EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – After the Giants missed the playoffs the past two years with late-season collapses, coach Tom Coughlin implored his team to “finish” this season.
Eli Manning made sure they did it in style.
Manning threw three touchdown passes, including a momentum-grabbing 74-yarder to rising star Victor Cruz, and the Giants claimed the final spot in the NFL playoffs, beating the Cowboys 31-14 on Sunday night to win the NFC East.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and down, but when our team needed it most we responded,” said Cruz, who capped his team-record setting season with six catches for 178 yards. “We were able to keep level-headed when we were on the four-game skid.”
New York (9-7) won three of its final four games for their 65-year-old coach and earned a wild-card game at home next Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons (10-6).
The Giants, who opened the season 6-2, haven’t won a playoff game since beating the-then unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in February 2008. However, they seem to be peaking much as they did at the end of that regular season.
Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka believes the Giants are capable of making another run after dominating an all-or-nothing game that left Cowboys owner Jerry Jones frustrated.
“There is no doubt,” Kiwanuka said. “That’s what we are setting ourselves up for. We went a roundabout way of doing it, but once you’re in, you’re in.”
The Cowboys (8-8) are out after losing four of their final five games in their first full season under coach Jason Garrett.
“It’s extremely painful and it’s a damn shame,” Jones said. “We have a good team and I thought we would be going to the playoffs, but that didn’t happen. We have to be able to take some of the good with the bad and move on. We did a lot of good things this year, but to point to one thing why this happened would be subjective. We’re 8-8 and we have to be better than that.”
Dallas was its own worst enemy with the season on the line. It missed tackles on all three of the Giants’ three first-half touchdowns, failed to recover two fumbles within its grasp in the half and failed to convert on a Tony Romo sneak on fourth-and-1 at the Giants 10 while trailing 21-7.
Romo, who played with a bruised right hand, moved the Cowboys in the second half, but touchdown passes of 34 yards and 6 yards to Laurent Robinson weren’t enough to rally Dallas.
“You can’t make excuses,’ said Romo, who finished 29 of 37 for 289 yards and one interception. “Either you win or you go home. Give them credit for coming in here and being ready. This is not going to sit well with me or anyone else on this team. It should fuel the fire to come back, but right now, it hurts.”
The shorter touchdown pass to Robinson got Dallas within a 21-14 with 10:15 to play, but Cruz, the second-year pro from nearby Paterson who has become a fan favorite with a big plays and salsa celebrations, came through again.
Cruz boxed-out cornerback Orlando Scandrick on 44-yard third-down jump-ball catch and caught another for 20 yards to set up a 28-yard Lawrence Tynes’ field goal. Manning iced the Giants’ second win over Dallas in four weeks with a 4-yard TD pass to Hakeem Nicks with 3:41 to play.
“I knew we were going to fight and keep playing until the end, I feel good about the way we’re handling the ups and downs, and it comes down to finishing,” Manning said after throwing for 346 yards and no interceptions.
The Giants’ defense sacked Romo six times, with Osi Umenyiora making two of them in his return to the lineup for the first time since spraining an ankle late last month. Dallas’ final possession ended with Romo being sacked by Justin Tuck and losing a fumble.
“We needed this win,” Umenyiora said. “This is the biggest win we’ve been a part of for a while.”
Coming off a 29-14 victory over the rival Jets last week in what might have been the Giants’ best game of the season, Coughlin’s team put together another outstanding 30 minutes in jumping to a 21-0 halftime lead.
Cruz, who sparked the win over the Jets’ with a team-record 99-yard touchdown, made another monster play on the Giants’ second offensive series, turning a short pass into points.
He caught a short square out, eluded a tackle by Terence Newman, turned the corner after getting a seal block from Nicks and outraced two defenders down the sideline in front of the Giants’ bench for a 7-0 lead.
Bradshaw stretched the lead to 14-0 with a 5-yard run in the second quarter on a play in which safety Abram Elam missed a tackle in the backfield. Bradshaw also scored on a 10-yard pass just before halftime when linebacker Bradie James also missed a tackle.
“The best teams win when games are on the line,” Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee said. “We had to do a better job than this. Any time you have a chance to win a championship and you don’t get it done, it’s devastating.”
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