The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a 14-point lead over the New York Giants with 16 minutes to play Sunday at MetLife Stadium, but in the end it was the visiting team that was in need of a frantic rally.
Andre Brown's uncontested two-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds left gave the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants a 41-34 victory and capped a 604-yard day by Eli Manning and the New York offense. Just moments earlier, the Buccaneers had tied the game at 31-31 on Mike Williams' stunning 41-yard touchdown catch.
It was the Giants' second-half rally that was more impressive, however. Connor Barth's second field goal for the Buccaneers, a 52-yarder two minutes into the second half, gave the visiting team a 27-13 lead. The Giants wouldn't score again until Lawrence Tynes' 36-yard field goal in the final minutes of the third quarter. At that point, however, Manning had found his groove along with his two top targets, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, beginning a streak of 21 unanswered points. An 80-yard touchdown pass to Cruz with seven minutes to play, followed by Brown's two-point conversion run, tied the game at 27-27.
The Buccaneers' defense intercepted Manning three times in the first half, the key plays in the Bucs' surge to a 14-point lead. CB Eric Wright's 60-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime put the Bucs up by 11; earlier picks by LB Mason Foster and CB Eric Wright set up touchdowns for Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin, respectively.
However, by the game's end Manning had thrown for 510 yards and three scores on 31-of-51 passing, amassing the second-highest passing yardage total in Giants history. Cruz caught 11 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown while Nicks hauled in 10 receptions for 199 yards and his own score.
Josh Freeman was sharp for most of the afternoon, as well, completing 15 of 28 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He gave the Bucs their first lead of the day in the second quarter with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, who finished the game with 128 yards on five grabs. Martin ran 20 times for 66 yards and a score, putting the Bucs up 17-6 in the second quarter on a spinning, 12-yard touchdown scamper around left end.
Buccaneer defenders got their hands on 15 off Manning's passes, including four by Aqib Talib and three by Ronde Barber. However, Tampa Bay's defense had difficulty putting pressure on Manning, who wasn't sacked and who often had ample time to work the middle of the field. LB Mason Foster led the Bucs' defense with 13 tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass defensed to go with his first-half interception. Rookie S Mark Barron added 10 tackles and two passes defensed.
The Giants struck first with a 51-yard field goal drive, most of it on one play, a 40-yard catch down the right sideline by Nicks. Talib had strong coverage on the play but Nicks was able to time his leap perfectly to come down with the ball and break away to the Bucs' 22. Three plays later, Manning tried to hit Nicks again on a similar play in the end zone but this time Talib got to the ball first to knock it away. Just over three minutes into the game, Tynes came on to knock a 37-yard field goal through the uprights.
The Bucs fired right back on their opening possession with a 60-yard field goal drive. That march, too, was largely built on one play, Freeman's perfect 41-yard laser downfield to Jackson. The Bucs' first third-down of the game was an attempted screen pass to former Giants RB D.J. Ware, but it came up six yards short and Tampa Bay had to settle for a tie game on Barth's 45-yard field goal.
The Giants re-established a three-point lead on the next drive, though the Bucs held inside the five-yard line to save four points. Catches of 16 and 20 yards by Cruz powered the drive, and Domenik Hixon's 12-yard grab got the ball down to the two. However, a trick-play pass to tackle-eligible Will Beatty went through Beatty's hands and TE Martellus Bennett couldn't handle a third-down pass in the end zone. Tynes' 24-yarder made it 6-3.
The Bucs' next drive reached midfield but ended in the game's first punt. However, Foster's interception of a Manning pass intended for Martellus Bennett gave the ball right back to the Bucs at New York's 28. Three plays later, Freeman found Jackson with a perfect lob down the left sideline for the 29-yard score and a 10-6 lead early in the second period.
An exchange of punts got the Giants close to midfield halfway through the second quarter and another Cruz catch over the middle earned a first down at the Bucs' 46. However, Manning's attempted pass to Cruz on third-and-six sailed high and was intercepted by CB Brandon McDonald, who returned it 40 yards to the Giants' 26. He was horse-collared by RB Andre Brown on the tackle, which put the ball at the 13, and two plays later Martin scored on an eight-yard run around left end after a nifty spin move in the backfield.
The Giants answered with their only touchdown of the first half on an 80-yard drive that was almost all short Manning throws over the middle of the field. The Bucs blitzed on first down from the 23 and Manning found Nicks wide open down the right seam for a touchdown to make it 17-13.
The Giants were threatening again just before halftime when Wright made his stunning interception on a third-down pass at the line of scrimmage. He weaved around in the middle of the field for awhile, avoiding tacklers, before spotting a lane to the right sideline, which he ran down 60 yards for the score just seconds before the end of the half.
The Bucs got off to a good start in the second half thanks to WR Arrelious Benn's 55-yard return of the opening kickoff. A 12-yard run by Martin was enough to put Barth in range for a 52-yard field goal, which he put right in the middle of the strike zone to make it 27-13. The Bucs also started fast on defense, forcing a punt on the Giants' first possession after LB Quincy Black batted down a Manning pass while blitzing on third down.
The Giants did manage to work it down the field on their next drive, though they had to settle for another field goal after two great plays by the Bucs' secondary. Rookie S Mark Barron batted away a pass to Bennett in the end zone at the last second on second down from the 19, and Barber nearly intercepted a short dump-off pass to RB David Wilson on the next play. Tynes' 36-yarder made it 27-16 just before the end of the third quarter.
Two plays later, Webster intercepted a Freeman pass intended for Sammie Stroughter at the Bucs' 36. The teams switched sides for the fourth quarter and two minutes later the Giants earned a first-and-goal at the Bucs' five on a 14-yard Nicks catch on third-and-11. The Bucs forced them to third down and then covered beautifully in the end zone until Manning had to throw it away. Tynes came on to nail his fourth field goal, a 24-yarder, to pull the Giants within eight points.
The Bucs' next drive got to midfield but eventually ended in a punt that put New York back at their own 12. Three plays later, Cruz snuck behind the Bucs' defense and was wide open for an 80-yard touchdown. Brown took a draw play up the middle on the two-point conversion to tie the game with just under seven minutes to play.
The Bucs' offense was unable to get moving on the subsequent possession and had to punt it way. The Giants started once more at their own 33 and needed just four plays to get the ball in the end zone. Bennett leaped over McDonald near the goal line to haul in Manning's third touchdown pass and put the Giants up by seven with four minutes to play.
This time, it was the Bucs' turn to answer. Freeman got the ball over the midfield with three completions to TE Dallas Clark, then bombed one downfield to Williams, who adjusted beautifully to the ball to catch it over a Giants' defender in the end zone.
With a little under two minutes to play, the Giants started with a 24-yard strike to WR Ramses Barden. After a false start, Nicks made another big play, hauling in a 50-yard pass down the right sideline with one hand. That put the ball at the Bucs' 11, and the Giants called a timeout with 1:20 to play. Trying to preserve a little time for the offense, Tampa Bay's defense tried to let RB Andre Brown score on the next play, but he alertly slid down at the two-yard line. Brown ran it in on the next play, leaving just 28 seconds on the clock.
The Bucs almost turned that into another answering score, but a 29-yard catch by Williams at the New York 16 was overturned by replay and Freeman's next pass, with just seconds left on the clock, was intercepted by Michael Boley in the middle of the field.
- The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive: CB Anthony Gaitor, CB E.J. Biggers, RB Michael Smith, LB Najee Goode, T Jeremy Trueblood, G Derek Hardman and DE George Johnson. Trueblood was replaced at right tackle by Demar Dotson, making his third NFL start but his first as part of the starting five on the O-Line.
- The Giants' seven inactive players were: WR Jerrel Jernigan, CB Prince Amukamara, RB Da'Rel Scott, LB Keith Rivers, DE Adewale Ojomo, T Keith Brewer and TE Adrien Robinson. Jayron Hosley started for Amukamara at right cornerback.
- Connor Barth made both of his field goal attempts on Sunday, hitting from 45 and 52 yards. That runs his streak of consecutive successful field goals, already a Buccaneer team record, to 21. He owns the longest active field goal streak in the entire NFL.
- 16th-year veteran defensive back Ronde Barber made his first career start at free safety. In the opener, he started as a third cornerback in a nickel package. Barber has now made 201 consecutive starts. Interestingly, Sunday's game at MetLife Stadium marked the 46th different stadium in which Barber has played an NFL game. Barber finished Sunday's game with four tackles and three passes defensed.
- CB Brandon McDonald's interception in the second quarter was his first since 2009, when he was a starter on the Cleveland Browns' defense. CB Eric Wright's 60-yard touchdown return of his interception in the second quarter was his second career pick-six. Interestingly, the other one was also at the Giants' expense, a 94-yarder during Wright's 2008 rookie season.
- WR Vincent Jackson finished the game with five catches for 128 yards and a touchdown. It was his first 100-yard game as a Buccaneer and the 15th of his NFL career. It was the Buccaneers' first 100-yard receiving game since TE Kellen Winslow had 132 at Green Bay on Nov. 20, 2011.