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Improbable climb to the summit

Given up for dead after two games, the Giants - such as R.W. McQuarters (left) and Michael Strahan - wound up with plenty to celebrate. Given up for dead after two games, the Giants - such as R.W. McQuarters (left) and Michael Strahan - wound up with plenty to celebrate. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)
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January 30, 2008

Sept. 9 at Irving, Texas
Cowboys 45, Giants 35

Don't even bother looking for moral victories, even with 438 yards of total offense. The Giants gave up their most points ever in a season opener, and to their biggest threat in the NFC East. Eli Manning's second pass of the season went for a 60-yard touchdown to Plaxico Burress, but his inability to convert short passes on third and fourth down, as well as an interception, helped put the Giants in a 17-6 hole. His reprieve came before the half, when he led a 75-yard drive in the two-minute drill, finding Burress again from 4 yards. While Tony Romo (345 yards) spent the second half leading the Cowboys to four TDs, Manning's unit had to settle for two field goals before making headway in the fourth quarter with scoring tosses to Burress and Derrick Ward. Had New York put up any resistance on defense - Dallas finished with 478 total yards and was 8 of 13 on third and fourth down - the outcome could've been different. "No matter how you lose it, it's a loss," coach Tom Coughlin said. "It hurts."

Sept. 16 at Giants Stadium
Packers 35, Giants 13

Manning's slightly separated shoulder wasn't the issue in this one. It was the Giants' surprisingly soft defense that once again let them down. A tight battle with the Packers quickly dissolved into an embarrassing home blowout. On the third play of the fourth quarter, Brett Favre hit Donald Lee for a 6-yard TD and 21-13 lead. Giants rookie Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the Packers recovered, and Favre found Donald Driver from 10 yards for a two-possession lead. Having moved into Packers territory midway through the quarter, Manning was picked off, and soon after, Dexter Wynn broke off a clinching 38-yard TD run that sent the boos at Giants Stadium up a few decibels. New York's two-game tally on defense: 80 points and nearly 850 total yards. "We have no excuses," Coughlin said. "There is no explanation for it." Even Manning's gritty performance (16 of 29, 211 yards, TD) took a backseat to Favre, who set the NFL record for victories by a quarterback (149).

Sept. 23 at Landover, Md.
Giants 24, Redskins 17

New York trailed, 17-3, at the half. Heads were hanging. It became 17-10 after three. Heads were up. And then, quicker than you could put that shovel back in the tool shed, the Giants sat up from their dirt bed of an early season and staged a fourth quarter that many players credited with rekindling the team's confidence and sparking a playoff run. Even though it was just Week 3, there was a playoff urgency on the Giants sideline. New York tied the game at 17 on a Reuben Droughns TD plunge with 12:33 remaining. The Redskins were going nowhere fast: three straight three-and-outs and a fumbled handoff by quarterback Jason Campbell that set up New York near midfield. A pass interference call on third down kept alive the go-ahead drive that Manning finished with a short toss to Burress, who turned it into a 33-yard TD. Unable to run out the clock, New York turned to its defense in the final two minutes. The Redskins made good on third- and fourth-and-long plays, reaching the Giants' 1 with 58 seconds left. Three plays later, they were still at the 1, and the handoff was to Ladell Betts, who was swarmed on the left side for a 2-yard loss. The Giants' first victory was saved, and so likely was the season. "Just the jubilation you feel when you're running off the field after making a big stop like that, in the division, on the road," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "I'll never forget it."

Sept. 30 at Giants Stadium
Giants 16, Eagles 3

The "Stop Heard 'Round Jersey" from the previous weekend had a profound carryover effect. After notching just four sacks in three games, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo decided to unleash his punishing pass rushers on quarterback Donovan McNabb. And there was nothing Philadelphia and its dinged-up offensive line could do about it. The Giants tied an NFL record with 12 sacks on a relentless array of blitzes. All that uncertainty on blocking assignments made it especially easy for defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who finished with a half-dozen sacks. And since running back Brian Westbrook was injured, it was predictable McNabb would do all the work. "For us to come out and play the way we played today is embarrassing," said McNabb, who accounted for 142 of the Eagles' 190 total yards. The Giants' defense even put some points on the board with Kawika Mitchell's fumble return. "This was probably one of the best performances that I have ever been a part of defensively," said Michael Strahan.

Oct. 7 at Giants Stadium
Giants 35, Jets 24

Lost in the afterglow of the memorable defensive effort in Week 4 was the fact that the Giants' offense had been stuck in spin cycle. Getting Brandon Jacobs back from a knee injury suffered in the opener was the key to breaking out. Jacobs had 100 yards on 20 carries, and powered his way to a 19-yard TD run that pulled the Giants within 17-14 in the third quarter. Even after Leon Washington took the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a Jets TD, the Giants didn't relent. Manning took the offense 68 yards, passing for 61 of them, including a 13-yard TD strike to Jeremy Shockey. On the Giants' next possession, Manning and Burress combined for the bulk of the 98-yard drive on one play, a short pass that Burress took 53 yards to the house. "We had to stay confident and realize there were plays out there to be made and we had to make them," said Manning, who rebounded from a 22-yard first half to finish with 186. Adding insult to the Jets' collapse, Giants rookie cornerback Aaron Ross brought back his second pick of the day for a perfunctory TD.

Oct. 14 at Atlanta
Giants 31, Falcons 10

Outside of a hiccup in the opening 10 minutes in which they gave up 10 points to a pathetic Atlanta offense, the Giants were in total control in their fourth straight victory. In response to that early 10-7 hole, New York gouged its way down the Georgia Dome turf for chunks at a time, Manning finding Burress (18 yards), Shockey (21), and Amani Toomer (17) to set up Droughns's 1-yard TD run. The big plays continued in the second quarter on a 43-yard TD hookup from Manning to Burress, and the Giants basically spent the rest of the Monday night game just killing time. It's easy to hold the ball for almost 40 minutes when Droughns (90 yards) and Jacobs (86) combine to average 6.5 yards per carry. Manning was an efficient 27 of 39 for 303 yards. All in all, a relatively relaxing trip south after a stressful stretch. You would think Coughlin would be encouraged. "I thought sometimes we did play well offensively, and then sometimes we did not," he said. "There were some issues."

Oct. 21 at Giants Stadium
Giants 33, 49ers 15

Playing three straight non-division games against lousy offenses can really perk up a playoff push. It was actually a 7-6 49ers lead midway through the second quarter before it ceased to become a contest. By then, the Giants were in control of both sides of the ball, especially on defense, charging into the backfield almost as if they were invited. The sack total was six, but only on a few of Trent Dilfer's 38 passes was he not hurried or met by a forearm. New York also forced four turnovers, one being a Dilfer fumble that Umenyiora caused, collected, and returned for a TD. "When your defense plays that well, they really make it easy on you offensively," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. Manning threw for a mere 146 yards (including an early scoring toss that gave Toomer a team-record 49 TD catches), but Jacobs did the dirty work with 107 yards on 18 carries to outplay 49ers back Frank Gore, who was so thoroughly shut down by the Giants that more than a quarter of his 88 yards came on a meaningless carry just before the half.

Oct. 28 at London
Giants 13, Dolphins 10

The NFL's first regular-season venture outside North America wasn't even worthy of regional coverage, let alone worldwide attention. Between a blustery rain and chewed-up playing surface, neither team could build any sustained offense, and they combined for seven fumbles and two missed field goals. In normal conditions, the team with the six-game win streak would handle the hapless 0-8s, but this league experiment nearly cost the Giants their momentum. Manning's biggest contribution was his 10-yard TD run with 59 seconds left in the first half; he was just 8 of 22 for 52 yards and was held without a TD pass for the first time in the season. Keeping the ball in Jacobs's hands (23 carries, career-high 131 yards) was the best way to battle the elements and make this trans-Atlantic road game a success. "We won, so obviously it was worth it," said Umenyiora.

Nov. 11 at Giants Stadium
Cowboys 31, Giants 20

Even with a bye week, the Giants could've used more time to figure out a way to stop Terrell Owens, the recipient of the tiebreaking and game-breaking TD passes from Romo after New York battled the cresting Cowboys evenly for the first half. Owens's first TD, capping an 86-yard drive that took up half the third quarter, went for 25 yards. The Giants answered with a 16-play drive that lasted into the fourth quarter, but it yielded only a field goal after a questionable holding penalty on Chris Snee cost them a TD run. Early in the fourth quarter, Romo and Owens collaborated on a pretty 50-yard scoring strike, effectively sealing a season sweep for the Cowboys and leaving the Giants thinking wild card. "It does put us behind the 8-ball," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "If you ever play pool, I've seen people make shots from behind that 8-ball. That's what we are looking at."

Nov. 18 at Detroit
Giants 16, Lions 10

This was basically a wild-card game between two enigmatic playoff hopefuls. Even fans in Detroit were wary of the Lions' validity, and the Giants' soft midseason schedule didn't leave many impressed. On the proving ground of Ford Field, New York moved to 7-3 with a stellar defensive effort. The Giants picked off Jon Kitna three times, twice in the final few minutes, and Strahan had all three of his team's sacks. "We'll take the 7-3. I'm too tired to worry about how we got there," Strahan said. Offensively, there was a lot to be desired against an underwhelming Lions defense, particularly with the run (26 carries for 76 yards; Jacobs hamstring injury). Manning finished 28 of 39 for 283 yards, but led the Giants into the end zone just once and left a lot of points on the field. Lawrence Tynes cleaned up three long drives with field goals, and the Giants fumbled twice in Detroit territory.

Nov. 25 at Giants Stadium
Vikings 41, Giants 17

What's worse than throwing four interceptions? Having three of them returned for touchdowns. Manning led the Vikings to more points than he did the Giants, so you can simply put this one on him, throw it in the trash, and move on. "When you throw four interceptions, it's never a good day," said Manning. It was already 27-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Minnesota's Dwight Smith returned his second pick of the day 93 yards. For good measure, on the Giants' next possession, Chad Greenway plucked another errant Manning offering and took it 36 yards the other way. The Giants defense shouldn't be totally absolved, either. The Vikings were without star running back Adrian Peterson, but Tarvaris Jackson, leader of the league's worst passing attack, was 10 of 12 and chucked a 60-yard TD to Sidney Rice less than a minute into the contest. Afterward, Strahan played the optimist when he said, "We still control our situation, and that's encouraging."

Dec. 2 at Chicago
Giants 21, Bears 16

If the Week 3 win over the Redskins was the team's turning point, then this was Manning's breakthrough. Still smarting from his four-INT debacle, Manning had his second pass this day picked off by Brian Urlacher, and Chicago rerouted the Giants' apparent scoring drive into a TD march of its own. New York didn't get back across midfield until the second quarter, and the running game took care of that TD, 2 yards by Ward. Manning fumbled on his next possession, setting up a Bears field goal, and unable to get a first down before the half, the Giants punted and the Bears tacked on another 3 points. It was 16-7 late in the third, but Manning was moving, getting to the Chicago 1. And then another interception, in the end zone. But with 11:45 left, Manning took the Giants 75 yards for a TD (6-yard pass to Toomer), and then after a Chicago three-and-out, he engineered the go-ahead 77-yard drive, going 4 for 4 (all first downs) before Droughns punched it in from 2 yards. "It's easy to forget bad plays," Manning said. "And to be a quarterback, you have to be able to do that."

Dec. 9 at Philadelphia
Giants 16, Eagles 13

You could tell which team was headed to the playoffs just from the breaks of the game. The Eagles' Westbrook fumbled for the first time in a season and a half, and the Giants capitalized with a 20-yard pass from Manning to Burress to take a 13-10 lead in the third quarter. With a healthy McNabb back under center, Philadelphia had plans on tying the game in the final minute. That is, until David Akers's 57-yard field goal attempt with one second to play glanced off the right upright. "It's not always pretty, but somehow, some way, we scratch and find a way," said Coughlin after the Giants' sixth consecutive win on the road. With the Giants at 9-4, a wild-card spot was nearing certainty. "We're just finding ways to win games. We just have to keep it going," said Manning, who hooked up with Burress for 7 of his 17 completions (and 136 of his 219 yards).

Dec. 16 at Giants Stadium
Redskins 22, Giants 10

Their previous two prime-time games produced plenty of highlights. This one was full of follies, starting with the bevy of dropped passes (estimates ranged from eight to 12) that led Manning to a dubious distinction - by finishing 18 of 52, he had the most incompletions since another erratic New York quarterback, Joe Namath, misfired 36 times in a 1967 game for the Jets. In such windy conditions, the Giants would've been better off giving it to Jacobs 50 times - maybe he would've doubled the 130 yards he gained on 25 carries. But New York was forced to play catch-up after falling behind, 16-3, at the half, and Manning's 19-yard TD toss to Kevin Boss (the backup tight end who came on after Shockey broke a leg) was far too late with 4:37 remaining. "It's just disappointing with everything on the line and everything that we had - win the game and we're in the playoffs - and in that situation to come out and play as poorly as we did," Manning said, before pointing the finger directly at himself. "We've got to be able to throw better than we did today."

Dec. 23 at Orchard Park, N.Y.
Giants 38, Bills 21

No need to mess with the weather this time, not with a wild-card berth at stake. The Giants stuck with their game plan of groundwork and ran the ball 47 times in the snow and sleet in Buffalo to the tune of 291 yards, their biggest rushing output in almost 50 years. Jacobs plowed his way to 145 yards and two TDs before spraining an ankle, and backup Bradshaw put a spectacular touch on his 151-yard day with an 88-yard TD in the fourth quarter. "If you can't stop the run, then they're not going to throw the ball," said Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay. The Giants were happy to oblige, too, as Manning attempted just 15 passes, completing seven to his receivers and two to defenders. Even after New York fell behind, 14-0, in the first quarter, the Giants kept it on the ground. Turns out Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, he of the two early TD passes, gave the points back in the fourth when he had interceptions returned for scores by Mitchell and Corey Webster.

Dec. 29 at Giants Stadium
Patriots 38, Giants 35

Coughlin could've played it safe and rested his indispensables for the wild-card round. But the Giants were intent on stopping the Patriots' pursuit of a perfect regular season, so they let it all hang out in a back-and-forth battle that went down to the final minute. Manning was confident and crafty through three quarters, throwing three of his four TD passes to stake the Giants to a 28-16 lead. Then the blitz frequency increased, the poor decisions and bad throws increased, and the Patriots established command on a record-breaking connection from Tom Brady (50th TD pass) to Randy Moss (23d TD catch). Three plays later, Manning's ill-advised throw was picked off by Ellis Hobbs, and the Patriots went in the other direction. Laurence Maroney's TD run made Manning's fourth TD toss, with 1:04 left, mere window dressing, although New England still had to secure a final onside kick to clinch its 16th win. "I never saw a locker room so upbeat after a loss, because we played so well," said Manning. You can be sure the Patriots were aware of that as well, having gotten a tougher game from the Giants than the favored team in the NFC, the Cowboys.

Jan. 6 at Tampa
Giants 24, Buccaneers 14

The Bucs may have been the more rested team, but they also were the more rusty team after having taken a few weeks off to recuperate after clinching the NFC South so early. And although the Giants went three-and-out on their first three possessions while the Bucs took a 7-0 advantage, it didn't take long to prove which team was more deserving of a date with Dallas. Manning's 5-yard TD pass to Jacobs tied the game with 10:08 left in the half - although Toomer should've been credited with some of those points for his three-catch, 40-yard role on the drive. On New York's next possession, Manning was 4 of 4, setting up Jacobs's 8-yard TD run. Tampa Bay veteran Jeff Garcia looked like the unsure signal-caller with two picks, while Manning showed the poise of a Pro Bowler with a clinching TD drive that spanned 15 plays, 92 yards, and half the fourth quarter. Manning's second TD pass, of 4 yards, did go to Toomer, who finished with seven grabs. "Eli had a great game today," Toomer said. "He took what was out there and didn't force anything."

Jan. 13 at Irving, Texas
Giants 21, Cowboys 17

There were no secrets in this third matchup of the season. The only uncertainty was whether these Giants had learned enough lessons from Weeks 1 and 10 to make a difference. What helped was another role reversal at QB, where Romo, who had burned the Giants for eight TDs in two games, came apart, and Manning had another peak performance. Game management was paramount, because a look at the numbers shows Dallas with distinct advantages in yards, plays, time of possession, and third down (10 of 16). The leveler was 11 Dallas penalties that tilted field position, and Manning's precision, including a 71-yard TD drive before the end of the half that took all of 46 seconds. That tied the game at 14 and deflated a Dallas crowd that had just watched its team take 20 plays and 10:28 to reach the end zone. Penalties short-circuited the Cowboys' next two drives, and subsequently put the Giants in position to tack on another TD, Jacobs's 1-yard run at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Romo's end-zone interception (by R.W. McQuarters) in the closing seconds was the final mistake. "I'm so proud of our players," Coughlin said. "They really rose up."

Jan. 20 at Green Bay, Wis.
Giants 23, Packers 20

A charmed ride that looked lost in September pulled into Lambeau Field with boundless hope and a nine-game road winning streak. Awaiting the Giants were a heavy favorite and sub-zero temperatures. But Manning didn't look remotely fazed on a tone-setting, game-opening drive in which he took New York 71 yards for a field goal. Favre, on the other hand, looked frostbitten, and would've been in early trouble if not for a slippage in coverage that allowed Driver to scamper 90 yards for a 7-6 lead. The Giants battled to take the lead (1-yard Jacobs TD run), retake the lead (4-yard Bradshaw run), and then hoped to break a 20-20 tie. Their first attempt drifted wide left on Tynes's 46-yard miss. Then after Green Bay's second straight three-and-out, New York had a long TD run wiped out by penalty, and Tynes's 36-yard kick knuckled to the left after a high snap, sending the game into overtime. The coin flip was lost, but salvation was found when Favre underthrew Driver on the second play and Webster came up with the pick. And Tynes's third try was true, a 47-yarder that sent the Giants out of the cold and on to Glendale, Ariz., for a rematch with the Patriots. "It feels good because this is what you work for," said Manning. "We stuck with it, we believed in ourselves, and we got to the Super Bowl."

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