The Giants have succeeded at the start of the 2011 season largely because they thrive at the end of games. And while that may seem a bit simplistic, it is a significant turnaround from the pattern they established last year.
A 31-27 victory yesterday in Arizona was the Giants' second in as many games in which they overcame a fourth-quarter deficit. Last week in Philadelphia, they trailed 16-14 before scoring two late touchdowns to win, 29-16. Their comeback against the Cardinals was even more dramatic. They were behind with less than four minutes remaining, 27-17, before Eli Manning threw two touchdown passes 58 seconds apart to pull out a 31-27 triumph.
' last-play field goal. Last year, they trailed Jacksonville by eight points early in the fourth before rallying for a 24-20 win.
They had not overcome a fourth-quarter deficit of 10 or more points without an overtime since beating Denver in 2005.
The improvement in the Giants' late-game performance has been dramatic. In 2010, the Giants were outscored in the fourth quarter, 117-70. Their scoring differential of minus-47 points in the quarter was the second-largest in the NFL, behind only Carolina (minus-67). But those Panthers finished 2-14. The Giants were 10-6 and would have earned a postseason berth had they played better late in games, most critically in their two losses to Philadelphia.
Coach Tom Coughlin has emphasized finishing stronger – drives, games and the season – this year.
"We've done a lot on that," Coughlin said on a conference call today. "I'm not going to go into all of the different ways in which we've done it, but it's been a matter of our players being interested in various ways that we've sold that message. We've done it with the use of video. We've done it with the verbal lectures. We've done it any way you can think of doing it and hopefully it will stick with us."
The early results are positive. In the first quarter of this season, the Giants own a 36-14 point advantage in the fourth quarter. The plus-22 differential is the NFL's third-highest, behind 4-0 Detroit (plus-51) and Atlanta (plus-26).
"I think it is a matter of him instilling it in our heads and us putting it together as a team and wanting to get the job done," said wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, whose 10 receptions for a career-high 162 yards included the game-winning 29-yard touchdown catch with 2:39 remaining in the fateful fourth yesterday. "Each game is going to go down to the wire and each game is going to be competitive. We always want to come out on top."
"That was a big thing for us coming into this year," linebacker Michael Boley said. "It was finishing games. We didn't do a good job of that last year, so that was a big emphasis for us going into this year.
"It is just a matter of want-to. I think we have a different mentality to finishing games now. I think at times last year, we got kind of lackadaisical. We got away from the things we did earlier in the game as far as keeping the pressure on. This year it is a different mentality as a team. Our whole mentality is to keep the pressure on and don't let up even during the times late in the game when we are behind like yesterday. It was kind of like don't lose hope because there is always time."
And confidence. The Giants had plenty of it yesterday, even when they were down by two scores late in the game. The feeling among the players and coaches was that they were going to win the game.
"Hakeem was walking up and down the sideline saying, 'We're going to get a score, we're going to get a score,'" cornerback Corey Webster said.
"That's what we're all about," said defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who had two sacks and a forced fumble in his 2011 debut. "This team has a tremendous amount of heart. We've done things like this before. I'm just happy we got this win – it was big for us."
Coughlin also picked up the positive vibe on the sideline.
"What I sensed was that I think our intensity and the level of our play and everything kind of improved toward the end of the game," Coughlin said. "As we had the opportunity for stops and had the opportunity to do things with the ball, we kind of played off of each other. I mean that in terms of our defense and our offense and our special teams contributing to that feeling of momentum and we can do this. That's what I felt."
The Giants have great confidence in those end-of-game situations in part because Manning is so skilled at running the two-minute offense. He was at his best yesterday, completing seven of eight passes for 126 yards on the two touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter.
On the first series, Nicks made a tremendous 26-yard catch on the sideline to set up Manning's two-yard touchdown pass to Jake Ballard. After Aaron Ross' 18-yard punt return delivered the ball to the Arizona 48-yard line, Manning found Victor Cruz for 19 yards – the controversial play in which he gave himself up and the Cardinals claimed they had recovered his fumble – and the game-winner to Nicks.
So why did the no-huddle work so well against the Cardinals?
"I don't know what the reason was," Manning said after the game. "When we were in our base personnel, they were doing a good job getting extra guys in the box, bringing some blitzes and getting some good pressure. We thought their strength was their front three guys, and I think when we played in our base personnel, that played into their strength. But when we went to sub, the offensive line really protected well and we could see pretty easily what they were doing defensively and made some adjustments. And we hit some big plays."
Manning's passer rating is 105.6. His career rating entering the season was 80.2.
"I think it is just that we are clicking now," Nicks said. "Everyone is getting involved with the offense and people are stepping up at the tight end position. Victor Cruz stepping up and me and Mario Manningham as well and Ahmad (Bradshaw) is doing his part. I think we are finally clicking as a team. We are using all of our weapons."
The result is a team that has two big comeback victories on the road to its credit as it begins a three-game homestand Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
"It can boost your confidence a lot being able to go into a hostile environment like Philly and come away with a win and then being out in Arizona and fighting that battle in the desert," Boley said. "It is a confidence booster especially for us to get to where we want to be as a team."
*Coughlin briefly discussed the Cruz play on the game-winning drive.
"As we all look at the course of games, you can point to one or two things, but you know that in the course of a game you have many opportunities," Coughlin said. "Not just one individual wins or loses a game. There probably isn't just one play. I think that's what I would just say about it was that was one of many.
"I'm standing by the way the rule was interpreted by the officials and if you look at the way that play took place, there's no question he was giving himself up. He was headed back for the huddle. I don't know how you call it anything else."
*Coughlin said center David Baas aggravated a burner during game. Bass did not play in the second half and was replaced by Kevin Boothe.
"(Baas) is over getting a series of tests done," Coughlin said. "We'll have to wait on that one."
*Umenyiora's surgically-repaired knee passed its first test.
"(It) seemed to come out well," Coughlin said. "Had a few more plays then we thought. I think he was at 39. We were trying to go 25 to 35, but as you can imagine, the game was tight in the fourth quarter and he wanted to go. He wanted to get in there. He was able to lobby out a few more and rightfully so and thank God, he's like he is. That big sack (on the Cardinals' final drive) was huge in knocking them back out of there."