted it down at the line of scrimmage. I was going to Cruz. They were playing man. He did a good job beating his guy. Ballard looked like he was getting held by Patrick Willis. It was a little tight. They kind of overlapped each other. I tried to fit it into Victor, but it got knocked down."
Guard David Diehl took responsibility for Smith hitting the pass.
"Unfortunately, my guy was the one who knocked the ball down," Diehl said. "It's part of the game and you continue to play. He's a veteran guy. He was able to get his head outside to be able to see the ball thrown and stuck his right arm up and got it."
The Giants led entering the fourth quarter, 13-12, before San Francisco scored two touchdowns to retake the lead.
Smith's pass to Davis - and his two-point conversion throw to Michael Crabtree – put the 49ers ahead at 20-13 with 13:22 left in the fourth quarter. On second down, Smith threw to the left side for Davis, who was all alone when he caught the ball at the 25 and began motoring down the left sideline. At the two, he jumped into and through safety Kenny Phillips and into the end zone for the touchdown. Smith then threw to Crabtree on the right side for the conversion.
San Francisco drove 50 yards in only four plays following Steve Weatherford's 29-yard punt.
On the Giants' ensuing possession, Manning's pass was intercepted by Carlos Rogers for the second time. Rogers returned the ball 17 yards to the 17.
On the next play, Hunter, subbing for the injured Frank Gore, took a handoff and zipped through the middle for the touchdown and a 27-13 lead with 12:21 remaining.
"The run for the final touchdown was too easy," Coughlin said.
Manningham's touchdown catch with 2:25 remaining in the third quarter had given the Giants their one-point lead. On third-and-six, Manningham lined up on the right side, eluded cornerback Chris Culliver and caught Manning's pinpoint pass while dragging his feet inbounds in the back of the end zone.
The score concluded a 10-play, 84-yard drive that took 5:38 to complete. The long gain in the series was a 36-yard pass to Cruz. Bear Pascoe also had a 14-yard catch-and-run to the San Francisco 21-yard line. Manningham scored four plays later.
Akers' fourth field goal, a 28-yarder with 11:14 remaining in the third quarter, increased the 49ers' lead to 12-6.
San Francisco took the second-half kickoff and moved 70 yards in 10 plays. Smith's 19-yard pass to Delanie Walker gave the 49ers a first down at the Giants' 10-yard line. Smith threw three consecutive passes to the left side – the first to Crabtree, the second two to Braylon Edwards - but Corey Webster had tight coverage on each. Harbaugh then sent Akers back onto the field.
The Giants trailed at 9-6 after a first half in which the decisive play was a successful onside kick by the 49ers. It was the second week in a row in which neither the Giants nor their opponents scored a first-half touchdown.
Tynes' 25-yard field goal with 9:05 remaining in the second quarter gave the Giants their second lead at 6-3. Before the kick, the Giants drove 73 yards in 12 plays, including a drive-starting 21-yard Manning pass to Cruz and a terrific diving catch by Manningham for a 13-yard gain on third-and-nine. The Giants later faced another third-and-nine, but this time picked up only three yards on a pass to Pascoe, forcing the Giants to kick another field goal.
Akers tied the score at 6-6 on a 52-yard field goal with five minutes left in the quarter. It was the longest field goal kicked against the Giants this season.
San Francisco drove 46 yards in six plays, including a 21-yard pass from Smith to Crabtree. Moments later, Crabtree was penalized for offensive pass interference. After Gore lost four yards running up the middle, the 49ers faced a third-and-21 at their own 49. But Smith's 17-yard pass to Edwards put them back in field goal range and Akers took advantage by tying the score.
Akers then pulled a surprise with a well-executed onside kick that was recovered on the Niners' 47-yard line by Walker. Smith soon connected with Walker for an 18-yard gain before his 12-yard scramble set up Akers' 39-yard field goal with 1:49 remaining that gave the home team a 9-6 lead.
The Giants got the ball at their own 22 with 1:40 left, but Manning's pass for Cruz was intercepted by Rogers at the 43. The Niners were in range to kick another field goal, but Smith's pass bounced off the hands of Ted Ginn, Jr. and into the hands of Webster for his team-leading fourth interception of the season.
Each team had a long field goal drive in the first quarter.
The Giants started at their own 20 after the opening kickoff and traveled 75 yards in 14 plays, including Tynes' 23-yard field goal. Manning completed all seven of his passes for 54 yards on the drive, including a short toss that Brandon Jacobs turned into a 16-yard gain and a nine-yarder to Nicks on third-and-six.
The Giants later needed six yards on another third down, but Manning's pass to Cruz gained only four and Tynes came on to kick the field goal.
The 49ers also began their first possession at the 20 after a touchback. They moved 62 yards in 12 plays, including Akers' 36-yard field goal. The longest play on the drive was Smith's 21-yard throw to Edwards.
Like the Giants, San Francisco completed a third-down pass that was short of the first down – a four-yard throw to Davis on third-and-10. Akers then kicked the field goal.
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