The Giants played the 1,211th regular season game in franchise history on Sunday and it's safe to say none of them were quite like this. Some games have tremendous comebacks, record-setting offensive statistics, amazing individual performances, unforgettable plays and some controversy thrown in for good measure.
The Giants' scintillating 41-34 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in MetLife Stadium had all that and more. The Giants improved to 1-1 and will play Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
It was such a spectacle, even the normally-loquacious Justin Tuck couldn't find the words to describe it.
"I was hoping you were going to help me with that," Tuck told reporters at his postgame news conference. "I don't have the vocabulary, I don't have any adjectives for today. All that matters is we got a win and we'll try to look at the positives and build on that."
The Giants overcame three first-half interceptions by Eli Manning, including one that was returned 60 yards for a touchdown by Eric Wright, and a 14-point second-half deficit. They did so thanks to – whom else – Manning – who threw for 510 yards, the second-highest total in franchise history, and three touchdowns. The Giants' 604 total yards are also second in Giants history. The team's 510 net passing yards – Manning was not sacked – was a franchise record.
"It's fun," said Manning, who completed 31 of 51 passes. "As a quarterback you like to throw it. You like to be in that mix and spread them out and see what they're doing; have some runs, have some throws, and mix things up and obviously it's fun when guys are getting open and guys are making plays and you're seeing things."
Victor Cruz caught 11 passes for 179 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. Hakeem Nicks added 10 catches for 199 yards and a score. They are the first teammates in NFL history with at least 10 receptions and 175 yards in the same game. Martellus Bennett also caught a key touchdown pass.
Andre Brown entered the game with a career rushing total of minus-1 yard. Then Ahmad Bradshaw went out with a neck injury. Brown stepped in and ran for 71 yards on 13 carries, including the game-winning two-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds remaining.
"It was an opportunity," said Brown. "I just took advantage of it. Really to go out there and show everybody what I had and it was a heck of a game. It was a team effort. Everybody came out there and played – Victor, Eli, Hakeem. I just went out there and I put it all out on the line and it was a good win."
Oh, and let's not forget Lawrence Tynes' four field goals.
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman threw touchdown passes to Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, rookie Doug Martin scored on an eight-yard run and Connor Barth kicked field goals from 45 and 52 yards.
But it was Wright's touchdown that best exemplified the Giants' first-half frustration. The Giants seemed to be on their way to no worse than a field goal that would have lifted them to within a point. But on third-and-two from the Tampa Bay 39-yard line, Manning's pass sailed over Cruz's head and was picked off by Wright, who ran 60 yards for the touchdown that gave the Bucs a 24-13 lead with only eight seconds remaining in the second quarter. It was Manning's third pick of the half, which Tampa Bay converted to 17 points.
"Just bad decisions," Manning said. "A lot of times a decision made with a bad pass and it leads to a bad result."
"He made a couple of bad plays and yet didn't get discouraged," coach Tom Coughlin said.
Asked what changed in the second half, Manning said simply, "Stopped throwing interceptions."
But it took a while for the Giants to catch up and for the fireworks to really ignite.
The fourth quarter began with the Giants trailing, 27-16. They were stopped after getting a first-and-goal at the five, forcing Tynes to kick a field goal that cut the deficit to eight points. After forcing a punt, the Giants took possession at their 12. On third-and-two from the 20, Wright blitzed off the left corner. Cruz got behind safety Ronde Barber, caught Manning's pass at the Tampa Bay 45-yard line and sprinted to the end zone, where he entertained the crowd with his salsa dance – just two days after the funeral of his grandmother, Lucy Molina, who taught him how to do it.
"I felt like she was with me," Cruz said. "Right as I was done, I kind of looked up and held my hands up to her letting her know that one was for her. It was a great feeling. I was glad more so that we got the win, but I was glad I was able to do the salsa for her."
The Bucs went three-and-out. On the fourth play of the Giants' ensuing possession, Manning threw to the right side for Bennett, who caught the ball inside the five, steamrolled Brandon McDonald, and stepped into the end zone for a 33-yard scoring play to give the Giants a 34-27 lead with 3:59 remaining as the crowd of just shy of 80,000 roared.
But the game was far from finished. The Buccaneers went 80 yards in five plays and 2:01. Freeman threw the game-tying 41-yard touchdown pass to Williams, who reached over Justin Tryon to make a spectacular catch in the end zone with 1:58 left.
With the score tied the game was back in Manning's hands, which is exactly where the Giants want it. The Giants took possession at the 20. Manning quickly hit Ramses Barden on the right side for a 14-yard gain. After a false start penalty, he again threw to the right, this time for Nicks, whose catch-and-run gained 50 yards to the Tampa Bay 11 with 1:20 left.
Now the Giants were in a situation similar to what they faced at the end of Super Bowl XLVI – they wanted to score but not too quickly. Brown took a handoff and the Bucs stood back to let him score. But unlike Bradshaw in the Super Bowl, Brown listened to Manning and went to the ground at the two. He scored on the next play, with 31 seconds left.
'I heard Eli say, 'GET DOWN,'" Brown said. "And I was like, 'Alright, I've got to get down.' And then he was like, 'You can go in and score on the next play.' At least I got a touchdown out of this."
Former Giant D.J. Ware returned Tynes' kickoff to the Buccaneers' 36. Freeman connected with Jackson for a 19-yard gain. He then threw for Williams for 29 more, which would have given the Bucs a first down on the Giants' 16. But the play was ruled an incompletion after a review. On the next play, Michael Boley intercepted Freeman to seal the victory with five seconds left.
But that didn't end the competition. As Manning went to kneel down, the Tampa Bay defensive line dove and knocked him down. That drew the ire of Coughlin and the Giants' offensive line. Coughlin confronted Tampa Bay's rookie head coach, Greg Schiano, at midfield after the game.
"I don't think you do that at this level," Coughlin said. "You don't do that in this league. You don't just, you jeopardize the offensive line, you jeopardize the quarterback. Thank goodness we didn't get anyone hurt--that I know of. A couple of the linemen were late coming in."
"Obviously, I think it's a little bit of a cheap shot," Manning said. "We're taking a knee, we're in a friendly way and they're firing off and that's a way to get someone hurt."
The controversy at the end of the game did not diminish the Giants' great comeback.
"It showed our determination," Nicks said. "We knew we were capable of doing it as a team. We never doubted ourselves. Not one time did the team get down on ourselves. Everybody was always saying we were going to come back, we got it. And we knew what were capable of doing. Coach Coughlin mentioned at halftime it was a new game and coming out the second half and that's how we approached it."
"We had to fight," Cruz said. "We were down a ton. We just had to fight every down. Every possession was crucial. Every time we had the football, we had to make sure we took care of it. This week there was a lot of pressure. Last week it was a matter of it being a big game, a pressure game. First out the gate, we came out a little rusty. This one, we knew we had to win it and we had to play our best. We did that today."