The Giants have long owned the fourth quarter, but on Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers stole it from them.
After entering the final quarter with a 10-point lead, the Giants gave up two touchdowns and went three-and-out on all three of their offensive possessions and lost, 24-20, in MetLife Stadium.
"That's as disappointing a loss as we've had around here in a long time," coach Tom Coughlin said. "We've lost games around here where we've played really well and physically battled away and just got beat, but that wasn't one of them. And I'm not trying to take anything away from the Steelers."
"We kind of built this team around finishing in the fourth quarter and we've been successful in doing that," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "So when you see us needing a score there at the end or needing to come up with a big stop, we had all the confidence in the world that we were going to be able to do that. It didn't happen today, but if we're in that situation next week, we're going to still have the same confidence because most times more than not, we've been successful in that regard."
The defeat ended the Giants' four-game winning streak and left them at 6-3 heading into next week's game in Cincinnati, their last before the bye.
Pittsburgh improved to 5-3.
The Giants hoped to put a triumphant end to a difficult and emotional week as they sought to honor those suffering in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. They held a "Salute to Service" game and welcomed 150 servicemen and women and 100 first responders. But they fell flat in the game.
"In anticipation of us winning, I wanted everyone to realize that what we were trying to do, was to give them a few hours of enjoyment in a very, very difficult time," Coughlin said. "To let them know that we understood the mass difficulties that are facing our neighbors and that many, many people are fighting to survive, fighting to get their homes back, to get their families reunited and all those kinds of things in the aftermath of a tragic, tragic storm. That was the reason we did that. I hope the message came through we were trying, but we didn't accomplish what we set out to do."
The Giants struggled on offense all day. They gained only 182 yards (their lowest total since the 2009 season finale at Minnesota), including 68 on the ground. El Manning completed only 10 of 24 passes for 125 yards. The Giants converted only two of 10 third down opportunities.
"We didn't do anything offensively," Coughlin said.
"All night we weren't as sharp as we needed to be; not efficient in the red zone; not very good on third down," Manning said. "We haven't been playing our best football offensively in the last few weeks. Our defense has been playing great, but tonight it finally caught up with us. We're just not executing as well."
In the fateful fourth quarter, the Giants ran nine plays and gained a total of eight yards.
"We've been pretty good in fourth quarters at coming back and scoring more and finishing the game strong," said Manning, who has led the Giants to victory three times this season – and in 23 regular-season games in his career – after they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. "Tonight we were in a position – down – with a chance to score a touchdown and take the lead and possibly win the game and we didn't come through."
The defense surrendered 158 rushing yards, including 147 by Isaac Redman. The special teams surrendered kickoff returns of 68 and 50 yards, plus a 63-yard punt return.
Coughlin was also angered by sloppy play. In the second quarter, consecutive false start penalties by Martellus Bennett and David Diehl cost the Giants 10 yards on a possession that ended with Lawrence Tynes coming up short on a 51-yard field goal attempt. In the fourth quarter, the Giants stopped Pittsburgh on a third-and-seven. The Steelers would have likely attempted a tying field goal. But Jayron Hosley was offside, giving Pittsburgh another chance at third-and-two. The Steelers converted and two plays later, Redman scored the winning touchdown on a one-yard run with 4:02 left.
"To play a very good football team like that," Coughlin said, "and to have two illegal procedure penalties take us out of field goal range in the first half and have a third down where we are offside creating a fourth-and-(two) where they have to kick a field goal, and covering kicks and punts the way we did was terrible, was awful."
The Giants scored on Andre Brown's one-yard touchdown run, Michael Boley's 70-yard fumble return and Tynes' field goals of 50 and 23 yards.
Pittsburgh countered with Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes of four yards to Emmanuel Sanders and 51 yards to Mike Wallace, Redman's run and Scott Suisham's 30-yard field goal.
The Steelers had a chance to tie the game with 10:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Suisham lined up to attempt a gimme 20-yard field goal. But Pittsburgh tried to fool the Giants with a fake as holder Drew Butler flipped the ball over his head to Suisham, who was tackled at the four-yard line by Michael Coe.
But instead of capitalizing and gaining momentum from the curious call, the Giants gained only three yards on their next series. They gave the ball back to Pittsburgh in less than two minutes at the Steelers' 49-yard line. On second-and-goal after Hosley's penalty, Redman rammed his way over right tackle for the touchdown that gave the Steelers a 24-20 lead.
Tyler Sash's holding penalty forced the Giants to start their next – and what proved to be their last – possession at the 12-yard line. On first down, Manning threw short of Victor Cruz. On second down, he threw an incompletion deep down the middle for Bennett. The series ended with Manning getting sacked for a nine-yard loss by Larry Foote, who forced a fumble that Kevin Boothe recovered and actually gained a yard. The series took 1:03 off the clock.
When the Steelers converted a third-and-nine on a 16-yard pass to Sanders, the game was over.
Wallace's catch-and-run pulled the Steelers to within 20-17 with 14:05 remaining in the fourth quarter. On third-and-nine from the Pittsburgh 49, Roethlisberger flipped a short pass to Wallace, who caught it at the Giants' 47 in the center of the field. The ultra-fast Wallace sidestepped Antrel Rolle's attempted tackle, ran toward the Pittsburgh sideline, turned left and outraced the Giants' defense to the end zone.
"I thought Pittsburgh did a great job of executing in the fourth quarter," Tuck said. "That screen pass with Wallace – it kind of broke the momentum and started to swing it their way. We weren't able to get it back. I don't think anything about the emotion from this week with Sandy or anything like that affected us. I thought we were prepared to play our best football, it didn't happen. A lot of that goes to the fact that Pittsburgh played pretty good."
Tynes' 23-yarder increased the Giants' lead to 20-10 with 1:32 remaining in the third quarter. The Giants gained possession when Corey Webster intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and returned it seven yards to the Steelers' 33. A 10-yard pass to Hakeem Nicks (his only reception) gave the Giants a first down at the Pittsburgh four. Two runs by Brown netted a lost yard and Manning's pass to the end zone for Rueben Randle was incomplete. Tynes was summoned and the Giants' lead grew to 10 points.
Tynes' 50-yard field goal, his longest of the season by one yard, increased the Giants' lead to 17-10 with 8:25 remaining in the third quarter.
Before the kick, the Giants drove 61 yards in eight plays following a Pittsburgh punt. The long gain was a 33-yard pass from Manning to Martellus Bennett. And eight-yard throw to Henry Hynoski gave the Giants a first down on the Steelers' 35-yard line. But they gained just three yards in three plays, so Tynes came on to kick the 50-yarder.
Suisham's three-pointer as time expired in the second quarter lifted the Steelers to within 14-10 at halftime. Pittsburgh drove 47 yards in four plays and 31 seconds after Tynes' missed 51-yard field goal attempt.
The Steelers offense took possession at their 41 and Roethlisberger quickly completed passes of 24 yards to Jerricho Cotchery and 23 yards to Heath Miller. After the quarterback deliberately stopped the clock, Suisham came on to kick the field goal.
The Giants had taken a 14-7 lead with 5:11 remaining in the half on Boley's long return. On second-and-five from the Giants' 32, Roethlisberger cocked his arm to pass when Osi Umenyiora hit the ball. Roethlisberger lost the ball but continued his throwing motion. Umenyiora was credited with a sack and forced fumble.
"Osi did a good job of getting in and knocking the ball out," Boley said. "After that, I happened to be the closest one. We harp on whether you think it's a fumble or not, pick it up and score. I wanted to pick it up and score, and if they called it back, they called it back."
Boley picked up the ball, turned right and raced up the sideline for the score. It was the Giants' second defensive touchdown in as many weeks; last Sunday in Dallas, Jason Pierre-Paul intercepted a Tony Romo pass and returned it 28 yards for a score.
Boley has the Giants' last two fumble return touchdowns. On Sept. 19, 2011, he scored on a 65-yard return up the same sideline and toward the same end zone vs. St. Louis.
It was the Giants' longest fumble return since Umenyiora scored on a 75-yarder vs. San Francisco on Oct. 21, 2007.
Two minutes earlier, Brown's first touchdown tied the score at 7-7. On first-and-goal from the one, Brown powered his way through the middle of the line for the score, though the Giants had to wait for the touchdown to be confirmed on review before they could celebrate.
The score capped an eight-play, 72-yard drive that was aided by two big Pittsburgh penalties. The first was a 41-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Kennan Lewis, who made contact with Nicks on a long pass down the middle. That gave the Giants a first down on the Steelers' 20-yard line.
Five consecutive runs by Andre Brown left the Giants with a third-and-two at the Pittsburgh two-yard line. Eli Manning, under pressure and running left, threw short into the end zone for Victor Cruz – who was flattened at the end of the play by safety Ryan Clark. The officials flagged Clark for a personal foul, giving the Giants a first down at the one. Brown scored on the next play.
The Steelers took a 7-0 on Sanders' touchdown with 12:09 remaining in the second quarter. On second-and-goal from the four, Roethlisberger fired a pass to Sanders, who kept his feet inbounds in the back of the end zone. It was an early harbinger of what was to come.
"We had a lot riding on this game," Tuck said. "Everyone knows about what's taken place this last week in this area. A lot of us have been affected ourselves and we wanted to come out and put some smiles on faces. That's frustrating itself, but then knowing you had the opportunity to beat a great football team at home and letting that slip through your hands. We've been a team known for finishing; we take the lead in the fourth quarter and we don't sustain it – that's frustrating, that's not us. We've got to go back and look at this thing tomorrow and try to come back next week and get to 7-3."