No one knows better than the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams’ head coach Steve Spagnuolo that it’s entirely possible to start an NFL season 0-2 and still win a league championship.
But, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to start that way if they can help it.
Good thing for the Giants, they knew just the formula to all but guarantee a victory against their old defensive coordinator – a blueprint that included winning the turnover battle and leading in the fourth quarter.
The Giants (1-1) did both of those things during a 28-16 victory in their season home opener at Met Life Stadium on Monday night, extending Rams’ streaks to 39 straight losses when St. Louis commits more turnovers then its opposition and 44 consecutive defeats when the Rams (0-2 for a fifth straight season) trail in the fourth period.
New York’s victory ruined Spagnuolo’s first trip back to his old home since he directed a Giants defense in 2007 that allowed 80 points in a pair of season-opening losses before that unit later shocked the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
It was a frustrating night for Spagnuolo and the Rams, who were significantly outgaining the Giants but who repeatedly failed in the red zone while committing costly miscues on which New York capitalized enough to take control of the game.
Safety Quintin Mikell (6 tackles, 1 INT) intercepted quarterback Eli Manning (18-29, 200 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 3 sacks) on the game’s opening drive and five plays later, last year’s top overall pick, quarterback Sam Bradford (22-46, career-high 331 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 2 sacks) connected on a 68-yard pass to undrafted second-year wide receiver Danario Alexander (3 catches, game-high and career-high 122 yards).
Safety Deon Grant simply watched as Alexander made a falling grab at the New York 25-yard line and continued to roll to his feet without being touched, before racing down to the Giants’ 1-yard line.
But, the Rams were forced to settle for a 21-yard field goal from kicker Josh Brown and a 3-0 lead 5:46 into the game.
St. Louis then appeared to force a quick three-and-out, but rookie Greg Salas, attempting his first NFL punt return, dropped a kick from punter Steve Weatherford, leading to a short 38-yard field for New York.
Six plays later, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (3 catches, 15 yards, 1 TD) made a nice adjustment on a back shoulder throw in the end zone from Manning. Nicks reached away from his body against bump-and-run coverage, to snatch the pass for his first touchdown of the season, to give New York a 7-3 lead with 5:47 left in the opening quarter.
Using a no huddle offense that caused the Giants problems, Bradford quickly moved the Rams right back down the field and St. Louis nearly had a first-and-goal inside the New York 10-yard line. But, head coach Tom Coughlin had an apparent first down catch at the marker by Salas correctly overturned after a hit by cornerback Aaron Ross broke up the play on third down.
As a result of the reversal, the Rams again settled for a Brown field goal, this time from 25 yards, to cut the Giants’ lead to 7-6, with 3:21 left in the opening quarter.
New York extended its lead in the second quarter on another lucky break when Bradford attempted a short screen pass to running back Cadillac Williams (13 carries, team-high 36 yards). Williams dropped the lateral pass and gave up on the play thinking it would be ruled an incompletion.
However, linebacker Michael Boley alertly picked up the loose ball (correctly called a fumble) and raced 65 yards for a gift touchdown to increase the Giants’ lead to 14-6 with 10:58 left in the first half.
Other than the miscues, the scoreboard didn’t reflect the overall play of each team as shortly after that score, St. Louis had been outgaining New York 227-70, with Bradford completing 11 of 21 passes for 197 yards while Manning was just 2 of 11 for 19 yards.
The Giants’ offense finally awoke on New York’s final drive of the opening half, when Manning went a perfect 6-for-6 for 77 yards during a scoring drive that featured consecutive circus catches by two different Giants’ receivers.
First, Mario Manningham (3 catches, game-high 56 yards) should have made a clean catch for a touchdown streaking up the left side, but he bobbled the ball in stride. Still, Manningham displayed great concentration to make a nice falling, juggling 31-yard catch to the Rams’ 22-yard line.
Domenik Hixon (2 catches, 29 yards, 1 TD) then surpassed Manningham’s exploits on the next play, making a brilliant touchdown catch that should remain a top highlight for the remainder of the entire NFL season.
Manning threw a little behind Hixon, who was covered well in the end zone. Hixon reached behind and flipped the ball up with his left hand while falling to the ground. On his way down, Hixon then tipped the ball twice with his right hand to keep the play alive, before landing and securing the ball with both hands for an incredible touchdown catch, and a 21-6 Giants’ lead with 21 seconds left in the half.
While that sequence helped New York win, it could be a costly longer-term blow to roster that has already been decimated by injuries. Manningham didn’t return after suffering a concussion on his catch, and Hixon, who injured his right calf on his touchdown catch, left after the game after the Giants’ next series.
Bradford again guided the Rams deep into Giants’ territory to start the second half, but that resulted in yet another stalled drive, as Brown kicked a 27-yard field goal to draw St. Louis to within 21-9 with 11:49 left in the third quarter.
New York immediately responded however, with the help of two defensive penalties called on the Rams.
Thanks in part to a 15-yard facemask call and a 17-yard pass interference penalty (induced by newly signed veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley), Manning took the Giants 49 yards in eight plays to the St. Louis 32-yard line.
From there, New York’s backfield tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw (15 carries, team-high 59 yards) and Brandon Jacobs (16 carries, 50 yards) finished the drive off.
Bradshaw exploded for 23 yards to the Rams’ 9-yard line and Jacobs gave the Giants a 28-9 advantage on the next play, scoring on a 9-yard touchdown run with 6:19 left in the quarter.
The Rams answered on the next possession with their best drive of the game, going 72 yards on 13 plays in 5:01, scoring on a leaping touchdown grab in the end zone by Alexander (over the top of cornerback Michael Coe, who replaced an ineffective Ross) who caught a 19-yard pass from Bradford to pull St. Louis to within 28-16 with 1:18 left in the period.
That was as close as the Rams would get however, as the Giants forced consecutive three-and-outs and then one more punt on St. Louis’ final three possessions during a scoreless fourth quarter.
The Giants will be back in action in Week 3 on Sunday when they travel to hated divisional rival Philadelphia (1-1) at 1 pm ET on Sunday.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Notes: The Giants honored the 25th anniversary year of their first Super Bowl (XXI) title with many key members of that championship team in attendance for halftime ceremonies… Jacobs’ touchdown run was the 50th of his career… While the Giants played and will continue to play without several main starters this season, the Rams had little sympathy, playing without their top rusher Steven Jackson and key wide receiver and kick/punt returner Danny Amendola… Manning threw an interception for the seventh straight regular season game, tying the longest such streak of his career (occurring in 2007).