It's been a nothing-comes-easy season for the Giants, and on Sunday night, it was capped by a nothing-comes-easy game.
Even when things seemed as if they were under control as the Giants sprinted to the locker room at halftime with a 21-point lead over the Cowboys in their winner-take-all faceoff for the NFC East title, there was an underlying current of drama.
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The last time the Giants held a 21-point lead in a game? It was just over a year ago in the fourth quarter against the Eagles in a game that would have given them the inside track for the division title. That didn't work out too well. So when the Cowboys started chipping away at the lead and eventually got within seven, well, let's just say there were about 80,000 Giants fans at MetLife Stadium who were whistling past the graveyard where the 2010 season is buried.
"It was a little nerve-wracking there, particularly in the third quarter," Tom Coughlin said. "But we straightened it out and finished the game the way we wanted to finish it, finished the regular season the way we wanted to finish it, and created an opportunity for ourselves to be in the playoffs. Everything goes forward from here."
Coughlin used the word "finish" four times in that sentence, bringing his season's total to about a zillion and four. He's been hammering the concept into this team from the first day of training camp, the idea of finishing, and finally, on Sunday night, they did just that. The Giants regrouped and beat the Cowboys, 31-14, to finish 9-7 and clinch the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs. They'll host the No. 5 Falcons (10-6) on Sunday.
"NFC East champions,'' Coughlin said, wearing a cap that proclaimed the same. ''Won't get tired of hearing that.''
How does it feel to finish?
"It's like a rebirth," said Justin Tuck, whose own phoenix impersonation has helped spark the turnaround in the last two weeks of the season.
Victor Cruz, an undrafted former scrub who some thought would not make the team out of training camp but evolved into Eli Manning's most trusted target this season, came up big early and late. The Paterson, N.J., product grew up a Cowboys fan. On Sunday night, he was a Cowboys-killer.
Cruz caught a 74-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to help the Giants build their 21-0 lead and then, just as the advantage was slipping away in the fourth, made a pair of dynamic receptions for a combined 64 yards. That gave Cruz a career-high 178 receiving yards on six catches and extended his Giants single-season record for receiving yards to 1,536.
"He just keeps doing it, and thank God he does," Coughlin said. "I'm cheering for him, doing cartwheels on the sidelines as he's running by . . . It was just a heck of a game and a heck of a season by the kid."
After the Cowboys cut the deficit to 21-14 on Tony Romo's touchdown passes of 34 and 6 yards to Laurent Robinson, the Giants faced a third-and-7 from their own 28. Manning (346 passing yards, three TD passes, no interceptions) calmly spun away from pressure and chucked a deep ball in the vague direction of Cruz, who outjumped Orlando Scandrick for a 44-yard reception that had a whiff of David Tyree to it.
Two plays later, Manning again maneuvered in the pocket and threw to Cruz with Anthony Spencer grabbing at his ankle. Cruz pulled it in for 20 yards and set up first-and-goal at the 8. Lawrence Tynes capped the drive with a 28-yard field goal for a 24-14 lead with 5:45 left.
"I wheeled around and saw him down the middle of the field and knew the safety wouldn't be a problem," Manning said of the 44-yarder. "I didn't think it was a risky throw to be intercepted, and Victor does a great job of going up there and being strong and making the play. It was a huge play at that point in the game."
When Manning hit Hakeem Nicks for a 36-yard completion, then threw a 4-yard fade into the end zone to Nicks that made it 31-14 with 3:41 left, the Giants finally could breathe easy. It was the 15th fourth-quarter touchdown pass of the season for Manning, setting a record and breaking a tie at 14 with Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas.
Tuck sealed the win with a second-effort strip-sack of Romo that even he admitted he might not have been healthy enough -- physically or mentally -- to make several weeks ago.
"It shows what the mind can do," Tuck said. "The body hurts, but when the mind tells it to go, it just seems like you can get the job done."
To say the bounces went the Giants' way in the first half would be a literal interpretation of the events. Twice the Cowboys had their hands on a loose football that would have swung momentum their way, and both times it was the Giants who recovered.
The first occurred when Will Blackmon muffed a punt that bounced right up to Alan Ball, but the Cowboy mishandled it and Greg Jones pounced on it for the Giants. That allowed them to drive for a 14-0 lead.
Midway through the second quarter, Brandon Jacobs fumbled running up the middle from the Dallas 14. This time Gerald Sensabaugh had an opportunity for the Cowboys, but the ball deflected off him, off the Giants' Travis Beckum and up in the air, where Manning, of all people, made a diving catch to recover it at the 23.
The Giants didn't get any points out of that drive -- Tynes missed a 40-yard field-goal try -- but they also kept the Cowboys from capitalizing.
Jones said the team felt as though things were going their way after those two events. "I think this is the perfect time for that to happen," he added.
The Giants' defense harassed Romo (who passed for 289 yards but was sacked six times) with three first-half sacks and nearly constant pressure, and the offense moved down the field with ferocious efficiency. At halftime, the Giants had outgained Dallas 277 yards to 96.
Their first big play was the 74-yard TD pass to Cruz on a simple third-and-1 out route that left Terence Newman in the dust. Ahmad Bradshaw scored the next two touchdowns -- on a 5-yard run and a 10-yard pass, each time breaking a tackle that easily would have stopped him short of the end zone -- and the Giants had a three-touchdown lead at the break.
A Cowboys touchdown on their first drive of the third quarter cut the lead to 21-7, but the Giants had two key defensive sequences that kept the score at that margin.
The first was Antrel Rolle's interception, as he stepped in front of Jason Witten with 4:07 left in the third quarter and gave the Giants the ball at the Dallas 44. They did nothing with it and turned it over on downs when Jacobs was unable to convert a fourth-and-1 run from the 35.
But Michael Boley made two big plays, tackling Witten at the Giants' 10 just short of the first down on a third-and-7 pass and then diving over the top to yank Romo back from a first down on a quarterback sneak.
"They'd been running a lot of shotgun and he walked up under center, so it was kind of obvious, I knew what was coming," Boley said of anticipating the sneak. "It was very big. They had a lot of momentum going on that drive. They were riding high trying to get in, and for us to come up with that stop, it was amazing. It took all the wind out of their sails."
Not all of it. The Giants' offense could not move the ball yet again and punted it away. Not only was Steve Weatherford's punt a disappointing 35 yards, not only was Dez Bryant's return a disappointing (to the Giants) 13 yards, but Devin Thomas shoved Alan Ball after the play and drew an unnecessary-roughness flag. That gave the Cowboys the ball at the Giants' 26, and three plays later, Romo hit Robinson for a 6-yard touchdown that closed the gap to 21-14.
"Listen, they had all the momentum," Giants guard Chris Snee said. "It was 21-14 and they were jumping all over the sideline over there, but it was our job to go down and score some points, and we were able to get that field goal and the late touchdown.
"Yeah," he added, "we did finish this game."