For the second time in four years, the Giants had to fight their way into the playoffs at the end of the 2011 season. Following a loss to the Redskins, the Giants entered their Week 16 matchup against the Jets at 7-7 and a game behind the Cowboys for the division lead.
The team needed a big win against their MetLife Stadium co-tenants, who were 8-6 and fighting for an AFC Wild Card spot. After falling behind 7-3 early in the second quarter, Eli Manning connected with Victor Cruz for a 99-yard touchdown, a first in franchise history. The play propelled the Giants to a 29-14 victory.
Former Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks joined John Schmeelk on the Giants Huddle Podcast to talk about that magical Super Bowl run. While the team knew it had the talent to succeed that year, Nicks says the victory over the Jets was what turned the season around.
"I think the turning point was probably that Christmas game against the Jets when we knew we needed it," Nicks told Schmeelk. "But earlier that year, I thought we had it. We knew the talent was there. It was just a matter of everybody doing their job and focusing in on their job, locking in and being all in like Coach Coughlin told us, and focusing on finishing. Once we put all of that together, that's when the results came."
A big reason why the Giants were able to finish 9-7 and atop of the NFC East was the performance of the offense in the fourth quarter. The Giants won six games on game-winning drives in the final quarter, an ability Manning had displayed throughout his career. The entire offense seemed to come together late in games, which Nicks says was due to the hard work they put in for two-minute situations.
"That goes to everybody that had a hand in it. With the offense, the way we practiced, we practiced every scenario you could possibly think of," said Nicks. "Coach (Kevin) Gilbride's offense, giving us the option to read routes and run more than one route with one play being called, and keeping the defense on its heels. Just assimilating the fast two-minute drill, that's something we practiced all year. Whenever we had to pull that out in a game, we had playmakers at every position that were wanting the ball at all times. It was just bound to happen."
That season, Nicks was joined in the wide receiver room by Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham, while Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and Danny Ware composed the running back group, and Jake Ballard led the way at tight end. Each of those players played a big role in the run to the Super Bowl, but it was Manning who helped bring them all together.
"Eli, we put a lot of time in with him. He was one of, if not the most, film study guys on the team," Nicks said on the Giants Huddle Podcast. "He would be there six in the morning on an off day already going over defensive coverages for who we were about to play that next week. Eli always kept us up. He might say something here and there like, 'Hey Hak, you see this look right here? We're going to try to get this skinny post in back side, but look the safety off and come back. You're going to catch it high and wide, away from everybody in the back of the end zone' type situation. That's how we'd do it, we'd practice it. Then we'd go out there, we'd get the look and we'd execute it."
When asked if Manning was as calm in the huddle as he seemed from the outside looking in during those late-game situations, Nicks didn't hesitate.
"Oh yeah, Eli was cool," said Nicks. "He was calm. Easy E, that's what I call him."
The postseason began with a home game in the Wild Card Round against the Atlanta Falcons, who got on the board first when Manning was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, leading to a first half safety. However, those were the only points Atlanta would score, as the Giants defense held the Falcons to zero points and under 250 total yards.
Meanwhile, the Giants offense exploded. Nicks scored the first touchdown on a four-yard pass late in the second quarter, and the Giants never looked back. Jacobs finished the game with 92 rushing yards and Bradshaw added 63, while Nicks had 115 receiving yards and two touchdowns. His performance included a 72-yard touchdown catch, the longest in Giants playoff history.
"The way the defense was playing, we knew we were going to click," he said. "We knew that their defense was finally going to wear down and start opening some things up. Then we knew we were going to be able to switch up in the second half. We just did it. We made plays. Coach Gilbride was doing a good job of calling the plays. Wide receivers were doing a good job in the run game blocking, giving Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs the sidelines and the creases they needed."
Following the 24-2 victory over the Falcons, the Giants hit the road for a matchup against the 15-1 Packers at Lambeau Field. Big Blue was up 13-10 when they got the ball back on their own 31-yard line with 41 seconds left in the first half. Instead of running the clock out and going into halftime with a three-point lead, the Giants offense took the field wanting more.
After gaining 32 yards in 35 seconds, the Giants were on Green Bay's 37-yard line with six seconds left. Manning attempted a Hail Mary pass to the end zone, which Nicks went up and caught in a crowd of Packers. The catch seemed to completely deflate Green Bay, as the Giants ran away with the game in the second half and won 37-20.
"Oh yeah, it most definitely took the wind right out of them," Nicks said of the Hail Mary touchdown. "The way they came out in the second half, they were real flat. We took off from there. They gave us the momentum and we took the momentum from there."
The Giants then traveled to San Francisco for a tough game against the 49ers in the NFC Championship. The Niners finished the regular season 13-3 and sported one of the league's top defenses, which was on full display.
Manning was sacked six times and the San Francisco defense finished with 12 quarterback hits. Bradshaw and Jacobs were held to a total of 87 yards on 25 carries, but thanks to a fumble on a 49ers' punt return in overtime, the Giants were able to squeak out the 20-17 victory.
"Man, that was a defensive game right there," said Nicks, who finished the contest with five receptions for 55 yards. "Their red zone defense was probably one of the top defenses that year. They were solid. You had to be very strategic at beating them and scoring on them. I think through the course of the game, it opened up for us. But just like a chess match, you have to figure it out at first.
"We were just battling. They had some good defensive stops, we had some good defensive stops. The thing about it, Coach Coughlin told us that it was going to go into overtime. We were expecting a hard-fought game and were just expecting to come out on top. Not one person on our team or sideline doubted that."
The Giants then faced the Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in four years. Nicks knew that the Patriots were going to pay extra attention to him on the outside, and that if he wanted to have a big game, it was going to have to be in the middle of the field.
"I knew it was going to be a slant game for us," Nicks said. "Going into the game, I said I'm going to have to attack the seams and slants. That's what Coach Gilbride told me. He was like, 'Then when we get our one on one opportunities, you take advantage of it.' He said, 'Right now, we need you to be that possession receiver, get us up and down the field.' I was ready to do whatever they told me to do."
Super Bowl XLVI was a back and forth affair, as the Giants took an early lead before New England took a 10-9 advantage into halftime. The Patriots led most of the second half until Manning directed the offense on one final game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
"We knew it was going to go down to the wire," said Nicks. "We couldn't think in our mind, 'Hey, we can let up now and everything will be okay.' No, we had to fight down until that clock said zero, and we knew that going into the game."
Nicks finished with a game-high 10 receptions for 109 yards, capping off a strong postseason run for the third-year receiver. Across the four playoff games, Nicks caught 28 passes for 444 yards and four touchdowns, including three games with at least 100 yards. The 444 receiving yards are the second-most in a single postseason in NFL history. When asked what led to the stretch of strong performances, Nicks, who currently ranks 10th on the Giants' all-time receptions list, told Schmeelk it was the chance to play on the sport's biggest stage.
"I would say just the opportunity. Just being on that big stage, wanting to get it done. It was my first time being in the playoffs, so you know I was hungry," he said.
The 10-year anniversary of the Super Bowl XLVI-winning team is just one year away, and Nicks could not hold back his excitement about the chance to celebrate the accomplishment with his teammates.
"I can't wait. I cannot wait for it. It seems like it wasn't that long ago. But hey, I think about it all the time."