It's fitting that it all came down to this.
The New York Giants' offense has been under fire throughout the 2018 season. Even with the spectacular exploits of rookie running back Saquon Barkley, New York entered its Monday night matchup with the San Francisco 49ers ranked 21st in yards per game, 27th in points per game, and 23rd in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. The main culprits for criticism have been the Giants' dreadful offensive line and the weary, uninspired performance of Eli Manning.
This particular game was better for them both, as the line kept Manning mostly well protected and the man himself hit a couple plays down the field and even found Odell Beckham for a couple scores. The Giants were in the game all night long, and after a long scoring drive from the 49ers, they had one last chance to tie or take the lead.
Manning got the ball back trailing 23-20 with 2:46 on the clock. He and the Giants had to go 75 yards in order to capture the 36th game-winning drive of his career. Things started off inauspiciously, with a quick slant to Odell Beckham that was nearly intercepted. But on second down, Manning hung in the pocket and found tight end Evan Engram -- who had been strangely absent from the proceedings all night -- streaking down the right sideline. Suddenly, the Giants were nearly in field goal range.
Then they started moving backwards. Barkley was tackled behind the line of scrimmage on a screen. Rookie guard Will Hernandez took a false start penalty. After a defensive holding penalty gave the Giants a lucky first down when they could have been stuck in third-and-long, the Giants took a holding penalty of their own, backing themselves right out of field goal range again. Manning had an opportunity to hit Barkley down the sideline on a wheel route, but he under-threw it. It was the second time he under-threw a potential long-gainer or touchdown in the fourth quarter alone.
And then he got bailed out, as Ahkello Witherspoon committed a pass interference penalty that moved the Giants right back into Aldrick Rosas' range. Barkley, who had been shut down for much of the evening, picked that moment to make his biggest play of the night. Barkley took a circle route out of the backfield and broke free down to the 49ers' 11-yard line.
Two plays later, Manning found Sterling Shepard in the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown. He finished the drive 6 of 9 for 69 yards and a score. And the Giants got their second win -- the first time since 2016 they've won a game when trailing at halftime.
Here are a few more things to know about New York's 27-23 comeback victory.
Saquon and his spikes
Things got off to a very weird start for Barkley. Right from the beginning of the game, he just kept falling down. He did so on two of his first five carries, and then on a third when the Giants made their first trip to the red zone.
After the third time he fell, Saquon actually went to the sideline to change out his cleats in the middle of the drive.
Saquon on the sideline trying to get a cleat change after slipping several times. Gallman in here on 2nd and now 3rd down— Art Stapleton (@art_stapleton) November 13, 2018
Once he got the new spikes on, he was able to keep his footing and stay upright for the rest of the evening. Of course, the Giants did not necessarily do the best job of keeping him upright for very long. (What I'm saying is their offensive line is not good.)
Barkley ended up carrying the ball 20 times -- more than he had in any game this season. But he also totaled just 77 yards on the ground and through the air -- fewer than he had in any game this season. Oh wait, no. Scratch that. Saquon finally broke free with a 23-yard catch-and-run to put the Giants in range of the end zone with just over a minute to go, giving him an even 100 total yards.
The Nick Mullens Show, Part II
Nick Mullens' second start of his career did not go quite as well as his first. After tearing up the Raiders with a 16 of 22, 262-yard, three-touchdown performance on Thursday Night Football last week, Mullens was a bit shakier in this one. He was intercepted twice, with the first of those two picks leading to New York's first touchdown of the game.
He finished the night 27 of 39 for 250 yards, a touchdown to Matt Breida, and those two picks. He mostly looked excellent when throwing to George Kittle or when given time to hit a crossing route over the middle, but he rushed a few things and missed a few things, which wasn't the case last week.
That said, he acquitted himself nicely, and should remain under center for the Niners after their bye. He clearly has a rapport with the team's top passing game target (Kittle), and the TD throw to Breida was a nice one.
This was an undrafted free agent making the second start of his career, on Monday Night Football. And he very nearly led a game-winning drive when afforded only 53 seconds with 75 yards to gain. He's going to be in the league for a while.
Eli Manning job security watch
Coming into this game, rumors were swirling that this could perhaps be Manning's last start for the Giants. After his performance against the 49ers, he'll likely get at least one more. Manning was by no means perfect (see below), but he also wasn't a disaster, and that's better than what could be said about him in recent weeks. Oh, and he led the 36th game-winning drive of his career.
Let's start with the bad before we get to the good: Manning threw his usual array of meaningless check-downs and passes that went either straight into the ground or nowhere near the intended receiver. He had Beckham wide open deep down the field for a TD early in the fourth quarter but under-threw the route by ... a lot. He also missed what should have been an easy pop pass for a touchdown that rightly frustrated Beckham.
Of course, Beckham also wound up in the end zone twice, both on really nice throws from Manning.
It certainly helped that Manning was as well-protected as he's been all season. The 49ers did not record a single sack in the first three quarters, first getting to him a few minutes into the fourth. They barely got any pressure on Eli for most of the night, either, allowing him to mostly hang in the pocket and wait until somebody sprang open. This was an all-around passing game improvement for the G-Men.
Concussion protocol failure
Late in the third quarter, 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin caught a pass from Mullens for a first down. While being tackled, he was hit with a shoulder to the head by Giants linebacker Alec Ogletree. Goodwin was on the ground writhing in apparent pain for a minute and had to be looked at by the trainers.
And yet when the 49ers took the field for the first play of the fourth quarter, Goodwin was right back on the field. He dropped a pass from Nick Mullens that was intercepted after being tipped in the air, and while falling to the ground, Giants linebacker B.J. Goodson lowered his helmet and made head-to-head contact with Goodwin. Again, Goodwin was on the ground writhing in apparent pain for a minute and had to be looked at by the trainers.
Goodwin comes back in for a play after taking a blow to his head, drops a pass that leads to an interception and hits his head on the ensuing tackle attempt. Bad sequence for SF.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) November 13, 2018
Thankfully, he was taken into the blue medical tent and evaluated for a concussion after that. It should have happened after the first hit to the head, and if it had, perhaps the second one could have been avoided. Of course, Goodwin was right back out there on the 49ers' next drive, apparently cleared from the protocol.
Oh, by the way: Goodwin already had a long history of concussions.
This was a failure of the protocol, plain and simple.
George Kittle is a star
In four years with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Kittle caught 48 passes for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns. In just 10 games this season, he already has more catches (50) and more receiving yards (775) than he did in his entire college career. And he's done that mostly playing with backup quarterbacks, as Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL in the third game of the year.
The 2017 tight end class was lauded for its depth and especially for its elite athleticism at the top. O.J. Howard and David Njoku were considered physical freaks and it's largely why they went in the first round. Both have turned into quality NFL players. But it was not Howard and it was not Njoku that was the most athletic tight end in that class. It was Kittle, who ranked in the 98th percentile for athleticism among NFL tight ends. And it's Kittle who has quickly turned into the best player of the bunch despite being a fifth-round pick and playing with castoffs at QB.
Kittle looks very much the part of one of the handful of best tight ends in football, and this game was perhaps his best yet. (Jason Witten could barely contain his glee when describing all the things Kittle does well.) He ended the night with nine catches for 83 yards, and it seemed like he was wide open every single time Mullens looked his way. The list of tight ends definitively better than him at this point probably consists of just Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, now that we don't know if Rob Gronkowski can get on the field or what condition he'll even be in if he does. Oh, and he might actually be better at blocking than he is at receiving. Kittle is spectacular and should keep doing this for a long time.
The 49ers drop their record to 2-8 and they'll take their bye next week. They come back from that bye with games against the Buccaneers, Seahawks, Broncos, Seahawks again, Bears, and Rams. They'll likely use those games to evaluate Mullens' prospects as well as those of some of their players on defense. They're going to have a high draft pick with which to add some talent either on the outside to help the offense, or on the back end to help the defense.
New York improved to 2-7 but still sits in last place in the NFC East. They're not really in playoff contention in any way whatsoever and after a date with the Buccaneers next week, things get much more difficult with matchups against the Eagles, Bears, Washington, the Titans, the Colts, and the Cowboys.
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