from Jon Wagner / SNYGiants columnist
The New York Giants (8-5) were feeling the pressure prior to their kickoff against the New Orleans Saints (5-8) at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
Minutes earlier, they had seen their NFC East lead shrink to just a half-game as the Dallas Cowboys (7-6) rallied from a late ten-point deficit to win in Cincinnati and the Washington Redskins (7-6) erased an eight-point fourth-quarter hole to beat Baltimore at home, in overtime.
Despite his rookie status, speedster David Wilson wasn’t feeling the weight of the situation at all.
The electrifying running back and kick returner totaled 327 all-purpose yards (100 rushing, on 13 carries, and 227 on four kick returns), the most in franchise history, to help the Giants (8-5) score their most points in 26 years and beat the Saints, 52-27, to maintain a one-game divisional lead with three weeks to go in the regular season.
Wasting no time in finally showing the type of big play ability that was predicted here back in April, Wilson returned the opening kickoff 58 yards, but New York’s offense squandered that opportunity by going three and out.
A wild game was just getting started though, as things soon got crazier, and if you happened to blink, you might have missed a lot.
Quarterback Drew Brees (26-for-43, 354 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) completed a 30-yard pass to wide receiver Marques Colson (four catches, 61 yards) on the Saints’ third play of the game, but Colston fumbled and safety Antrel Rolle (seven tackles, one pass deflection, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble) recovered after fellow safety Stevie Brown (eight tackles, two pass deflections, two interceptions) knocked the ball loose.
Five plays later, quarterback Eli Manning (22-for-35, 259 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions) was intercepted by cornerback Elbert Mack (one tackle, one pass deflection, one interception), who brought the ball back 73 yards for the game’s first points.
That lead lasted all of 13 seconds – the time it took Wilson to take the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for the Giants’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since a memorable 2007 regular season finale, when the New England Patriots completed the only 16-0 NFL regular season to date, despite Domenik Hixon (three catches, 30 yards) returning a kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown.
“I think the kickoff return for a touchdown was really exciting and really a spark for the team,” Wilson said.
A New Orleans fumble, forced by Rolle, on the Saints’ next possession, led to a six-yard touchdown pass from Manning to tight end Martellus Bennett (five catches, 32 yards, one touchdown), to give New York its first lead, 14-7, with 4:19 left in the opening quarter.
While the Giants punted and drove only to have kicker Lawrence Tynes miss a 36-yard field goal following a 52-yard kickoff return by Wilson, New Orleans pulled to within 14-13 on a pair of second-quarter field goals by kicker Garrett Hartley.
But, passes of 16 yards to Bennett and 35 yards to wide receiver Victor Cruz (game highs of eight catches and 121 yards, plus a touchdown) set up a five-yard touchdown throw from Manning to Hixon, to push New York’s lead to 21-13 just before halftime.
Brees was picked off by Brown at the Saints’ 41-yard line and returned the ball 20 yards to start the second half, and four plays later, Wilson’s second career rushing touchdown on a six-yard carry, extended the Giants’ advantage to 28-13.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (four catches, 67 yards, one touchdown) then got involved in the scoring fest on New York’s next drive, catching 23-yard pass from Manning to the New Orleans 41-yard line, and stretching the Giants’ lead to a healthy 35-13 four plays later, on a 25-yard touchdown strike from Manning.
It only took 14 plays though, for the Saints to march right back into the game, as their next play was a 62-yard completion from Brees to wide receiver Joe Morgan (two catches, 106 yards), which set up a 13-yard touchdown run by running back Darren Sproles (five carries, 56 yards, one touchdown) just two plays after that.
Following a 34-yard completion from Manning to Cruz, Manning was intercepted in New Orleans territory, a play that resulted in the Saints going 68 yards in six plays to cut New York’s lead to 35-27 on a nine-yard pass from Brees to Sproles with 1:51 left in the third quarter.
The final quarter, and the game though, belonged to the Giants thereafter, as wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan got into the act of exploiting New Orleans’ porous kick coverage with a 60-yard kickoff return to the Saints’ 25-yard line, which led to a 10-yard scoring throw from Manning to Cruz, to put the New York up 42-27 just 40 seconds into the fourth period.
Brown’s second interception, coming deep in New York territory, followed, and was returned 70 yards to give Tynes a shot at a 39-yard field goal which expanded the Giants’ lead to 45-27, before Wilson closed the scoring and put a finishing touch on his record-setting, breakout performance with a 52-yard touchdown run with 5:10 remaining.
As Wilson and Jernigan gave New York a team-record 287 kickoff return yards, Wilson also became the first player to amass at least 100 rushing yards and 200 kickoff return yards in an NFL game.
“To have a breakout game like this, it’s an excellent feeling,” Wilson said. “Before the special teams meeting [in practice], the coach hands out assignment sheets, and this game, he didn’t hand me one. So, I went to ask him and said, ‘Coach, where’s my assignment sheet?’ And, he said, ‘You don’t need one, just run fast.’ So, I think I’m done with the assignment sheets.”
With the durability of starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw (11 carries, 33 yards) again called into question (Bradshaw left the game for a while before returning) Wilson could possibly start seeing more time in the Giants’ backfield down the stretch of the season, provided he improves his pass blocking. And, of course, he could remain a viable return threat, regardless.
Although New York controls its own destiny for the division lead, the Giants will next travel to NFC-best Atlanta (11-2), which has yet to lose at home (6-0) this season, while Washington (at 5-8 Cleveland) and Dallas (home for 7-6 Pittsburgh) have winnable games next Sunday.