The sky in East Rutherford was falling after the Giants began 0-2 for the third consecutive season.
A common denominator in the Giants' 2-2 start was the dissatisfaction in their fourth-quarter performance. They lost late leads in their two losses, and mistakes and breakdowns in the latter stages of their victories made them closer than they needed to be.
But Sunday night, the Giants wrote a thrilling and successful conclusion to an unforgettable victory.
Tight end Larry Donnell made an incredible touchdown catch on a 12-yard Eli Manning pass with only 21 seconds remaining to give the Giants a come-from-behind 30-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in raucous MetLife Stadium.
The score – the Giants' latest game-winning touchdown since Nov. 6, 2011 at New England - capped an eight-play, 82-yard drive that immediately followed a 49ers touchdown that gave them a 27-23 lead – their first since it was 3-0.
The Giants' third consecutive victory improved their record to 3-2 and gave them a one-game lead in the NFC East.
"That was some football game tonight," coach Tom Coughlin said. "To come back and win like that, that's very exciting."
"This one was special, just because we hadn't been as good in the two-minute drives as we once were and we should, had great confidence and we would ride down and win a lot of games that way," said Manning, who led his 27th regular-season, game-winning, fourth-quarter drive. "We had one early versus Atlanta (in Week 2), we didn't make the plays, had a couple games we had leads in the fourth quarter and we lost it and it was a big confidence for this offense, for this team, that we can win that way. Hey, we can get the ball back, we can drive right down. I've got the confidence we could do it, but sometimes you need that reinforcement, you need to do it, you need to have that success and get that attitude, get that feeling. It's big for this team. It was a big win today. It was special."
So was Manning. He set a franchise record with 41 completions, set a career high with 54 attempts, and threw for 441 yards, the forth-highest total of his career. Manning threw touchdown passes of two yards to Shane Vereen and 17
yards to Odell Beckham Jr. (seven catches for 121 yards). Josh Brown kicked field goals of 22, 41 and 24 yards.
But when Carlos Hyde scored on a two-yard run to give the 49ers a four-point lead with just 1:45 remaining, it seemed the Giants might suffer another disheartening defeat.
Manning has long thrived in these situations. But the Giants' lineup at times on that final drive featured many unfamiliar faces to the huddle. Beckham was sidelined with a strained hamstring. As was Rueben Randle. So Manning's wideouts were Dwayne Harris, Myles White and Geremy Davis. Left guard Justin Pugh missed the final two plays with an ankle issue and left the game only because the officials gave the Giants a timeout they thought Manning had called – but he didn't.
"I told them in the locker room that it took every guy in order to secure the win," Coughlin said. "People were playing and getting pushed into roles that they hadn't been before. I think that's a real sign of a team."
The final drive began with more of the unexpected – an 11-yard Manning scramble. That was followed by a pass to Vereen that gained 11 yards, and then an incompletion on a throw to White. On second down, Manning found Vereen for 16 more yards to the San Francisco 44-yard line.
Referee Walt Coleman then announced that the Giants had been charged with their second timeout, which shocked the Giants.
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"We have a signal that kind of looks like a timeout," Manning said. "So we may have to - never had an issue with it before, but Walt Coleman kind of saw from behind that maybe I was giving the timeout signal."
That's when Pugh was replaced by John Jerry. At the same time, Beckham dramatically returned to the field, to loud cheers.
On the next play, Manning's pass down the center of the field for White was short, and originally ruled an interception by cornerback Tramaine Brock. But the turnover was nullified after a review, and the Giants were alive.
Two plays later, Manning flipped a short pass to Vereen, who motored for a 24-yard gain to the 20 as the Giants called their final timeout – intentionally.
"When Shane caught that ball, the Red Sea parted," Coughlin said.
"The good thing about this team is that when we were in the huddle, we have a great quarterback, a great leader in Eli," Vereen said. "He was calm, he was collected. He let us know what we needed to do, what we needed to get to. You can follow easily behind a leader like that."
When play resumed, Manning threw to the left side for Beckham. Without touching the ball, the Giants' sensational receiver made a big play, drawing a pass interference penalty from Kenneth Acker.
That gave the Giants a first down on the 12. Manning took the snap and threw to the back of the end zone for Donnell, who was blanketed by linebacker NaVarro Bowman and safety Antoine Bethea. But the tight end went up high for the ball, secured it against his helmet – reminiscent of another great Giants comeback – and kept his feet inbounds for the game-winning touchdown.
"I tell him I'm going to throw you open if your guy's back is turned to me and sure enough, (he) made a good catch," Manning said.
"The whole week in practice we saw the two-high look," Donnell said. "And we saw the look in the game. Then Eli put it up and I got it.
"Once I had it, I had to hold that thing. You know, the game was on the line and I had to make a play."
And he did. They all did. And the Giants finished a game as they wanted and celebrated an exciting and important victory.
Photos from the Giants Sunday matchup vs. 49ers