TAMPA – One of the most thrilling, memorable and perpetually-satisfying victories in Giants history was clinched when an opposing kicker pushed a field goal attempt wide right in Tampa.
It happened again on Sunday.
With three seconds remaining and the Giants holding a one-point lead, Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay lined up to kick a potential game-winning field goal of 34 yards – about the length of an extra point. That proved to be a bad omen for the Tampa Bay, which missed two conversion attempts in the first half. Guy’s kick sailed wide of the right upright, just as a late try by Buffalo’s Scott Norwood did in Super Bowl XXV. The misfire enabled the Giants to earn their first victory of the season, a pulsating 32-31 triumph in Raymond James Stadium – where the Giants did lose on a last-play field goal when they last played here in 2017.
“From my angle I can never tell whether they’re good or not,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “There was so much cheering going on and we had so many of the Giants’ faithful here it almost sounded like, from my perspective, like they made it. Fortunately, I was wrong.”
This game will long be remembered, and not just because of the final play. The Giants overcame an 18-point halftime deficit, the loss of two of their captains to first-half injuries (running back Saquon Barkley – ankle and linebacker Alec Ogletree – hamstring), and overcame brilliant performances by Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston (380 passing yards) and wide receiver Mike Evans (eight catches, 190 yards, three touchdowns).
Most importantly, in what will certainly be a turning point in Giants history, rookie quarterback Daniel Jones had a starting debut for the ages. Five days after Shurmur announced that Jones would replace 16-year icon Eli Manning, the 22-year-old was responsible for all four Giants touchdowns, two passing and two rushing (plus a throw for a two-point conversion). The last was a fourth-down, seven-yard scamper that gave the Giants their first lead of the game with 1:16 remaining.
But the game was far from finished. Winston’s 44-yard pass to Evans gave the Buccaneers a first down at the Giants’ nine-yard line with 13 seconds remaining. After a spike to stop the clock, delay of game and a two-yard loss so Winston could center the ball, Gay trotted on to try to win it. He had already kicked four field goals, including 47 and 52-yarders. But he missed the one that would have won the game.
“It’s good that we pray to the football gods, because sometimes it helps,” said 13-year veteran long snapper Zak DeOssie.
A team captain for nine years, DeOssie was referring to Gay’s miss. But he could also have been talking about the play of Jones, whose first start was the stuff of legend. Jones completed 23 of 36 passes for 336 yards, the two touchdowns and no interceptions and a passer rating of 112.7. He also led the Giants with 28 rushing yards on four carries. Jones did lose two fumbles, but hey, he’s not perfect.
“Probably the story of the game will be the rookie quarterback,” Shurmur said. “I thought Daniel Jones did a pretty good job his first time out. I think as he goes along, he’ll continue to get better. There were mistakes within there. There were a couple of times when we took a couple sacks, the fumbles, some of that loose stuff, we can work on that, there’s drills for that. There’s stuff that he did in the game, there’s not drills for that. We believed in him from the day we drafted him and first time out, he didn’t disappoint.”
Jones was asked if his first game unfolded as he would have scripted it?
“I would probably take out two fumbles and then go from there,” he said. “I don’t know, you never really know how it is going to go and that is the fun part, that is football. We found a way to win, we battled, and we found a way to finish it. That is what is the most exciting.
“I thought we showed a lot of fight and we battled back after kind of creating a hole for ourselves there in the first half. Exciting win and I look forward to building off of it.”
The Giants trailed, 31-25, when safety Michael Thomas tackled tight end Cameron Brate after a one-yard gain on third-and-two, forcing the Bucs to punt.
“They had been trying to give us the empty look with two tight ends,” Thomas said. ”Coach (James Bettcher, the defensive coordinator) made the adjustment literally on the sideline right before the play. As soon as they motioned it at four by one, we all knew what they were trying to do. Instead of going over the top, I was able to get through the traffic and make the tackle before the marker. It was a huge play.”
The Giants took possession at their own 25 with 3:16 remaining. On second down, Jones hit fellow rookie Darius Slayton for 21 yards. Two plays later, Sterling Shepard’s catch and nifty run brought the ball to the 12. After a five-yard pass to Russell Shepard, two incompletions set up a fourth down from the seven. With 1:21 left.
Jones dropped back to pass, didn’t spot anyone open, but did see a hole the size of Tampa Bay and ran right up the middle for the game-winning score.
“They were playing some kind of man and it just opened up, I saw grass and took it,” Jones said. “A fun finish to it, exciting last drive. Thought we did a good job getting people open and protecting. It was a fun finish.”
“They played a big zone and covered us all down and then he took off and ran for a touchdown,” Shurmur said. “Stuff that he’s done, it’s part of what he does. He helped convert a couple of third downs because of his legs. You can start to see and as you get to appreciate him as a player – there’s plenty of things he needs to do better – but there’s certain things I knew about this kid when we drafted him. He was tough, he was competitive and, in my opinion, he’s a winner. Now the rest of it is just pure quarterback stuff and because of those first three things, that’s why he’s going have a chance moving forward.”
Jones’ touchdown passes went to Evan Engram, whose 75-yarder was the longest ever by a Giants tight end, and Sterling Shepard, who also caught the two-point conversion. Sterling Shepard had seven receptions for 100 yards, while Engram added six for 113. Both of Jones’ touchdown runs were seven yards long.
“The quarterback is a big change, but just a new chapter – we finally see what we have,” said Barkley, who rushed for a career-low 10 yards before he was hurt. “The first two weeks, we felt like we were in games, but we weren’t playing to our level. Even this game, we got out of it. We got down quick and were down by a lot of points, but that’s who we are, that second half of football, that’s who we are. We even still could do better than that. So yes, that should just say it’s a new chapter. Like I said earlier in the week, I was excited for Daniel to come out here, and I said we would do whatever it takes to try to get this team the first win, and try to get him his first win, and those guys did that today.”
Tampa Bay dominated the first half, scoring on all six of its possessions, including Evans’ three touchdowns – on passes of 21, three and 20 yards - to take a 28-10 lead. But the Bucs missed two extra point attempts – one was blocked – which proved to be crucial at the end of the game. The comeback started on the first play of the third quarter, when Jones threw a pass that Engram caught at the Giants’ 40-yard line, took advantage of a key block from Slayton, and raced up the sideline for the touchdown that gave the Giants life.
“I think that was big for us to put that one on the board quick,” Jones said. “Awesome play by Evan. You see what he does for us with his speed at tight end, which I think is huge for us.”
“Coach dialed my number and I just had to come out and be a spark for the team,” said Engram, who scored his second touchdown of the season. “We needed a big spark to kind of get going. When we can score points and drive down and make plays, it gives the defense some confidence, it gives the defense some comfort for them to go out there and play their ball and that’s what happened.”
It certainly did. The Bucs had seven possessions in the second half and managed only a 23-yard field goal by Gay in the fourth quarter. Of course, they would have won the game had the rookie from Utah kicked his fifth field goal on the game’s final play.
“I just think it was the same as last week,” Shurmur said of the defense’s second-half improvement. “Buffalo had us on our heels and then we came out in the second half and found a way to get some stops. The difference in that game is we didn’t kick it into gear on offense. Today, it was a better second half all around. We came out and got some explosive plays on offense, we got the stops on defense and at the very bitter end there, we were fortunate they missed the kick. That’s the way this team is going to be, we’re going to have to fight for it. It was good to get our first victory on the road, good to get the first victory with the young quarterback.”
The glaring negative, of course, was losing Barkley, last season’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Giants will know more about his condition on Monday.
“Whatever it is, just work my tail off to get back,” said Barkley, who is likely to miss several weeks from the injury. “I don’t want to miss out on stuff like that, what just happened, how the team played all three phases of the game. Especially the second half, you saw the fight. I’m really proud and happy for my team, and happy we were able to get the first win of the season.”