It took less than a quarter for the Giants to go from an epic failure to just plain epic.
Stumbling on their way to what looked like a second straight loss to open the season, dropping passes, giving up turnovers and losing key offensive contributors to injuries, the Giants seemed like a team whose season was on a Week 2 brink. They trailed the Bucs by 14 late in the third quarter and seemed incapable of getting anything done.
They wound up with the second-most offensive yardage in franchise history (604), Eli Manning throwing for more yards than he ever had (510), two timely, thrilling touchdowns by players looking for redemption, and a victory. Manning threw for 243 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
"We are so happy to be 1-1 at this juncture," said Tom Coughlin, who clearly was staring at that possibility of an 0-2 start for contrast. "A lesser group of men would have had trouble."
With all that offense through the air -- Manning completed 31 of 51 passes, Victor Cruz caught 11 for 179 yards and Hakeem Nicks grabbed 10 for 199 -- it was an unopposed 2-yard run up the middle by Andre Brown that scored the winning points and a big hit by safety Antrel Rolle that sealed the 41-34 victory at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
Rolle drilled Mike Williams along the sideline, jarring the ball from him as he hit the turf on what initially was ruled a 29-yard completion at the Giants' 16 with 12 seconds left. The play was reviewed and overturned as an incompletion.
"I didn't think he had it," Rolle said. "I caught him at the right time, but you never know. You leave it in the hands of the refs at that point. I just did everything I could to detach him from the ball."
The replacement officials seemed to get the call right amid a chaotic final few minutes in which the Giants stormed from behind to take a lead, let the Bucs tie it and eventually pulled it out. The game even featured a dramatic confrontation between Coughlin and Bucs coach Greg Schiano, who ordered his players to go hard against the Giants as Manning knelt to close the game.
"We had some stuff we had to hash out, I guess," Schiano said.
Guard Chris Snee said it was a shame the postgame talk was all about those Bucs diving at knees and not about the quality of play. But there were other corners of the locker room where the game's drama, not the postgame handshake, was appreciated.
"I don't have the vocabulary, I don't have any adjectives for today," Justin Tuck said after the craziness had died down a bit. "I told some of the rookies, 'I know you've played in some big games in college, but this is football. This is what you live for, to play in exciting games like this.' "
There wasn't much excitement for the Giants through three quarters. Manning's three first-half interceptions led to 21 Bucs points, and twice Big Blue failed to score touchdowns after having a first-and-goal. Then, like a thunderbolt announcing the real start of the season, Manning chucked a deep pass down the right sideline for Cruz, who caught it over his shoulder for an 80-yard score. Brown, subbing for Ahmad Bradshaw (neck), ran for a two-point conversion to tie it at 27 with 6:48 remaining.
After a three-and-out, the Giants drove 67 yards on four plays, capped by a 33-yard touchdown pass to tight end Martellus Bennett, who dropped a potential TD pass earlier in the game.
"It was good work for me to be able to show the type of player I am," Bennett said. "It's kind of hard. You feel like you're letting the team down, but you've got to keep playing."
The Giants had to keep playing after Bennett's touchdown, too. The Bucs (1-1) went 80 yards on five plays as Williams caught a 41-yard TD pass over Justin Tryon, in for Michael Coe (hamstring) and rookie starter Jayron Hosley (eye). That tied it at 34 with 1:58 left.
Plenty of time, it turned out, for the Giants. Nearly too much time, in fact. Manning completed a 24-yarder to a wide-open Ramses Barden and a 50-yarder to a limping Nicks at the 11 with 1:20 left. Brown took the next handoff up the middle as the Bucs' defense parted, but he fell to his knee at the 2 to keep the clock running. He scored unchallenged on the next play with 31 seconds remaining.
The Bucs still had some fight left in them, and Josh Freeman's pass to Williams nearly set them up to tie it again. But Rolle knocked the ball away and Michael Boley sealed the win with an interception on the next play.