There would be no collapse for the New York Giants this time.
A healthier, reinforced defensive line and one of the NFL’s best stories of the 2011 season made sure of it as the calendar turned to 2012.
Less than 24 hours after the famous New Year’s Eve ball fell in nearby Times Square, the Giants (9-7) dropped the Dallas Cowboys (8-8) from the NFC playoff picture with a 31-14 victory at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on Sunday night to capture their first playoff berth and first NFC East title since 2008, following second-half collapses each of the past two years.
New York recorded six sacks of quarterback Tony Romo (29-37, 289 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT), who for a moment in the fourth quarter, looked like he might cause yet another Giant letdown until undrafted, second-year, undrafted wide receiver Victor Cruz came through once again with a huge play for New York on a third-down, momentum-turning, 44-yard reception.
The catch allowed the Giants to hold off a second-half rally by the Cowboys and get the separation they needed to lock up a division title before Dallas might have stolen it away in the waning moments of the 100th meeting between the teams.
For Cruz, who caught six passes for a career-high 178 yards, it was one more in a series of huge plays for the salsa-dancing sensation who also had an electrifying first-quarter touchdown that set the tone for the game and gave Cruz a Giants single-season receiving record and an NFL milestone for long touchdown receptions.
On the other side of the ball, the Giants’ defense often harassed Romo, who played better than expected with a bruised throwing hand.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora returned from a high ankle sprain to record two sacks, and four other Giants had one sack each, including defensive end Justin Tuck, who said, “We’re going to the dance” – one that will be sure to have a salsa flavor to it, with the Giants and Cruz crashing the party as the four seed in the NFC playoffs.
But first, New York had to hang on in the final period after scoring the game’s first 21 points and then the final ten points in the last 5:45 to put secure their divisional title.
With the help of a couple of bounces going their way, the Giants dominated the first half with three long touchdown drives while the Cowboys started with five straight punts and a missed field goal attempt to end the half.
Starting from their own 4-yard line on their second possession, New York moved out to its own 26-yard line on five plays before Manning threw what seemed to be short gain for a first down on 3rd-and-1.
However, Cruz, a New Jersey native who ironically grew up a huge Cowboy fan because of his father, caught a short pass from quarterback Eli Manning (24-33, 346 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) blew right by cornerback Terrance Newman (4 tackles) in the left flat and up the sideline with blazing speed for a 74-yard touchdown that gave the Giants a 7-0 lead with 4:57 left in the opening quarter.
As the fans chanted their familiar “CRUUUZ,” the former FCS receiver from the University of Massachusetts followed the score (one that was reminiscent of his game-turning, team-record 99-yard reception in a win over the New York Jets last week) with his trademark salsa dance in the end zone, accompanied by salsa music being played over the stadium public address system.
The touchdown gave Cruz, who now holds the Giants’ single-season record with 1,536 yards this year, his fifth touchdown this season of at least 65 yards, the most of any NFL player in a season during the Super Bowl era.
Dallas punted on the next possession, but New York needed a big break to keep the ball as returner Will Blackmon fumbled a Cowboys punt but cornerback Alan Ball (4 tackles) let the brown object of his namesake slip through his hands as he dove for it on the turf. Greg Jones recovered the ball and the Giants’ capitalized on their next possession.
Ball was flagged for a key 14-yard pass interference penalty, grabbing Cruz’s jersey at the Dallas 16-yard line two plays after wide receiver Devin Thomas’ only catch of the game went for 14 yards to the Cowboys’ 34-yard line on 3rd-and-8.
Cruz then caught a five-yard pass over the middle five plays later, to set up a five-yard touchdown pass from Manning to running back Ahmad Bradshaw (16 carries, 57 yards, 1 TD; 3 catches, 12 yards) that capped a ten-play, 68-yard drive and pushed New York’s lead to 14-0 with 13:27 left in the half.
The Giants had a chance to extend their lead further after starting at the Cowboys’ 48-yard line following a Dallas punt, and driving 34 yards, but running back Brandon Jacobs (7 carries, 16 yards) fumbled. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh had a good chance to scoop the ball up, but it squirted away from him and was recovered by Manning for a nine-yard loss.
That led to a 4-yard field goal attempt that was pushed wide right by kicker Lawrence Tynes.
Another Dallas punt though led to an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that was finished with a ten-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Bradshaw that gave the Giants a 21-0 lead with 1:09 to go in the half.
The trip was highlighted by an earlier 29-yard run by Bradshaw who had a huge hole opened for him when left tackle David Diehl legally took down star defensive end DeMarcus Ware (1½ sacks). Fullback Henry Hynoski (4 catches, 31 yards) also picked up a pair of first downs on the drive, first powering his way over Newman, and later, hurdling him.
Dallas, which picked up only five first downs to the New York’s 15 and which was outgained 277-96 in the first half, finally moved the ball on its last possession of the half but had kicker Dan Bailey miss a 52-yard field goal attempt just to the left to end the half.
New York’s offense stalled in the third quarter as the Giants punted twice and lost the ball on downs.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys mounted a nine-play, 94-yard drive, as Romo threw a no-huddle, 34-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Laurent Robinson (4 catches, 61 yards) up the right sideline to get the Cowboys to within 21-7 with 6:54 left in the period.
Safety Antrel Rolle (5 tackles, 1 INT), one play after NBC’s Sunday Night Football color analyst Chris Collinsworth had just finished Rolle for stepping into different defensive roles for the Giants (other than as a typical safety, due to several injuries with New York’s defense this season), picked Romo off over the middle on the Cowboys’ next possession.
That however, was before the Giants turned the ball over on downs, which the Cowboys did on their ensuing drive.
Romo thought he had a first down at the New York 10-yard line on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak early in the final quarter, but linebacker Michael Boley (7 tackles) jumped over the top to stop Romo.
A three-and-out followed for the Giants, leading to a short punt and a personal foul penalty on Thomas that set Dallas up at the New York 26-yard line.
Three plays later, Romo threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Robinson (who then mocked Cruz’s salsa dance in the end zone) to cut the Giants’ once-commanding lead to 21-14 with 10:15 remaining.
Facing a 3rd-and-7 from its own 28-yard line, New York appeared to be letting the game slip away and remind Giants’ fans of recent second half swoons over the past three seasons. But, Manning then made a play that had the Big Blue faithful remember the famous escape he made in Super Bowl XLII, on his memorable pass to ex-Giant wide receiver David Tyree.
It wasn’t quite that good, but a very nice play nonetheless, as Manning spun to his left, away from a potential sack, and flung the ball downfield for a leaping Cruz, who made the catch for a 44-yard gain to the Dallas 28-yard line.
That led to a 28-yard field goal by Tynes which gave the Giants a 24-14 lead with 5:45 left.
A Cowboys’ three-and-out followed, and a short, 26-yard punt started New York at the Dallas 45-yard line.
Manning then connected with wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (5 catches, 76 yards, 1 TD) on two straight passes, first for a 36-yard gain, and then on a four-yard touchdown pass to close the scoring with 3:41 remaining.
It was an NFL-record fifteenth fourth-quarter touchdown pass this year for Manning, who fell just 67 yards shy of becoming the Giants’ first-ever 5,000 yard passer in a season.
Much more than that, Manning was satisfied with a divisional championship, as was head coach Tom Coughlin, whose job was in danger as recently as two weeks ago after his team lost to Washington and was on the outside looking in for the playoffs, with the prospect of suffering a third straight second-half meltdown.
“We had some ups and downs this year… [but] we talked about finishing,” Manning said.
Not just individual games, but the season, in first place, something which sounds great to Coughlin, who received a Gatorade shower as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“NFC East champions,” Coughlin said. “I won’t get tired of hearing that over and over and over again.”
Rolle echoed the sentiments of other Giants’ players who were playing not only for themselves, but for their coach, saying, “I take it very [personally] when I hear speculation [Coughlin’s] his job.”
While the win was a team effort with significant contributions from many, Coughlin and the rest of the Giants should be thankful for the exploits of Cruz, who described his fast-tracked journey to stardom as “surreal.”
“It’s been amazing to come in here relatively unknown [as an undrafted free agent] and to propel us all the way to NFC East champions… has been incredible,” Cruz said. “I owe all the credit to my coaching staff and my teammates for believing in me and trusting me.”
The Giants lately, seem to be having that type of faith in the rest of the team as well – something they’ll need to continue in the postseason, which will begin for them on Sunday, when they host the NFC’s fifth-seeded wild-card entry, the Atlanta Falcons (10-6) on Sunday at 1 pm ET.