The Giants must love a challenge, because they refuse to do anything easily.
Given an opportunity to open a two-game cushion in the NFC East, the Giants squandered a fourth-quarter lead and lost to the Washington Redskins, 17-16, Monday night in FedEx Field.
The Giants are in a tight race for the NFC East title as the NFL season enters its final quarter. They have lost three of four games and are 7-5, one game ahead of both Dallas and Washington. The Redskins won their third consecutive game, all against division opponents. The Giants will host New Orleans on Sunday.
Pierre Garcon scored the game-winning touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Robert Griffin III with 11:31 remaining. The Giants punted on each of their last two possessions.
The Giants lost this game by new and unexpected means. They outgained the Redskins (390-370), enjoyed a healthy time of possession advantage (33:13-26:47), succeeded on nine of 15 third-down conversion attempts and didn't commit a turnover. Despite having all that going for them, the Giants were defeated, largely because they crippled themselves with penalties - nine for 73 yards. Oh, and they scored only three second-half points. Coming into the game, the Giants were second in the NFL, with just 4.4 penalties per game.
"This is not real complicated," coach Tom Coughlin said. "I don't know what happened in the second half. They certainly didn't come out and play. Penalties (and) sloppy football. … Just very disappointing that our second half wasn't better."
The Giants had numerous costly penalties. Jim Cordle was twice called for holding on kickoff returns, the second nullifying David Wilson's 49-yard runback after Washington took the lead for good in the fourth quarter. Tyler Sash was flagged for an illegal block on a punt return. (The Giants' average starting point on their eight possessions was their own 15-yard line.) Eli Manning was hit with an intentional grounding penalty on a first-half drive that ended with Lawrence Tynes missing a 43-yard field goal. They even had to overcome three penalties on their only touchdown drive, a 13-play, 85-yarder in the second quarter.
"It seemed like every time we had a special teams play, we had a penalty," Coughlin said. "Every time we had a kickoff return, we had a penalty, so we started inside the 10."
"We played pretty sound football," Manning said, "just obviously set up too many field goals and had some costly penalties that hurt us."
Perhaps the most damaging infraction was the last; tackle Will Beatty was flagged for holding while a pass to Martellus Bennett gained 11 yards on third-and-10 with 4:32 remaining in the game. Instead of getting another set of downs, the Giants had to punt after picking up four yards on third-and-20. They never got the ball back.
"It ruined that drive," Coughlin said.
"To have that affect the team the way it did is never a good thing," Beatty said. "You never like getting a call, but in that situation you know you can't get flagged. You know what we need to do and you cannot put the team in more trouble by getting a flag. I didn't agree with the call."
Manning threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Bennett and Lawrence Tynes kicked field goals of 39, 40 and 35 yards for the Giants. But Tynes was also wide left on what could have been the deciding points.
"It's a kick I should have made," said Tynes, who has kicked an NFL-high 32 field goals on 36 attempts this season. "It was early in the game and it came back to haunt us. I made three, but obviously I would like to have the fourth one back."
The Redskins scored on Joshua Morgan's 13-yard return of a fumble by Griffin, the pass to Garcon and Kai Forbath's 33-yard field goal. Alfred Morris rushed for 124 yards on 22 carries and quarterback Robert Griffin III added 72 yards on the ground and completed 13 of 21 passes for 163 yards.
Tynes' third field goal increased the Giants' lead to 16-10 with 3:09 remaining in the third quarter.
The Giants gained possession when Keith Rivers – who started and saw his most extensive action of the season – recovered a Morris fumble that was forced by Chase Blackburn at the Giants' nine-yard line.
Two plays later, Manning connected with Victor Cruz for a 49-yard gain up the right sideline, giving the Giants a first down at the Washington 40. After Ahmad Bradshaw ran for seven yards, Manning hooked up with Hakeem Nicks for a 16-yard gain to the 17. But the Giants gained only one yard on the next three plays, forcing Tynes to add to their point total.
Washington took possession at its 14-yard line and methodically drove 86 yards in 12 plays that took 6:38. The Redskins never faced a third down on the series. Griffin's 14-yard pass to Leonard Hankerson gave Washington a first-and-goal at the eight. On the next play, Griffin rolled right and threw short to Garcon, who was cutting across the front of the end zone.
The Giants had to punt for the second time in the fourth quarter after Beatty's penalty. But they still had a shot when the Redskins took possession at their own 27 with 3:51 remaining and the Giants owning two timeouts. They believed they could stop Washington's offense and get the ball back in the hands of Manning, who usually plays so well with the game on the line.
"That was our whole mindset," linebacker Michael Boley said. "There was no doubt in our mind we were going to go out there and get a stop and put the ball back in Eli's hands. But we didn't do it."
On second-and-eight, Griffin executed a play-action fake to help free up Garcon, whose 17-yard reception effectively wrapped up the game at the two-minute warning. Morris' six-yard run three plays later on third-and-three sealed the deal.
Boley said he was surprised the Redskins used play-action on second down when they were trying to run out the clock. "It's definitely a play I didn't expect," Boley said. "But regardless of what they run, we have to be better."
The Giants dominated the time of possession in the first two quarters (20:32-9:28) but needed Tynes' 40-yard field goal as time expired to take a 13-10 halftime lead.
After Forbath's 33-yard field goal tied the score at 10-10, the Giants took possession at their own 24 with 35 seconds remaining in the half. Manning then led the kind of drive the Giants wished they had an opportunity duplicate in the fourth quarter. It began with two 13-yard gains – Bradshaw's run and Manning's pass to Rueben Randle. After two incompletions, Manning fired a perfect strike down the middle to Bennett for a 28-yard gain to the Washington 22 on third-and-10. Coughlin used his last time out and sent Tynes onto the field.
Griffin's 35-yard pass to Garcon set up Forbath's field goal that tied the score at 10-10 with 41 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Giants had taken a 10-7 lead on Manning's touchdown pass to Bennett, the tight end's first score since September 20 at Carolina. On first-and-goal, Bennett found a void in the Washington defense in the middle of the end zone and easily caught Manning's pass.
The score capped a 13-play drive that was officially 85 yards, but was actually longer because the Giants had to overcome three penalties, including a holding call on tackle Sean Locklear. The series was highlighted by two big plays - a 30-yard pass to Victor Cruz on third-and-10, which brought the ball to the Redskins' 43-yard line, and a 24-yard completion to Bennett on second-and-20, which gave the Giants a first down at the 14.
Bradshaw ran three times for 10 yards and a first down to set up Bennett's touchdown.
The Redskins led, 7-3, at the end of the first quarter thanks to a touchdown on a strange play – Morgan reaching back to catch Griffin's airborne fumble and then running 13 yards to the end zone.
On second-and-two from the Giants' 28-yard line, Griffin took a shotgun snap and ran around left end. After gaining 12 yards, he was upended by Osi Umenyiora and safety Stevie Brown. As Griffin flipped over, he lost the ball before hitting the ground and it sailed right to Morgan, who eluded Rivers at the five and crossed the goal line with 4:16 remaining in the quarter.
It was the first time a Giants opponent scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery since Indianapolis' Fili Moala on a one-yard return on Sept. 19, 2010 – that was a defensive fumble recovery.
Morgan's touchdown capped an 80-yard drive that was completed in only four plays, including a 25-yard pass to Garcon and Morris runs of 19 and eight yards.
The Giants had taken a 3-0 on their first offensive series on Tynes' 39-yard field goal. Before the kick, the Giants drove 69 yards in 10 plays, including Manning passes of 16 yards to Bear Pascoe and 22 yards to Bennett, who gained 15 yards after catching the ball. The Giants had a first down on the Washington 23 before Locklear's false start penalty moved them back five yards. Manning's pass on third-and-eight fell incomplete and Tynes came on to kick the field goal.
They hoped that would be the start of a big night. Instead, the game ended in disappointment.
"We didn't do anything with our opportunities," Coughlin said. "We aren't going to beat anybody with 16 points. I would say that with 17, but the score was 17-16. I'm just disappointed we came out and played like this in the second half."