Only one team decided to show up for Sunday’s pivotal playoff play-in game and it was Big Blue. The Giants dominated in all facets, most notably its much-maligned defense, as they rolled the Cowboys, 31-14, in the NFC East title game.
The win spurred the Giants (9-7) to the postseason for the first time since the end of the 2008 campaign. Big Blue’s defense was led by the return of defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who missed the previous four games with ankle and knee maladies. Umenyiora finished with a game-high two sacks. He was not to be outdone as the Giants pass rush as a whole was manic. Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Chris Canty and Jacquian Williams each added a sack. Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka recovered a fumble, while safety Antrel Rolle had an interception to neutralize the usually-potent Cowboys’ attack.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin was proud of the way his team responded to the must-win nature of the game, particularly the defense.
“They did an exceptional job. This was a good team and a good offensive team with lots of skilled players. That was an outstanding game and effort by us,” said Coughlin, who then specifically noted Umenyiora. “Here’s a guy who wasn’t around much, but I was very pleased with how he practiced this week and how he played tonight.”
The Cowboys didn’t do quarterback Tony Romo any favors, as their struggles in the passing game were a direct result of their benign rushing game. Big Blue only needed its front four to handle the running lanes, which allowed the other seven defenders to stymie the passing game. Felix Jones led all Cowboys rushers with a meager 30 yards on 11 carries.
Coughlin added he’s seen his defense refocus and pay more attention to details these past couple of weeks and was pleased to see the Cowboys’ offense more one dimensional.
“It has been really great to see the way the defense has played the last couple of weeks and that has given everyone a boost and some confidence,” said Coughlin. “The defense played well and gave us a chance to play Giants football.”
Giants’ football lately has been an offense that racks up yardage and scores in bunches. The Giants tallied 437 total yards, 66 total plays that averaged 6.6 yards per play and a 47 percent third-down conversion rate.
Record-setting quarterback Eli Manning led the way, as he went 24-of-33 for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He also led two scoring drives over 80 yards, including a 96-yard drive that culminated with a Victor Cruz 74-yard touchdown catch and run. Cruz, the burgeoning star and second-alternate for the Pro Bowl, had a big day against the Cowboys. He posted six catches for 178 yards and a touchdown. The 74-yarder was the longest passing play against the Cowboys’ defense all year, with the previous long being a 64-yard strike from Manning to Hakeem Nicks in the Dec. 11 game.
Manning said the perseverance of his team was what really struck him, especially when the Cowboys began to stage a comeback from their 21-0 halftime deficit.
“I knew we were going to fight and keep playing until the very end. We’ve been pretty good about handling ups and downs,” Manning said. “We stuck together, no one panicked and we made plays. ... We barely had many mistakes, especially the fourth quarter. We were able to play big in the fourth quarter and seal the win.”
Manning’s near-flawless play, and his ability to be brilliant when the Giants needed him most, didn’t go unnoticed by Coughlin.
“He had a very solid game, actually an exceptional job. Eli came through big time,” said Coughlin.
Manning set a couple of marks in the game, including a single-season franchise mark of 4,933 passing yards.
As great as Manning was though, it was Cruz who bailed out his signal caller a couple of times, including a play on the Giants’ second-to-last drive that resulted in an insurance field goal. The drive featured a Cruz 44-yard reception on third-and-two to keep the series alive when Cruz twisted and turned to find an under-thrown ball. He beat Orlando Scandrick on the play as both guys initially appeared to lose track of the ball. Two plays later Cruz snared a 20-yarder to eventually set up Lawrence Tynes’s 28-yarder at the 5:45 mark of the fourth quarter. The Giants tacked on a late touchdown following that series, but it was that field goal -- and Cruz’s heroics -- that ultimately doomed the Cowboys (8-8).
“He keeps doing it,” Coughlin said of Cruz. “He keeps me doing cartwheels on the sidelines. The plays he made at the end of the game were outstanding. He just comes down with the ball. Heck of a game, heck of a season for the kid.”
This was the Giants’ largest margin of victory and a nice way to begin a playoff drive that begins with a Wild Card matchup next Sunday at 1 p.m. against the Falcons. No matter how limp the Giants appeared to be heading down the stretch, Coughlin said that’s better than the alternative.
“Breaks? Don’t give me any breaks [because] we’ve earned everything we got this season,” Coughlin said when asked about the way things bounced Big Blue’s way tonight.
He then added he’ll enjoy this game only for tonight because there’s such a quick turnaround to next week’s playoffs.
“This is not a time for reflection. It’s a time to look forward. Now we get ready for the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday at 1 o’clock,” Coughlin said. “This is rewarding [because] we wanted to win the division to have the most direct route to the playoffs.”
Big Blue notes
» Manning set the NFL record for most fourth-quarter touchdown passes (15) in a season. The previous mark was shared by two Colts legends, brother Peyton and Hall of Famer John Unitas. Manning finished up the finest regular season of his career as he threw for 4,933 yards with a 29-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year he accounted for a league-high 30 turnovers, including a league-high 25 interceptions.
» Another winter and another end of season loss where Dallas quarterback Tony Romo heads into the off-season fueling his doubters. The polarizing Romo (29-of-37 for 289 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and sacked six times) was largely outplayed by his counterpart Manning and never seemed to get in a groove. Banged-up right hand or not, Romo will have to answer why he couldn’t match the performance of Manning, who also entered this game with something to prove.
» Pro Bowl-bound Jason Pierre-Paul tallied another sack, this on Dallas’ second series, as he finished the season with a career-best 16.5 sacks. The man affectionately known as JPP said this is the start of something even bigger: “That was nothing. Next week is going to be even bigger. … We’re in the playoffs!”
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.