From Jon Wagner / SNYGiants columnist
Here we go again.
Following a successful 6-2 first half of their 2012 season, the New York Giants appear to be starting yet another second-half swoon under head coach Tom Coughlin.
And, their upcoming bye week couldn’t have come at a better time, as New York (6-4), losers of two straight games, has a lot of areas to fix after the Cincinnati Bengals (4-5) used blown coverages by the Giants’ secondary and special teams, and four second-half turnovers by New York to stop a four-game losing streak with a 31-13 embarrassment of a team that has quickly gone from a safe bet to contend for a second consecutive Super Bowl title to one that suddenly can’t get out of its own way.
The Giants’ troubling signs came early on Sunday afternoon, as the Bengals raced to a 14-0 lead a little over four minutes into the game.
While quarterback Eli Manning (29-for-46, 215 yards, two interceptions, one lost fumble) – who hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since his game-winning throw in the final moments to beat Washington back in Week 7 – extended his career-long streak of attempted passes without throwing a touchdown pass to 99, his counterpart, Andy Dalton (21-for-30, 199 yards), threw a career-high four touchdown passes without committing a turnover.
The first of those scores came just five plays after the opening kickoff, when the back end of New York’s defense left wide receiver A.J. Green (seven catches, 85 yards, one touchdown) all alone to haul in a 56-yard touchdown pass from Dalton for a 7-0 Cincinnati lead.
Dalton didn’t need to go very far for his last three touchdown passes, which all came on Bengal drives that started in the red zone.
Going three-and-out on their first possession, the Giants wasted a couple of booming punts from punter Steve Weatherford. Cornerback Justin Tryon was flagged for a penalty to wipe out a 61-yard punt that sailed out of bounds, and when Weatherford sent the ball 59 yards on his next attempt, it was brought back 68 yards by Adam Jones, to the Giants’ 11-yard line.
Dalton needed just three plays from there to throw a screen to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (three catches, 16 yards, one touchdown) who extended the Bengals’ advantage to 14-0 with only 4:07 off the clock.
As bad as that start was for New York, it might have become even worse when running back David Wilson muffed the ensuing kickoff, but he was fortunate enough to recover his own fumble.
Manning was sacked and the Giants had to punt again, but linebacker Chase Blackburn and safety Will Hill teamed on a tackle that forced a fumble by punt returner Brandon Tate, which Hill recovered at the Cincinnati 27-yard line.
New York reached the Bengals’ five-yard line, but settled for a 23-yard field goal by kicker Lawrence Tynes, to inch the Giants only a little closer, down 14-3, with 5:34 left in the first quarter.
Driving from the Cincinnati 20-yard line to the New York 31, Dalton threw incomplete on fourth-and-three, but the Giants again went three-and-out and the Bengals responded by going 60 yards on 15 plays to increase their lead to 17-3 on a 28-yard field goal by kicker Mike Nugent, with 4:17 to go in the opening half.
Answering on its next drive, New York traveled 69 yards on 14 plays to the Cincinnati 14-yard line, but could only trim the Bengals’ lead to 17-6 on a 31-yard field goal by Tynes, 11 seconds before halftime.
On the Giants’ second possession of the third quarter, facing a third-and-eight from the New York ten-yard line, the normally poised Manning panicked under heavy pressure and instead of wisely taking a sack or throwing the ball away, he tried in vain to dump off an extremely ill-advised pass to wide receiver Ramses Barden (two catches, 22 yards). Defensive tackle Pat Sims picked off the throw, and three plays later, Dalton found tight end Jermaine Gresham (three catches, 15 yards, one touchdown) on a ten-yard touchdown pass that swelled Cincinnati’s lead to 24-6 with 6:37 remaining in the third quarter.
Three plays after that, Manning, again under pressure, tried to force a ball in to tight end Martellus Bennett (four catches, 37 yards), who was covered well.
Too well – as cornerback Nate Clements intercepted that pass and returned it 21 yards to the New York 16-yard line.
Once again, it took Dalton just three plays to throw another touchdown pass, one that would seal the Giants fate, when wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (four catches, 47 yards, one touchdown) scored on a ten-yard reception to put the Bengals up 31-6 just 2:17 after Cincinnati’s previous score.
Simply to make the final outcome more respectable, the Giants went 98 yards on 13 plays to finally get their only touchdown in the final quarter, on a two-yard run by running back Andre Brown, who led New York with 65 yards on seven carries.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks paced the Giants’ passing game with a game-high nine receptions for 75 yards, but it mattered little with all of his team’s miscues helping the Bengals take control of the game.
An NFC East lead that was once a comfortable 2½ games for New York at its season’s midpoint, could be down to just a game by the time the Giants take the field next, at home, against idle Green Bay (6-3), which has won it past four games.
Dallas (4-5) moved to just 1½ games behind New York by rallying for a win at Philadelphia on Sunday, and will host hapless Cleveland (2-7) next week while the Giants will try to use their week off to cure their ills.