by Jon Wagner /SNYGiants contributor
Finally meeting an opponent that was playing worse than they were, the New York Giants (1-6) took full advantage of the struggling Minnesota Vikings (1-5) to get their first win of the season.
Scoring the last 20 points over the final three quarters, New York shut out Minnesota’s offense, held the game’s best running back very much in check, and spoiled the Vikings debut of quarterback Josh Freeman (20-for-53, 190 yards, one interception) in a 23-7 win — the Giants’ first since the opening week of the preseason — at MetLife Stadium on Monday night.
Coming over from Tampa Bay, Freeman was expected to be broken in slowly while learning a new offense, especially with last season’s rushing king Adrian Peterson, who very nearly set the NFL single-season rushing record a year ago, in the Minnesota backfield.
That game plan soon changed for a team that despite beating Pittsburgh in London this year, is still seeking its first win of the season in the United States.
With Peterson (28 yards on 13 carries) silenced, Freeman went to the air for all but 15 of the Vikings’ 68 total plays. And when he did, he was about as accurate as a drunk dart thrower at your local bar.
Minnesota also didn’t do itself any favors with a defensive pass interference call that set up New York’s first touchdown, nor by committing three of the game’s four turnovers, including two on special teams, which led directly to 10 of the Giants’ last 13 points.
After being responsible for 17 turnovers, including 15 interceptions, over the first six weeks of the season, quarterback Eli Manning (23-for-39, 200 yards, one touchdown) played mistake free football — even when All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen managed one of the best sacks we’ll ever see, as he blindly pulled Manning down by the back of his jersey, while reaching around left tackle William Beatty.
Manning got some help from his famous brother’s namesake, in running back Peyton Hillis. Although Hillis amassed only 36 yards on 18 carries, he had some key, powerful second-half runs, and added five catches for 45 yards.
Before Hillis got involved, fellow running back, rookie seventh-round draft pick Michael Cox (11 carries, 23 yards) had four rushes of between five and seven yards to highlight a 17-play, 68-yard, game-starting drive that consumed the game’s first 9:36 and recalled memories of New York’s opening possession in its upset win over New England in Super Bowl XLII.
The trip concluded with a 35-yard field goal from kicker Josh Brown, which put the Giants up 3-0. That in itself was a small victory for a team which led for a total of only 31 minutes in its first six games of the year.
Two New York possessions later, the Giants allowed their third long punt return for a touchdown this season, as Marcus Sherels cut and dodged his way up the left side and then down the middle of the field, to give the Vikings a 7-3 lead with 23 seconds left in the first quarter.
The teams then traded punts before New York took the lead for good on a seven-play, 78-yard drive on which the Giants covered the final 47 yards on the last two plays.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (two catches, 28 yards) first drew a 23-yard pass interference call on cornerback Xavier Rhodes. One play later, wide receiver Reuben Randle (three catches, 40 yards, one touchdown) made a great, athletic catch while leaping and catching the ball above the helmet of cornerback Chris Cook for a 24-yard touchdown reception that put New York back on top, 10-7.
Following a first half in which Minnesota totaled just 85 yards — the Vikings’ fewest for an opening half in 49 games — Freeman was able to answer that score by moving the Vikings on consecutive completions of 22 and 21 yards, but kicker Blair Walsh missed a field goal try from 53 yards away.
While Sherels and Randle produced scores for their teams earlier, they would each lose the ball on fumble returns later.
Randle fumbled a punt after Minneosta’s first possession of the second half, but two plays later, from the Giants’ 23-yard line, Freeman was intercepted on a nice one-handed grab by safety Antrel Rolle.
Later in the quarter, Sherels fell to the turf and fumbled before he was touched down on a punt return.
The Giants recovered at the Vikings’ 3-yard line and two plays after that, Hillis scored on a one-yard rush to push New York’s lead to 17-7 a little more than halfway through the third quarter.
Going on another long field goal drive (77 yards on 16 plays, in 8:31), the Giants extended their advantage to 20-7 on a 23-yard chip shot by Brown.
Defensive end Sharif Floyd ended up with the ensuing kickoff and fumbled, as Jacquian Williams recovered.
Although they gained nothing on the next three plays, the Giants were already close enough for Brown to make a 36-yard kick that increased New York’s lead to 23-7 with 11:03 left.
Cornerback Trumaine McBride was then beaten badly on a route up the right side, but he recovered well to pull down the arm of wide receiver Jerome Simpson, to save a likely touchdown. The Vikings never threatened again.
Now that they finally have a win this season, the Giants will seek another next Sunday as they visit their NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles (3-4), before heading into their bye week. The Eagles will be looking to sweep the season series between teams, after winning at MetLife Stadium, 36-21, two weeks ago.