Running down a Dream
Ward runs for 216 yards; Jacobs' 3 touchdowns lead Giants to OT victory.
The road to Super Bowl 43 will go through East Rutherford.
Who was that guy wearing #34 tonight?
Derrick Ward has been as valuable a member of the Giants offense as anyone this season, but the effort he put forth tonight was nothing short of unbelievable. So it's appropriate that on a windy night in East Rutherford, New Jersey that "Wind" howled for 216 yards rushing as the offensive catalyst. "Earth" provided the points, as Brandon Jacobs rumbled in for 18 of them to help Tom Coughlin and his team finish off a terrific football game in overtime and claim the top seed for the NFC playoffs. The Giants running game regained its mid-season form to the tune of 301 yards, averaging 7.3 yards a carry as a result of Ward's explosives.
After the game Derrick Ward told NBC-NY sportscaster Bruce Beck "We knew that coming into this game tonight, we had to come out and play like the more desperate team... we needed this, we needed it more and we played like it"
Brandon Jacobs simply said, "Sweet as candy".
This game could have easily ended in regulation; The Panthers attempted a 50-yard field goal on 4th and 5 with :09 seconds remaining, but John Kasay appeared to stutter-step a bit as the ball was snapped, and it sailed just wide to the left, missing the post by no more than two feet. That was just one of the many magical moments in this game, as both teams came to claim home field in the playoffs. They came ready, and they came able - but Derrick Ward came in just a bit more willing than everyone else. Just as important was the Giants offensive line reestablishing itself as a force to contend with and to game plan around. Eli Manning was sacked three times tonight - a trend that needs to be dealt with - but his overall pass protection was otherwise solid, and the run blocking was as good as it's been all season.
The Giants came out flying as fast as the arctic wind swirling around the Meadowlands. On the fifth play of the game, Manning scrambled away from the grasp of Julius Peppers and tossed a perfectly targeted 40-yard strike into the chest of a double-covered Domenik Hixon. The Giants eventually settled for a John Carney field goal for the early lead. For the remainder of the first half it was the DeAngelo Williams show.
Williams shredded the Giants defense for three touchdown runs in the first half, as the Panthers found themselves moving the ball very effectively thanks to the precision passing of Jake Delhomme who completed 8 of 10 to start the game. Particularly crushing blows were landed on a 60-yard completion to Mushin Muhammad, and a 35-yard strike to pro-bowl receiver Steve Smith; but when in range, DeAngelo got the call. Williams added a fourth touchdown in the second half on a beautiful 30-yard run to the outside, and would have been the toast of the coast had Carolina pulled this one out (the loss, along with Derrick Ward's performance, will unfortunately overshadow an otherwise phenomenal night for him).
The Giants defense did not look sharp for the better part of the first three quarters, despite the return of sorely missed DT Fred Robbins; Justin Tuck - who did not show up on the injury report - was playing with the flu and was clearly in a haze for most of the night. He actually appeared to vomit on the field following a play in the 4th quarter, forcing the Giants to take a time out they would have preferred to save for later in the game. I don't know if it was better or worse for Justin to be taken in and out of the game as much as he was in the final minutes; understandably, the coaches wanted to give him some rest between plays but the man was literally wobbling at points. I wasn't sure if I should be applauding his efforts or screaming at him for not taking himself out of the game. Eventually the defense buckled down through some halftime adjustments to stop the run, as well as changing coverage schemes on Steve Smith.
As is usually the modus operandi for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, he focused on the one player he felt could hurt the Giants the most; not that the tandem of Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart can't do a lot of damage, but Smith is the guy that will kill you if too much attention is payed to stopping the run. Whatever Spagnuolo did, it worked; Smith finished the night with 3 receptions for 47 yards. It was Smith's second lowest output of the season and halted a 4-game streak of 100+ yard performances. He was shut out the entire 2nd half and the overtime; his last reception occurred with 4:34 left in the second quarter. That play was a 3-yard quick out to Smith which was initially ruled a touchdown, but was overturned on a Tom Coughlin challenge because Smith's knee was down before the ball broke the goal line. It only delayed the inevitable however, as Williams plunged in from the 1-yard line on the very next play to put Carolina ahead 21-10.
The Giants scored another 3 before the half came to a close, but at 21-13 appeared to be as out of it as they had been the past two weeks against Dallas and Philadelphia. After exchanging punts to start the second half (twice for Carolina, who received the opening kickoff), the Giants put together one of their quintessential drives... they took 8:36 of the clock on a 12 play, 84-yard drive that culminated in a TD pass to tight end Kevin Boss that pulled New York within a point at 21-20. Boss had another key grab on the drive, when faced with 3rd and 10 form their own 16 yard line, Manning found Boss on the left side for 11 yards which kept the drive alive. Four plays later, Derrick Ward ran for 22 yards that put the Giants at the Carolina 33 yard line.
Following DeAngelo Williams' fourth TD run, the teams exchanged punts again. The Panthers found themselves pinned back on their own 5 yard line, and punter Jason Baker could only muster a 49-yard kick with so little room to work with. The Giants took the ball from the Carolina 44 and rammed another one in - Jacobs' second touchdown of the night brought them within two points, 28-26. Kevin Boss was again a key contributor on this drive, as his 12-yard catch on 3rd and 5 planted Big Blue right on the Carolina 5 to set up the score. Coughlin emphatically waved at the offense to stay on the field for the 2-point conversion. A nicely designed play faked the handoff to Jacobs running right, as Eli dropped back and hit Hixon to the left as he ran under the coverage of cornerback Ken Lucas. Tie Game. Carolina got the ball back with 3:15 remaining in regulation, and executed a perfectly constructed drive to get them within field goal range with just :09 seconds left on the clock. As I stated earlier, Kasay's kick sailed left... overtime.
The Giants won the toss and went 3 & out on their first drive. Carolina returned the favor, and punted deep into Giants territory. R.W. McQuarters fielded the kick at his own 19, but misjudged the ball as it came down; it bounced out of his cradled arms as panther blue & white jerseys descended upon him. Luckily for the Giants (and McQuarters in particular) he was able to regain control as he fell ass-backwards, but now Eli Manning had to start this drive from the 13. Here's how it all went down from there:
Derrick Ward: 51-yard run up the middle to the Carolina 36... Brandon Jacobs: 3-yard run to the Carolina 33... Manning: incomplete pass to Hixon... Ward: 14-yard run right to the Carolina 19... Ward: 17-yard run right to the Carolina 2... Jacobs: 2-yard touchdown run left guard.
Don't you just love those full play-by-play charts?
Two heavyweights standing toe-to-toe in the center of the ring. This was a fantastic game to watch, and the Panthers showed what a heck of a football team they are. Despite the lackluster play of the Giants in recent games, it's not easy to go on the road and face the defending champs in their house, frigid temperatures and windy conditions to boot. And yet they almost left New Jersey with a huge win had it not been for a boot a few feet to the left - and they would have more than deserved it.
For the Giants, the goal they've tried to reach for weeks now is securely in their back pocket. The team swagger that Antonio Pierce had talked about "getting back" is back - for now. It will be interesting to see how the Giants handle next week's game in Minnesota. Everyone talks about the fact that last year, they played all their starters against the Patriots in week 17... there's no denying that decision - and their performance in that one game - set the stage for one of the most incredible and unlikely playoff runs in NFL history. But then, at that time, they needed that game - they needed that effort against an undefeated team. They needed to see that they could play with the best of them, and needed to gain the confidence that would fill the tank for the long drive to Glendale, Arizona. Some will rest; I would be shocked to see Fred Robbins, Aaron Ross (who suffered a concussion in tonight's game) or perhaps even Jacobs on the field at the Metrodome this Sunday. I don't know what to expect, and I have no thoughts at this point. I just know it feels different this year, so I'm not expecting the same all-out effort I had the pleasure of seeing live in week 17 last year.
In his postgame press conference, Coach Coughlin said, "You talk about losing two games to divisional teams, but losing them really in not good fashion - particularly offensively. So to go out and to play well... to hang in there - to have the opportunity to get the thing to overtime, was a very very good sign."
A very good sign indeed coach. A very good sign indeed.
*DeAngelo Williams' touchdown in the 4th quarter was his sixth rushing score from 30+ yards this season. It puts him in the record books, sandwiched between the great Jim Brown and ...the great Jim Brown. "First Down" did it 7 times during the 1958 season, and 6 times during the 1963 season. Congratulations to DeAngelo on an amazing year.
*According to play-by-play man Al Michaels, the pass interference call on Panthers CB Ken Lucas was the first defensive pass interference call on Carolina this season.
Quote sources: WNBC-TV, New York